Would more students graduate from college if it were easier for them to register?

This is a guest post by Jacob Felson. He is associate professor and acting chair of the Department of Sociology at William Paterson University. His recent research has focused on evaluating the validity of twin studies and on the history of quantitative methods in sociology.



It’s well-known in higher education circles that about a third of the students entering four-year colleges as freshmen don’t return for their sophomore year. Another twenty percent or so of students will leave after the beginning of sophomore year but before they get their degree. Although most students who drop out aren’t doing so well in school, relatively few of them are flunking out. Financial constraints compel some students to leave, but this is far from the whole story either, since graduation rates are low at places like Berea College where all students are on full scholarship. The reasons why students drop-out are complex, but it appears that many students are dropping out more or less at their own discretion. In so doing, these students are not unlike the many people who join gyms in January and drop out by March.

Many people who don’t like school and aren’t particularly good at it go to college, just as many people who don’t like to exercise go to the gym. It’s the present-self sacrificing for the future-self, and it’s much harder to sustain than to start. Just as the gym is a drag if you don’t like to exercise, college can be pretty unpleasant if you aren’t good at taking tests or writing papers. It’s a self-esteem deflator that many students are likely to want to avoid. Also many new students, like many new gym members, are motivated by goals they are unprepared to fulfill and once they realize this, they may feel dejected and avoid the activity altogether.

For these reasons, weak students are likely to waver at registration time. Little things might sway them in either direction. The people who run gyms and many other businesses understand this. Gyms don’t require their members to sign a new contract when their old one expires in order to continue using the facilities. Customers just get rebilled until they request a cancellation.

But, as I outlined in my article “The Low-Hanging Fruit of Academia,” colleges and universities don’t seem to have understood this point. Indeed, at many schools, the process of course selection and registration remains much more complicated than it needs to be because the technology is relatively primitive and poorly designed.

Skeptics may counter that registration is not that difficult and that students in college can figure it out without much trouble. DegreeWorks, an advisement program in widespread use on college campuses, provides students with a checklist of requirements and includes links to course sections that fulfill those requirements. A five-digit code is listed next to each course. In order to register, students jot down the codes for the courses they want and then go into another part of the system to add them to their schedule. For many, this would seem straightforward enough.

But for the population most at risk of dropping out, I argue that this process is not easy enough. For example, DegreeWorks does not tell students which courses they need to take next, even though this is the most pressing registration question. Overall, the process likely imposes sufficient cognitive demands to deter some non-negligible proportion of the on-the-fence student population from registering. With smart, intuitive software, students wouldn’t need to think about what courses they needed next since the software would start out by providing them with a choice of available sections for those courses.

To be sure, many institutions provide faculty and professional advisors to help students register. And there is research suggesting that more frequent, higher quality academic advisement boosts retention. But such research has only compared institutions with respect to the quantity and quality of advisement; the quality of course registration software was not considered.  In fact, to my knowledge, no research has considered the effect of software on rates of graduation.

Perhaps one reason why there hasn’t been a demand for high quality software for course selection and registration is due to the focus on advisement. It is now the conventional wisdom on college campuses that academic advisement is vital for boosting retention and graduation rates. So administrators might be wary about systems that automated the course selection process for fear they would lessen student demand for in-person academic advisement, and thus reduce graduation rates. This is a legitimate concern but we have very little evidence either way.

As I discussed in the article, the question is not whether to automate advisement entirely.  The question rather is how best to deploy technology and human resources to maximize graduation rates.  According to a report from the ACT, schools with more advisement staffing and targeted advisement programs tended to have higher retention rates.  One way schools could increase the amount of in-person advisor time available to students who needed it most would be to deploy smart software that automated the process for students who needed it least.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.

2 thoughts on “Would more students graduate from college if it were easier for them to register?

  1. Studies like this one always intrigue me, and they are very worthy. The issue of retention has always dogged academia, as well as matriculating people in the magical 4 year window. My undergrad experience reflected these struggles, as it took 6 yrs to get my BS. Twice I opted to not attend a semester. Once because I was completely confused over a career choice, and again because I found the curriculum as dry as Death Valley.

    In the end, I accumulated 31 more credits than I needed to graduate, because I discovered a true love of education in my junior year. I had a major in biology, and minors in chemistry and English. My first two years were difficult, as the introductory courses in science are as dry as it gets, with enormous amounts of root memorization. At the end of my sophomore year, I met with an academic counselor and explained I was so lost, and confused over choice of a major, that I intended to quit.

    He said he spent 30 years working as an investment banker and made more money than he could ever spend, but like me, was lost in the abyss career-wise. He said he never enjoyed his work, even though he was very good at it. He came to realize his career choice was based on the money, and nothing else. So he quit and became an academic counselor, and never looked back. He said his life had never been so good since switching careers. And then he said, “Never base your career decisions on the money. Always completely exclude that from the equation. And as far as education, do what you enjoy, and give no bother to the 4 yr timeline. Do that, and you will be enormously successful.”

    Best career advice I ever received. I believe the inordinate emphasis we give to four year matriculation, and jobs upon graduation, is doing more harm than good. Certainly degree programs must take into account the employment opportunities of graduates, as well as the needs of society. But, the pressures we place on young adults could have a lot to do with these decades-long, abysmal graduation rates.

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