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.
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 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.
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 they’re falling into trouble and stepping in as needed to painstakingly shepherd them to graduation.
At Florida International, arriving freshmen in the business school are being put through a revamped required course that helps make sure they’ve made the best decisions — “to really look at, are they in the right major, and having them start to think about that earlier,” said Richard E. Klein Jr., 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.
The school has also started limiting the number of times a student can drop a class and take it again to get a better grade — an easy out but a 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 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.
Left to fend for themselves, they often settled for whatever was available, regardless of whether 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, Meredith student Abigail Crooks said 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.”
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, Jablonski said. “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.”
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, a Florida International student 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.”
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 expects to continue on to law school, but with marketing as a backup plan.
A lot of students can’t make up their minds about a major, either. About a third change their majors at least once, the Education Department says, and 1 in 10 switches majors two or more times.
For that matter, more students than ever second-guess their choices about where to go to college. Thirty-seven percent transfer at least once in their college careers, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 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.
Even if students were laser-focused, higher education institutions 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 programs in the five years ending in 2017, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of the most recent available federal figures.
“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.
“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.”
Colleges have self-interested reasons for monitoring their students so closely and for 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.
Rodrigo Chinchon, at Florida International, regained his footing after switching from architecture to business. Now, he’s thinking of combining the two disciplines so that he can 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 has been causing the problems in the first place.
But Michael J. Weiss, senior research associate at the social policy research organization MDRC, said he isn’t worried about students being coddled.
“If there is expertise within an institution that knows there are better, easier, shorter paths to getting degrees,” Weiss said, “it seems smart to set up the architecture of the institution such that those choices are easier to make.”
This story about student success in college was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.