Chaminade University: The Four-Year Plan
November 20–21, 2009
Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Many studies in recent years have noted that the average time to degree for college students nationwide has been steadily increasing. Instead of the traditional four years that most college degrees were originally designed for, it has become increasingly common for students to take five or six years and sometimes more. Increasing time to degree has wide ranging repercussions on society, as it places a college degree farther out of reach for those who have limited financial resources, saddling many students with larger loan burdens, and ultimately limiting their choices upon completion of their degree, if they are fortunate enough to get that far. While many studies focus on the changing face of the student and why they seem to be choosing to spend more time in school, few mention the important role that prescriptive advising plays in keeping students on track toward completion in a timely manner.
While much of the recent literature on academic advising has focused on developmental issues such as advising undecided students, or students in a variety of challenging life situations, we must never abandon the important role that prescriptive advising plays in helping students graduate within four or possibly three years. At many institutions, advising becomes a quasi-counseling center, which poses any number of challenges and pitfalls if advisors are not properly trained for such situations. This paper will focus on the reexamination of our prescriptive advising methods, and the extent to which that reexamination has changed processes throughout the institution.
As recently as 2005, advising consisted of a series of lists that were shared with students to determine their progress toward completing a degree. To be precise, students were often given three separate lists, one for the general education requirements, a second for their major requirements and a third to show electives that would count toward the 120 credits needed to graduate. Our advising model is one where students see advisors in a centralized advising center until they make an official declaration of their major. Once they declare, they are then handed off to a faculty advisor in that department who sees them through to graduation. There were a number of problems that came along with this model.
One problem with the series of lists is that there are situations where one course can meet two requirements at the same time, and other situations where they cannot. It can often be confusing for students and advisors alike to know all the nuances of evaluation of the various programs. There were often disagreements in interpretation that led to problems that were not uncovered until the final semester, when students would be told by the records department that they were missing a class or two and were therefore unable to graduate, even though advisors had given them different information. In some cases, students participated in the graduation ceremony, convinced that they had met all requirements for completion of their degree, only to be told months later that something was missing. While these cases were relatively rare, every instance required a great deal of energy and investigation to find the cause of the problem and the solution. Solutions had to establish the delicate balance between respecting the desires of the student involved and the need for the institution to maintain the integrity of the degree. Investigation usually showed that blame could not be assigned to one person or office, but rather to the manner and process in which the institution was tracking students on completion of requirements.
A related problem with advising as a series of lists is that a list may show what classes need to be done, but it does not show when. Every degree on our campus has a different structure to it, with different sequencing of major courses. A common student refrain upon entry to the university was (and still is) “Just do your general education courses first and then worry about the major.” While this advice may work fine in the case of some degrees where course sequencing is fairly flexible, it could be disastrous in other degrees where sequencing is crucial and some courses in sequence are offered only once a year or perhaps once every two years.
As mentioned above, the model at our university meant that students received advising from a centralized advising structure until they officially “declared” their major, at which time they were referred to a faculty advisor. One problem with this is that while the advising center knew what courses were required for a degree, they did not necessarily know the structure of each degree and the relative importance of completing certain pre-requisite courses in sequence. For example, in our Forensic Sciences degree, there exists a three year Chemistry sequence that must be completed in order. If a student waits until their third year to begin that sequence, they automatically create the need for a fifth year of study to complete their degree or some very intense summers.
While we have a catalog which covers the manner in which courses are evaluated toward completion of degrees, there has always existed some variations in interpretation regarding those areas where a student may be able to utilize one course for different requirements at the same time. For example, some pre-major requirements can also count toward general education requirements, but major requirements cannot count toward completion of any general education requirements.
However, some courses can count as both general education and minor requirements at the same time. The subtle nuances of evaluation of courses created situations where the advising office may have one interpretation of a body of coursework, the faculty advisor a different evaluation, and the records department still another. This always led to confusion for the student and uncertainty as to whose interpretation they were bound by.
Due to our unique geographic location, students are allowed to walk in a graduation ceremony even if it is not clear that they have completed all requirements. Routinely, we had students who would walk with the belief that they had completed everything and expecting a degree a short time later, only to find out six months after the fact that they were missing one class or another. While rare, these situations were always extremely problematic and created a large amount of hard feelings between the student and the institution, virtually assuring that this student would never become a donor or an ambassador for the university.
Like many universities, students, advisors and faculty at our university now have an evaluation tool which tracks all credits completed and the requirements and credits needed to complete one’s degree. While this is a vast improvement over the old system of evaluating transcripts by hand, it is not perfect, and requires a great deal of coordination between departments to make sure that it operates properly. The department that oversees the data system must work with advisors across campus to ensure that the data system evaluates programs in the same way that advisors would, while remaining true to the catalog requirements. We have already seen how this system helps ensure that the advising office, faculty advisors, records and students are all “on the same page” when it comes to tracking students’ progress.
However, while the new system of evaluation is definitely helpful, it still constitutes nothing more than a list of requirements, and does not show the necessary timing to complete some course sequences in four years. For that, the four-year plan is still an invaluable tool.
Since we are a small school that offers many classes either once a year or sometimes once every two years, it is crucial that students understand from the beginning of their matriculation how to plan out their curriculum if they want to finish on time. Our Accounting department had created a four-year plan showing a combination of general education requirements and pre-major and major requirements for Accounting, clearly showing that certain pre-requisite courses needed to be completed by the end of the sophomore year if one were to complete their degree in four years.
Starting with this concept, the advising office created a similar plan for every other degree on campus, based on course offerings over the previous three years. In this way, students could see clearly which courses could be completed with a certain degree of flexibility (some requirements offered every fall, spring or summer) and which other courses had to be done on time (e.g. offered every other fall semester).
Various Stakeholders Viewpoints
Initially, the primary goal of the advising office in creating these plans was to make advising easier and less confusing to students. It was easy to see when certain courses should be taken and which courses were flexible in terms of timing. As the plans started to make their way through the institution, however, other points of view came to the fore.
The Dean of Enrollment Management saw this as a recruiting and marketing tool. With her knowledge of what parents and students were looking for when they consider various universities, she knew that many institutions are telling prospective students not to expect completion in four years. Recent articles in the field suggest that this problem has been occurring for almost 20 years. With our ability to show prospective students exactly how to complete their studies in four years, it improves the chances for students to stay on track. Our experience to date has been very positive. Admissions finds it useful in recruiting. Some parents tell us they are sending their student to Chaminade because we are the only school they visited to show them such a tool.
Our Associate Provost saw this as a scheduling tool. Every year, the scheduling process for different departments seemed to be tortuous. By working on faculty buy-in for the concept of four-year planning, and better information from the advising office on the intended majors of all enrolled students, departments are in a better position to offer consistent schedules based on their track record of recruiting students into their specific major.
We saw almost instant success. Students find the four-year plan easy to use. For students in the more rigidly structured degrees, students often refer to the plan every semester at registration time. From an advising viewpoint, we have found that the plan has significantly decreased the amount of student stress and confusion when it is time to register. The advising office once had very long lines during registration time, with a large percentage of the students needing assistance. This created an advising model where advisors limited sessions to fifteen minutes per student. The problem with that model of advising is that some students do not need advising sessions if the plan is clear, and other students may need more than fifteen minutes. Now, most students are able to self-advise and the advising staff can focus its efforts on those students who need the most assistance.
Another success that we have seen is one of motivation. With the four-year plan, students can easily see where they are in the process, and how far they have to go. Students see this as the “light at the end of the tunnel.” They are no longer going through the process in darkness. Motivated students can easily track where they are in completing the degree plan.
Reports from our faculty advisors in highly structured degrees (such as in the sciences or in professional studies) have been very positive as well. They find that their advising sessions with students are generally much faster and easier, and that students are much better prepared when they make the switch from the advising office to a faculty advisor when they officially declare their major.
However, not everyone loves the plan. Departments with flexible degrees (such as in the humanities) do not find it helpful, as the perception of the plan is that it attempts to impose structure on situations that do not necessarily call for it. The plan may also discourage students who decide to change majors in some situations, suggesting to them that they have to start from scratch. We attempt to mitigate these concerns with disclaimers, showing students and advisors that the plans are “just a guide” and that they need to sit down with an advisor whenever they change their plans. Also, transfer students may or may not find the plans useful, depending on how many credits they transfer and what they intend to major in.
From those who are not enamored about the plans came interesting accusations. One accusation was that the creation of the plans was an attempt to “ruin academic careers.” This accusation stemmed from the difficult decision as to whether the plan should include courses that were “recommended but not required.” Depending on how packed the plans were with requirements, the first draft of the plans may not have included all courses that were mere recommendations. Faculty who taught those courses were not happy.
From initial resistance to the plan has come eventual acceptance. In some cases, this has perhaps created a new problem. Some departments may have taken the plan too far, making the completion of requirements excessively rigid and inflexible. This can virtually guarantee that students can only finish that department’s degree in four years if they are certain they want that major upon entry and follow the plan precisely from the first semester on campus. The slightest alteration can mean that students will have no choice but to stay at least an extra semester, and possibly an extra year.
Chaminade has been using the four year plans for the last four academic years. So far, the positives far outweigh the negatives, and the planning has gained wide acceptance across campus. New alterations to the plan are nothing more than fine tuning in areas where we see potential conflicts, and keeping up with new requirements from year to year. Possible future consideration might be to re-think the plans among departments to create a real sense of academic integration of classes in a given semester. For example, a given department could look at the courses on their plan in the Junior fall and consider whether the learning in those courses are complementary, or to what extent they could alter the plans to make sure complementary courses are reflected in the same semester. Perhaps departments could also schedule those courses in such a way as to be appealing to the scheduling needs of the students. The concept is working. Now we just have to forge ahead with an eye toward consistent improvement.