According to CollegeAtlas, 30% of college freshmen will drop out after the first year of college. When it comes to university revenue, the impact of this loss can be significant. Just 50 students departing after their freshman year results in an average of $1,500,000 loss of revenue.
There are many factors that lead students to defer enrollment or drop out entirely, but after interviewing several students across the country, there was one common stressor among students last year, and that was degree planning.
While students continue to navigate the unpredictable shifts due to pandemic and post-pandemic circumstances, it’s essential for institutions to listen to student needs and provide clearer paths to graduation, or risk further loss and alienation. Here are 5 common responses from currently enrolled university students across the U.S. when asked how schools could improve their degree planning processes:
1 . Students want more agency to plan and visualize their degree progression
Many institutions require first-year students to meet with their advisors to map out their first-semester schedule to help them get familiar with the degree planning process. However, due to in-person restrictions, advising appointments have turned into virtual conference calls, making it difficult to fit both transactional and high level questions into a 30-minute session.
A first-year student from a large California university said, “I know we have academic advisors, but having the flexibility to see your degree progress on demand without necessarily having to see an academic advisor every time would be a more efficient option. And then on top of that, as a first generation college student, it can be very confusing understanding what degree progress looks like over your 4 years, like how you can interchange classes, and what you can do to get ahead or add something on. It can be very confusing and time consuming having to make an appointment every single time [I have a question] with an academic advisor.”
Degree planning has many complications. Clearing prerequisites and transfer credits for example, make it difficult for students to accurately map out their academic journey without any guidance, but scheduling time with an advisor for one-off questions can be inconvenient. Without a student-facing degree planner, students risk making errors, consequently delaying their time to graduation.
A senior from a small private institution shared, “One of my most frustrating experiences was when I took a difficult course that I thought fulfilled my major graduation requirements, but didn’t count. I didn’t even realize this until after I had completed the course and met with my advisor. Had I known that the course would’ve just counted for my general requirements, I would’ve taken something else.”
2. Students want recommendations for courses that align with personal interests/career goals
Although it is remarkable how quickly higher ed was able to adapt to online instruction, it’s been difficult for students to stay passionate and motivated while learning through a screen. In fact, 85% of students have said that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their academic performance. When students aren’t taking courses they’re passionate about, in addition to the challenges of online learning, students are more likely to perform poorly or take a leave of absence. Providing students with the agency to filter through course catalogs that align with their interests and career goals dramatically decreases degree planning anxiety and supports students' persistence to graduation.
A junior from a large California university shares, “I came in as a freshman and they only show you your first-semester schedule. I think seeing it all laid out for the rest of the 4 years would have let me curate my classes towards my interest a little bit more. I kind of just went along with the requirements and then realized after 3 years I haven't really taken a class that I feel very passionate about.”
3. Students want to play with what-if scenarios to discover and explore new majors/minors
Many first-year students enter college not knowing what to expect and often change their major/minor after the first semester. In fact, 50-75% of undergraduates change their major at least once before graduation. Switching majors is a huge stress factor for multiple reasons, but commonly because of the wasted money on credits and/or delayed graduation time. Enabling students to play with what-if scenarios to see what credits overlap with a different major/minor helps students see if they’re still on track to graduate and visualize the implications of changes.
A junior from a large California university shares, “I meet with my advisor when I’m kind of in a crisis where I’m like, is this even what I want to do? I go to them and ask how can I add this minor, and is there enough time? I really want to go to law school so I’ve met with a couple of advisors to see how I can put myself in the best position to get into the best school after senior year. There hasn’t been anything super curated, it’s kind of just been me going along the way and seeing where I want to fit a minor, just kind of going on a whim based off of how I’m feeling.”
4. Students want to build the best course schedules for them
In addition to being a student, 43% of full-time students work 20+ hours a week, or are involved with extracurriculars, committed to family obligations, etc. that make it difficult to find times that align with required courses. When jobs and personal responsibilities take priority over school, and students cannot make courses fit within their schedule, students are likely to be less engaged or defer from school. But when students can easily block off times for personal obligations and filter by courses that fit their schedule and advance degree progression, students can more easily balance school and responsibilities, and be more engaged in their academics.
A Senior at a large Oregon university shares, “When completing my gen eds Sophomore year, I took a lot of online classes or courses I wasn’t really interested in because all the courses I was interested in conflicted with my work schedule or sorority meetings.”
5. Students want a singular, intuitive, and modern degree planner
For many institutions, the same degree tracking software has been in place for decades. For the newer generation of tech-savvy students, this feels outdated and overwhelming to sift through multiple websites and tabs. This can lead to mistakes in the degree planning process, adding additional stress and confusion to degree progression. Today’s students are used to visual data and instant updates. Similarly to Google Maps, students want to be able to test different pathways but be offered guidance when lost or steering off track.
A junior from a large California university shares, “I'm very visual. So personally, when I try to visualize my classes, I actually have a spreadsheet and I'm writing down every single course number while searching for open seats and it's just so time consuming. To have a system that does this for you would reduce a lot of stress around that.”
Another junior classmate echos, “I try to do it too, but it's just so complicated and there's so many classes it’s hard to see. If you want to fit in a minor it's just very complicated and hard to do. You're searching everything- you're looking for classes, you're building your schedule, and then there's the second part where you have to go to a completely different system to go to schedule classes. There's like 4 or 5 different tools that you have to use to get all the complete information.”
Degree planning has a tremendous impact on student engagement and persistence throughout a student's academic journey, especially during this unnerving academic year. One of Stellic’s partners for example, Western Seminary, has seen as much as a 20% increase in retention when students plan their degrees in collaboration with their advisors. We can conclude that when students have proper degree planning resources to visualize the implications of dropping a class, playing with what-if scenarios, collaborate with advisors remotely, and take courses they’re passionate about, students are going to feel more confident and less stressed throughout their collegiate experience.