student success in college

Higher Education

Some colleges start to confront a surprising reason students fail: Too many choices

As helicoptered students flounder, counselors step in with “metaphorical hand-holding”

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student success in college

Rodrigo Chinchon changed his major two years into college and ended up 15 credits behind. Even after taking classes in the summers, he’ll need a semester longer to get a degree than he had planned.

MIAMI — By the time Rodrigo Chinchon decided to change his major from architecture, he was two years into college and 15 credits behind what he would need for his new choice: international business.

“When I switched, I had a lot of requirements to fulfill. I was sort of lost,” said Chinchon, a student at Florida International University.

It will take Chinchon an extra semester to earn his degree, and that’s even after he took courses in the summers to catch up. Many other students in his position just drop out.

With architecture, “It did seem like I had made the wrong choice,” he said in a study area in the lobby of the university’s R. Kirk Landon Undergraduate School of Business.

For generations of young people, going off to college was a step toward independence. But for this generation, a surprising new problem is thwarting their success: too many choices.

These students are increasingly the children of parents who helicoptered them through elementary, middle and high school or who didn’t go to college themselves and can’t provide much help with it. For these and other reasons, some take courses they don’t need, pick majors they will later change and don’t know what to do when the resulting problems leave them on the brink of flunking out.

“We have a lot of students who, whether they are helicoptered or they’re first generation, they don’t know how to college,” said Aaron Weiss, dean of science and math at Lorain County Community College in Ohio, using “college” as a verb.

Now some institutions that once let students sink or swim are trying to confront this problem by taking critical choices away from them. A small but growing number of schools have even started picking their students’ first-year courses for them. They’re also monitoring them as closely as their parents might have for signs that they’re falling into trouble, and stepping in as needed to painstakingly shepherd them to graduation.

student success in college

A study area in the business school at Florida International University. FIU has improved its on-time graduation rate since limiting the number of choices its students can make.

At FIU, arriving freshmen in the business school are now being put through a newly revamped required course that helps make sure they’ve made the best decision — “to really look at, are they in the right major, and having them start to think about that earlier,” said Richard Klein, associate dean of the undergraduate school of business.

“I can’t have them get to junior year and decide they don’t want to be an accounting major,” Klein said. “They might be here an extra year if they make those decisions very late.”

The school has also started limiting the number of times a student can drop a class and then take it again to get a better grade — an easy out but yet another kind of bad decision that costs extra time and money. Before the restrictions were imposed, Klein said, one FIU undergraduate had started and then dropped the same course 13 times.

“Part of what we’ve begun to do is rein back some of the choices that allow these students to get into trouble,” Klein said.

That’s among the reasons that the business school’s on-time graduation rate has jumped from 31 percent to 45 percent in just two years, he said.

Meredith College in North Carolina has gone even further. It’s one of a handful of institutions that has begun choosing incoming students’ courses for them.

In the past, said Brandon Stokes, director of retention and student success at Meredith,  “some students, especially considering how anxiety has crept into higher education, would have a horrible experience and even be paralyzed by the stress” of picking their own schedules.

student success in college

Richard Klein, associate dean of the undergraduate school of business at Florida International University. “Part of what we’ve begun to do is rein back some of the choices that allow these students to get into trouble,” Klein says.

Left to fend for themselves, they often settled for whatever was available, whether or not it was of interest or counted toward their majors.

“Colleges are starting to view these young women and men as emerging adults who need a lot more hand-holding than we used to give them,” Stokes said.

Rather than resenting having her choice of courses limited, said Meredith student Abigail Crooks, she welcomed it. Now a senior, Crooks “was anxiety-ridden coming to college. I was dealing with a new roommate and being away from home. Having that structure really helped me.”

Related: Switching majors is adding time and tuition to the already high cost of college

Institutions including the California Institute of the Arts have begun what CalArts associate provost for student success Anna Jablonski calls “metaphorical hand-holding,” in which students who are starting to slip get pulled in for face-to-face meetings with advisers and faculty mentors rather than being allowed to drift away and drop out. Counselors follow up by not only monitoring the students’ progress, but by sending encouraging messages about good work.

These students’ parents “were a lot more involved” in their educations than was the case in previous generations, said Jablonski. “This is just how they’ve been raised and what they’ve come to expect. So college has become more like the K-12 experience, where we are teaching them how to be adults in the world.”

Without such intervention, Jablonski said, some students sit and sulk in their rooms, immobilized and spiraling downward until it’s too late to redeem them.

“That’s exactly what can and does happen,” she said. “It was happening here, and I think it still happens at other schools, big and small.”

Students whose parents didn’t go to college find themselves equally anxiety-prone about the many choices they are quickly forced to make.

Alexa Hercules, another FIU student, now in her last semester, said that arriving as a freshman “was a little overwhelming because I’m first generation, so when it came to picking classes, I was a little bit lost.”

Alexa Hercules, a student at Florida International University, was “a little bit lost” when she arrived as a freshman, and sometimes questioned her choice of major.

She also sometimes questioned her major, business administration and marketing. The requirements are tough, including math. Sometimes, Hercules said, “I’m just, ‘Really, Alexa, why did you have to choose marketing?’ ” Now she plans to continue on to law school, but with marketing as a backup plan.

Lorain is among several colleges experimenting with text “nudges” to students who may not seek help on their own. The texts, akin to parental nagging, include reminders about taking advantage of instructors’ office hours, managing finances and using the colleges’ food bank. At first aimed solely at science, technology, engineering and math majors, they appear to have kept some from quitting; in a test run, 28 percent of students who received nudges dropped out after the first semester, compared to 44 percent who chose not to receive the nudges. Lorain has since expanded the effort to all of its undergraduates.

Many of those students “don’t know how to manage things, they feel overwhelmed, they don’t necessarily want to ask for help,” said Weiss, who oversees the program. “They don’t know how to be independent learners and critical thinkers. That should not shock anyone. Those are not necessarily skills that they’re learning in K-12 education.”

Related: College students are increasingly forgoing summers off to save money, stay on track

A lot of students can’t make up their minds about a major, either. About a third change their majors at least once, the U.S. Department of Education says, and one in 10 switches majors two or more times.

For that matter, more students than ever second-guess their choices about where to even go to college. Thirty-seven percent now transfer at least once in their college careers, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks this; of those, nearly half switch schools more than once.

All of this takes a toll on graduation rates. Undergraduates, on average, end up taking 15 credits more than they need to get degrees — a full semester’s worth — according to the advocacy group Complete College America. And that, in turn, is why nearly 60 percent take longer than four years to finish, or never do.

The numbers are even worse at community colleges. Getting a two-year associate degree takes four years, on average, for the students who stick around long enough to do it; graduates end up with more than 22 excess credits, or a semester and a half’s worth.

College is in part a chance for students to explore their interests, which means taking at least some elective courses that don’t count toward their majors, said Ed Bush, president of Cosumnes River College, a community college in California. “But there’s a clear difference between exploration and being lost.”

Instead of letting its students choose their first-year schedules, this fall, Cosumnes, too, started doing it for them. The students still get to select the days and times of the classes they take.

Before this change, nearly 60 percent of students at Cosumnes weren’t graduating even after six years, according to the most recent data from the college. Early indications suggest this number will improve, Bush said. “We knew that in order to solve a drastic problem, the solutions also had to be drastic,” he said.

Related: Universities that are recruiting older students often leave them floundering

Even if students were laser-focused, higher education institutions themselves have subjected them to what sociologists call “choice overload” by hugely increasing the number of courses and majors they offer.

Partly to attract enrollment, which has been declining, colleges and universities nationwide added 55,416 new programs in the five years ending in 2017, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of the most recent available federal figures. Cosumnes has 2,771 credit-bearing classes in 100 degree and certificate programs.

“Students walk in and it’s kind of like they’re in a cafeteria,” said Vikash Reddy, senior director of policy research at the Campaign for College Opportunity, citing research about one of the principal reasons students flounder. “They can pick something from here and something from there, but it doesn’t always add up to a meal.”

Or, in this case, to a degree.

The business school at Florida International University is among several higher education institutions limiting the number of choices students can make, including the number of times they can drop a class and take it again to get a better grade.

“Choice is good. It doesn’t follow from that that more choice is always better,” said Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College and the author of “The Paradox of Choice,” about the psychological ramifications of a supermarket culture that offers 175 kinds of salad dressings and 275 breakfast cereals.

Colleges “are probably right from a marketing point of view to advertise the million different ways you can go through the institution. That will appeal to 18-year-olds,” Schwartz said. “But it won’t appeal to them when it’s time for them to make decisions.”

This is increasingly true among high school graduates less accustomed to forging their own paths, he said.

“What magic thing happened during the summer that turned these infantile teenagers into mature adults? Nothing,” Schwartz said. For them, he said, too many choices can lead to “paralysis rather than liberation.”

Related: Colleges and states turn their attention to slow-moving part-time students

University administrators say parents increasingly involve themselves in almost every aspect of their children’s lives, even in college.

“At the beginning, having a student call their parents during a meeting that we’re in together kind of made me laugh,” said Allison Farrell, assistant dean for student success at Le Moyne College in New York. Now, said Farrell, “I find that I talk to parents at least once a day.”

The resulting sense of dependence this creates for many students has led Le Moyne, too, to begin selecting first-semester classes for them. And like several other institutions, it has put into place an early alert system under which faculty, staff and administrators watch for anyone who may be struggling, instead of waiting for them to ask for help. A committee gathers every Thursday morning in a conference room in the library to review these cases.

“We definitely see students who don’t have the coping skills that we would hope they would have at this point,” said Becki Lawhorn, director of retention research and analytics at the University of Dayton, which added its own “academic intervention response team” in the fall. “They’re just not prepared to handle things for themselves.”

At Meredith, students who are performing poorly in class, not making friends or suggesting in occasional college-wide surveys that they’re having problems are assigned someone they trust to check on and talk to them.

And at Loyola University in New Orleans, an alarm is triggered if a student requests a transcript, signaling that he or she may be about to withdraw. Not only do advisers, tutors, career counselors and coaches reach out; even the student government is alerted, said Liz Rainey, executive director of student success.

One of those students was Emmett Parker III— he goes by Trey — who was on the verge of quitting Loyola last summer and transferring to a community college in his home state of Massachusetts.

At his Catholic private high school, Parker said, “Your teacher told you to do this and to do that.” But when he got to college, “There’s a million choices that you have to make. I had never had experience with doing that. I started to freak out, [thinking] ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ ”

Parker’s mother hadn’t gone to college, he said, and he hesitated to ask for help from faculty or staff. “For me there was always a little bit of ego, a little bit of embarrassment. I didn’t want to be that kid who couldn’t do college.”

So when counselors reached out to him, said Parker, “It was just a weight off my shoulders. I wasn’t having to carry this burden any more. It was honestly like somebody pulling me out from drowning.”

Now a junior who is back on track and majoring in political science, Parker said, “To have someone hold my hand like that, not in a childish way but as in, ‘I’ve got you, I can help you,’ was extremely helpful.”

student success in college

Students on the campus of Florida International University, which is among several higher education institutions limiting students’ choices as a way to help them avoid making decisions that can lead to delays.

Colleges have self-interested reasons for monitoring their students so closely, and sometimes limiting their choices. One is that it’s cheaper to keep students from dropping out than it is to recruit new students. Another: Consumers are increasingly conscious of low graduation rates.

“If a student doesn’t finish, “that is failure, and it’s failure that we as the institution own,” said Klein, at FIU.

Not every student needs a surrogate parent. “Sometimes they just want to have something explained to them and then they’re good. They’re on their way,” said Cy Gage, an academic adviser at CalArts. “With other students, you have to build up a level of trust so they’re comfortable coming in and talking to you, and not just about school, but also, ‘Hey, did you eat today, and did you get any sleep?’ ”

Rodrigo Chinchon wishes his advisers at FIU had checked on him more, not less — especially when his GPA briefly slipped.

“An email would have been nice. I do wish they had reached out more.”

He regained his footing, however. Now he’s thinking of combining his business credentials with what he learned from his abandoned architecture major to develop and design real estate.

Of course, by hovering over their students in these ways, colleges and universities risk being criticized for practicing the same paternalism that’s been causing the problems in the first place.

But “if there is expertise within an institution that knows there are better, easier, shorter paths to getting degrees, it seems smart to set up the architecture of the institution such that those choices are easier to make,” said Michael Weiss, senior research associate at the social policy research organization MDRC, who studies this.

“There have got to be some students for whom too much choice is causing trouble,” Weiss said. “If there are 500 different majors and all these different courses to choose from, that can be overwhelming. In those cases I’m not worried that you’re coddling people too much.”

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