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Cleveland State University’s new strategy to get students to degree completion faster is a pretty simple idea that’s surprisingly uncommon: students are allowed (and encouraged) to register for an entire year’s worth of courses before the fall semester.

In this first year that Cleveland State offered the option, 60 percent of students used it. Officials expect that figure will climb to 80 percent next year, as they continue to advertise and sell the idea as a potentially money-saving tool.

“I think it’s going to be of extraordinary importance toward completion,” Cleveland State University President Ronald M. Berkman said. “If you expect Course B to be given in the spring, and Course B is the course you need to take before Course C, but it turns out Course B is not given in the spring…. Those are very, very real complexities for students.”

Many Cleveland State students commute, have a family and/or work part-time. Being able to plan ahead, stay on track and save time and money on the way will make it easier to balance those responsibilities, Berkman said.

“I think in fact it has proven, for most students, to be a very valuable tool,” Berkman said. “But it meant a culture change.”

Departments that are used to setting schedules several times a year now plan out fall, spring and summer terms all at once. It’s a significant workload shift, but one that’s encouraged faculty and entire programs to start considering their courses “in a more holistic way,” Berkman said, through more regular and systematic planning.

“I’m not always sure that there was a great deal of thought about the symmetry between the courses of those two terms [fall and spring]. They happened in isolation of each other,” Berkman said. “Now, they happen as a continuum."

Faculty Senate President Joanne E. Goodell said the change has most affected her and many colleagues by helping with work-life balance.

"When faculty have families, it is very helpful to be able to plan for a whole year," she said, adding that her husband doesn't have that luxury at his university, and last-minute changes are always possible. "I just think it's a very positive thing."

By choosing classes ahead of time, students can set their expectations and see a certain end goal, said Dan Hurley, associate vice president for government relations and state policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“I can see very easily, conceptually, how the degree, or on-time or faster degree completion, would take place,” Hurley said. “From an administrative, operational planning standpoint, I think it lends a lot more ability to forecast and align resources toward that end.”

Multiterm registration is uncommon, but Michigan State University adopted it a decade ago. The intention was to maximize the time available for academic advising, not to improve completion per se, but Michigan State Registrar Nicole G. Rovig said the system has proved very popular and helpful for students. (Michigan State students only register for summer and fall terms.)

“I’m kind of surprised it’s not more widespread, because it’s not technologically a challenge,” said Michael V. Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars. “I think it makes a lot of sense if you can do it. It’s good resource planning.”

Some colleges have tried to improve completion by tweaking registration in other ways; last month, the two-year College of Southern Nevada eliminated late registration, instead requiring students to sign up for a course by the night before it begins. Research has shown that students are less likely to complete a course in which they register late.

Berkman actually introduced the multiterm registration idea during his last year as provost at Florida International University, in 2008-9. There, only about 25-30 percent of students (still nothing to scoff at) used the system. But Berkman credits better technology (the whole process is done online) and advertising for its popularity at Cleveland State.

But if students are racing to out-register one another to secure spots for in-demand classes, could the latecomers be squeezed out? Maybe, but there’s a backup option. Once the wait list on any course reaches 25 or 30 students, the university opens a new section. Last year, 1,400 students got into their desired class after resorting to the wait list.

“This is a real navigational tool for students,” Berkman said. “The more tools that we can find to help students navigate, the more success we’re going to have.”

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