One way community colleges can help more students graduate is by eliminating the option of registering late for courses, research has found. But this move, which is a key part of college completion reforms, can also stir up controversy and hurt enrollment numbers.
Last month the College of Southern Nevada began requiring  that students sign up for a course no later than the night before it begins. The two-year college included a few exceptions to the revised policy and also added new, short-term courses to avoid shutting out late-arriving students.
Previously, students could join an in-progress course for up to three weeks. By ending that relatively liberal registration policy, experts said the college should see improved retention and graduation rates.
“Retention is far lower for students who register late,” said Rhonda Glover, national director of data coaching and data strategy for Achieving the Dream, a completion-oriented nonprofit group that works with the College of Southern Nevada and many other community colleges.
By preventing students from entering a class they’re unlikely to complete, Glover said “you’re actually supporting those students in more positive ways than you’re hurting them.”
A committee of Southern Nevada’s Faculty Senate oversaw the drafting of the new course registration policy, which the full senate later approved. Dennis Soukup, who chairs the college’s applied technology department, said faculty members in his department cheered when they heard about the end of late registration.
The reason, he said, was that during the first few days of a term, instructors were often overwhelmed by students trying to get into courses. “I felt like an auctioneer,” Soukup said of trying to teach during the first few days of a course. “It was very intrusive.”
The flood of late registrations caused other problems, too, such as making it tough for administrators to hire the right number of adjunct professors for course sections. “Students would wait until the last minute,” said Soukup. “We couldn’t plan our faculty.”
Not all instructors are sold on the new policy, however. Several have argued that the elimination of late registration takes a disproportionate toll on the neediest, least-prepared students.
“The policy is going to block low-income students from enrolling,” said Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor at the college. “They’re the students who have the most problems. They’re the poorest students. They don’t have family support.”
Soukup, however, said the policy is already helping students – including those from underserved populations.
In the past many students would wait until the last minute to register, he said. And those who start late “never finish.”
This year, however, Soukup said students are “well ahead of the game.”
Eliminating late registration isn’t easy. It can go against the philosophical grain for “open access” institutions that pride themselves on taking all comers.
The main reason institutions like the College of Southern Nevada have been able to buck that tradition is the national college completion “agenda.” Officials from powerful foundations and the Obama administration are pushing hard for community colleges to focus on both student access and completion.
But when colleges try to draw from the completion agenda playbook, they sometimes encounter faculty resistance. And the strategies that groups like Achieving the Dream encourage can also impact enrollment and the bottom line, because many states provide community colleges with appropriations based on enrollments.
Klamath Community College, for example, saw its enrollment decline  by 20 percent in 2012 after college officials put in place a number of completion-oriented policies. One key change at the college was the elimination of late registration.
Yet Achieving the Dream argues that late registration ends up hurting students in the long run. And Glover said colleges typically see a 2-3 percentage point retention gain from eliminating the option.
For example, her former employer, Valencia College, saw strong retention gains after nixing late registration (among other completion-oriented shifts). And students got the message quickly.
“Once you make the rules, they abide by it,” she said.
Officials at the College of Southern Nevada said they studied the issue before moving ahead. That included looking at studies from peer institutions, as well as gathering national and local completion data. They also conducted focus groups with students, faculty and staff members, said James McCoy, associate vice president of academic success at the college.
The goal was to ask if the college was “enabling our students” with late registration, McCoy said. And the research said yes.
Once the policy was changed, the college added to its more than 150 shorter-term courses, many of which are eight weeks long. College officials also began a marketing campaign to get the word out to students.
The campaign featured a widely distributed flier  that read “R.I.P. Late Registration” and included a picture of a tombstone.
"Research shows that students that register before the start of the semester are more likely to succeed,” the flier said. “Starting Spring Semester 2014, students must register by 11:59 p.m. the night before the semester begins. Some classes may be offered in a late-starting, short-term format.”
The word apparently got out. At the beginning of the most recent term, only 332 students sought to get into courses after the deadline, McCoy said. That’s a small number for an institution with a total enrollment of roughly 35,000 students.
For her part, Cosgrove said students often aren’t fully to blame for being late to register for a course. Many can't figure out their plans until they know how much financial aid they will receive, and that can be a challenge to do on schedule.
Instead of eliminating late registration, Cosgrove said, she would have preferred provide more resources for students such as advising, tutoring and child care.
They are, said McCoy. The college has ramped up counseling and advising for students, helping them plan their course schedules well before a term begins.
It’s too early to say if the policy has resulted in lower overall enrollment. But McCoy predicted it would be flat or only slightly down.
The college plans to continue investigating other ways to improve retention. McCoy said they are looking at other forms of student interventions as part of a broad strategic enrollment planning effort.
“We’re not done yet,” he said.