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As part of its moon shot to end generational poverty in San Antonio through education and training, the Alamo Colleges District is allowing students to register for up to three semesters at once.
The three-term initiative launched last spring. About 20 percent of students from across the community college district’s five campuses have taken advantage so far, opting to register for classes two or three terms at a time instead of the typical one, says Gilberto Becerra, associate vice chancellor of advocacy, retention and completion for the college district.
The rationale: "Many college students have complex lives,” from taking care of children and parents to working multiple jobs, Becerra says, “so they’ve got a lot of different competing priorities.” Children’s school schedules are set a year at a time, for instance, while college students’ course schedules traditionally vary widely from term to term. This creates the potential for scheduling conflicts that can set back even students well into their studies.
That reality, coupled with San Antonio’s high poverty rate, drives the district’s “continuous process-improvement culture,” Becerra continues. This means regularly asking, “How can we continue to improve student success? How can we improve the lives of our students? How can we promote social and economic mobility?”
One answer: developing a schedule where students “can plan their lives better and have more predictability.”
Monica Parrish Trent, chief program and network officer at Achieving the Dream, co-wrote a recent article for the American Association of Community Colleges urging institutions to approach course scheduling through an equity lens, including by considering publishing schedules for the entire academic year, as “students don’t schedule work or childcare in one-semester increments.” Trent tells Inside Higher Ed that the ability to schedule courses a year in advance “is an important strategy that allows students to maintain their personal and professional responsibilities while pursuing their degree or credential.”
Even beyond the practical, Becerra says that registering for up to three terms in advance may help some students see “that light at the end of the tunnel.”
How? “When you push the button and you’re enrolled for all those terms, it makes it real to the students that, ‘Hey, I’m enrolled and I’m going to finish here.’”
Moving parts: Creating an actual policy from the three-term idea involved overcoming much that is “term-driven” about higher education, Becerra says—including fee structures. Becerra and colleagues had to figure out how a student on a payment plan for one semester who still owes money to the institution could enroll for two more semesters, for example. Ultimately, the district decided that students could register for classes for future semesters but still pay term by term. And even students who don’t end up enrolling for a term for which they’re preregistered maintain their registration for subsequent semesters.
Another piece of the puzzle was planning course offerings three semesters out. Becerra says that the district relied heavily on previous course enrollment data to understand how many sections of which courses would be needed. COVID-19-era enrollment irregularities complicated this predictive work, he adds, so pre-pandemic enrollment data factored in, too.
Measuring success: The district will monitor adoption rates for the new policy, along with class enrollment and drop rates across terms and other data to determine whether it’s working. Another key question is whether students who opt in to the new policy will have higher course completion and even graduation rates.
“We felt we needed to be proactive and aggressive in developing solutions for students and, like everything else, we’ll assess it, right? We’ll see what the outcomes are and how we can tweak it, how can we improve it,” Becerra says.
As for whether the idea might spread, he guesses that “more schools will start looking towards their landscapes at how the schedule can be a tool for enhancing student success and improving outcomes.”
What new course registration policy or practice is promoting student retention or completion at your institution? Tell us about the initiative.