Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Late Registration Two Step

Say the word “August” to any experienced administrator, and you’ll see an involuntary shudder.  Sometimes it’s followed by a low, guttural moan, or sometimes by an abrupt curl into a fetal position. We’ve even been known to run for the nearest hills, crossing streams to hide the scent. August is the season of shoehorning students into remaining sections.

It’s an awful practice.  Since students often make plans at (or slightly past) the last minute, we keep taking students until the last minute.  But “taking students” can mean different things.  The late registrants are allowed to enroll, but finding the classes they want -- especially at the times they want -- is another matter entirely.  Daytime sections of the most popular classes -- developmental and introductory gen eds -- typically fill by mid-July or so.  By early August, openings occur singly and randomly.  Assembling a workable full-time schedule of popular classes in late August requires a planetary alignment.

And that’s just on the academic end.  The late enrollee has less time to arrange financial aid, buy books, and get transportation and childcare arrangements aligned.  So it’s not surprising that the numbers consistently show that the last students in are the first students out.

Internally, it would be worlds easier to close enrollment a month or two before the start of the semester.  But doing that would lead to a significant enrollment drop.  Given the degree to which our budgets have shifted away from appropriations and towards tuitions, the impact of that kind of drop would be devastating.  We no longer have the margin for error to try it.

On the political side, while we’re being attacked for “high” attrition rates, we’re also expected to be there for displaced workers as soon as they need us.  If we say to someone who was laid off in July “try again in January,” that doesn’t help anybody.  So we’re caught between setting students up to fail, on the one side, or bending the world to our needs, on the other.

So I’m thinking of a late registration two-step, as a way of both addressing the academic need for student readiness and the political need for responsiveness.  I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can provide helpful feedback before I start spending political capital on it locally.

What if...

we combined shorter terms with earlier registration cutoffs?

Concretely, it might look like this.  Break both the Fall and Spring semesters into halves.  (I’ll call them sessions A and B.  So September and October could be Fall A, and November and December would be Fall B.)  Run courses in 7 or 8 week formats, with twice as much class time per week as now.  (Alternately, when appropriate, we could use hybrid formats.)  Have students take fewer classes at a time, but spend more time on each class.  And have enrollment deadlines, say, two weeks before the start of each session.

That way, a student who showed up in the first week of September would be told she could register for the classes that start in late October.  That would give a realistic window for financial aid and childcare arrangements, but wouldn’t force the student to wait until January.  (It would also help the student who went great guns in the beginning of the semester, but whose life intervened in November.  In this format, the student would have, say, six credits to show for it.)  She wouldn’t be shoehorned into a sure-to-fail combination in September, but she would only have to wait a couple of months, and would actually be in a position to succeed.

We’ve found locally that the shorter the class, the higher the success rate.  (Summer classes have higher rates than Fall or Spring, and January have the highest of all.)  That’s consistent with the national research I’ve seen, too.  So I’m thinking that breaking the semester into smaller chunks, and forcing students to register well in advance for whatever chunks they take, might be the best of both worlds.

I’ve been told that this could be a severe headache for financial aid, for technical reasons.  But are there other reasons this wouldn’t work?  Better yet, has anyone out there actually lived through a system like this?  How did it work?  Or is there something I’m not seeing?