Selecting Courses for Students

A California community college is picking course schedules for students to encourage them to enroll full-time and reach graduation quicker.

May 2, 2019
 

High schools across the country provide preassigned class schedules to their students that often match those students’ career and education interests.

Administrators at Cosumnes River College, a community college located in Sacramento, want to continue that practice for its first-time, full-time students. This fall, Cosumnes plans to create and give each student a 15-credit course schedule based on their major. As a result, instead of students registering and scheduling courses on their own, the college is doing it for them.

“College isn’t something that you should figure out on your own,” said Ed Bush, president of Cosumnes River. “We’re just matching the experience they’re accustomed to at the high school level and providing them with the first courses they need, not just in English and math, but based on their academic interests.”

Community colleges typically ask students to plan their courses each semester. If problems arise, students can add or drop classes by a specific date. CRC flips that tradition with premade schedules. If students have a conflict or a problem with the courses that were selected for them, they now must opt out of those courses.

“Many students who desire to be full-time have great difficulty in being full-time, and some students that are full-time were put in a class that didn’t match their educational goal, but they wanted to be full-time,” Bush said.

The college expects that under this new scheduling system, students will not only complete college quicker because they are taking 15 credits a semester, but also won't end up with an excessive amount of credits that aren’t relevant to their degree programs or don’t eventually transfer to a four-year institution. Nationwide, community college students on average take 22 more credits than are needed for an associate degree, according to a 2017 report from Complete College America.

Last fall, 13.1 percent of CRC’s first-year recent high school graduates took at least 15 credits. About 73 percent of this group enrolled in fewer than 12 credits their first term. And among the college's full enrollment last year of more than 14,100 students, 26.2 percent attended full-time, or took more than 12 credits a semester, according to data from the college. While nonrecent high school graduates in their first year will be able to sign up for the 15-credit scheduling program, the college said about 1,000 recent high school graduates will participate this fall. Bush said that's about 80 percent of the college's freshman class.

Some groups, such as the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, have been critical of the state’s efforts to encourage students to pursue full-time course loads instead of investing more resources to help adult learners or students who have no choice but to go part-time because of work and family responsibilities.

State Grants for Full-Time Status

Bush said he expects the college to eventually have premade schedules beyond just the first semester and to eventually include part-time students.

CRC administrators were eager to try the new scheduling system after realizing that high-demand courses at the college, such as math and English, tend to fill up quickly. The college didn’t have a good system in place to meet the high demand of students wanting those courses or that could provide the right counseling to students.

California’s new Student Success Completion Grant provides a financial incentive to CRC students who take the full-time credit load. The grant, which expanded two existing programs last year, awards students $2,000 a year if they take more than 15 credits each semester. Students who enroll in 12 or more credits qualify for $1,000 a year.

“The difference between taking 12 units or 15 units is significant,” said Tadael Emiru, CRC’s interim vice president of student services. That financial incentive also is a “wake-up call” to high school and college counselors.

CRC counselors and support staff have been visiting Sacramento-area high schools over the past few months to meet with students who will be attending the college this fall, to have one-on-one conversations with them about their academic and career interests. The college’s new scheduling plan requires that college counselors know earlier than is typical for a two-year institution what major or program path students want to pursue so schedules can be built that will meet the students’ availability. CRC’s opt-out scheduling plan relies on so-called guided pathways as a structure for mapping out students’ program paths in any particular major.

“The key here is knowing which courses students will be registered for -- that was the most difficult thing to figure out,” Emiru said. He said the college's counselors already have built first-semester schedules for every current academic program the college offers.

“Once we got past that stage, the remaining part was to make sure we had enough folks around to provide that one-on-one support for students, [to] sit down with them and identify which particular schedule they’ll register for,” he said.

CRC’s ratio of students to counselors is 900 to one, which Bush admits is not ideal. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-counselor ratio of no more than 250 to one. The National Academic Advising Association found that the national average for community colleges is 441 to one.

Teresa Aldredge, a CRC counselor, said the college is hiring three counselors this summer to help with the new system. The college also is hiring two full-time faculty members in math and two full-time instructors for English because the new scheduling system will increase demand for those courses, Emiru said.

“We made this promise to students that these are the classes they’ll be able to take,” Aldredge said. “If I give a first-time college student a schedule and I guarantee English and math in the first semester, then the administration has to ensure there are enough English and math classes.”

Kay McClenney, a senior adviser to the American Association of Community Colleges and former director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, views CRC’s scheduling efforts as the natural next step in developing guided pathways initiatives at colleges across the country.

“I am hoping that Cosumnes intends to expand this practice to include part-time students who typically need guidance and clarity about their paths even more than full-time students,” she said, adding that some colleges have considered prebuilding students’ class schedules for a full year to accommodate their work schedules.

Still, the move by the college and similar ones elsewhere will be controversial, with concerns about the potential to "track" students into specific courses and programs.

“We expect we’ll have a number of students come to us and say, ‘I signed up to take all these classes but … I have to take more hours at work,’” Emiru said. “We have to deal with those situations on a case-by-case basis. What we don’t want to do, and we’ve been consistent in saying this to students, we’re not going to present it as an option to go part-time.”

Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, said students want this type of scheduling and program guidance. He said students typically want to know the financial and long-term benefits of taking 15 credits a semester or 30 credits a year.

“As it is, most community college students get little support to explore options and interests and develop a direction,” Jenkins said. “To put in place this policy, Cosumnes is redesigning a new student experience to help students with this exploration process from the start.”

And this level of guidance already happens for first-time students who attend selective universities, he said.

“First-time students at UCLA and Berkeley get all sorts of support to develop education and career plans,” Jenkins said. “Why should we let community college students, who are less likely than students at selective institutions to have family members and friends who can guide them in their decisions, figure out a path on their own?”

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