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Hard deadlines for course registration

Terry O'Banion

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the August/September edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Almost every institution of higher education engages in late registration. But evidence is mounting that the practice, originally intended to keep the doors of opportunity open for students as long as possible, wreaks havoc on the ability of colleges to achieve the goals of the emerging completion agenda.

Despite best intentions, late registration is an educationally ineffective architecture deeply embedded in the culture of the community college. It is time, once and for all, to end late registration. May it rest in peace.

Arguments for late registration

For decades late registration has been championed by two groups advocating for its value as a key policy and practice of community college culture. One group makes the case for late registration as a key component of the community college access agenda. Members of this camp say that extending registration, even as long as a week after classes begin, is an expression of the open-door philosophy of community colleges.

The second group holds that late registration increases the number of students who enroll by extending the deadline for registration and, therefore, increases the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students who generate revenue for the college. Some administrators have used this argument to defend the practice as a necessary evil to garner more resources.

The argument is sometimes made that the practice is related to resources that support faculty salaries—thus checkmating disgruntled faculty who argue for its termination.

The case against it

Many more educators, however, favor an end to late registration—and with good reason. For decades, in his writing and speeches, John Roueche, former director of the famed Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, asked two questions: “What is the most important day of the semester?” and “What is the most important week of the semester?” His answer: The first day and the first week, respectively.

The first day and the first week of classroom instruction are significant because this is when students who are most at risk become engaged and make connections that encourage persistence and success. All students—but especially first-generation, underprepared students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds—need to connect with other students, with instructors, and with course content as quickly as possible. Late registration limits those opportunities for engagement.

On campus, the first to observe the fallout from late registration are often the faculty, on the ground and in the trenches, along with advisers and the registrar’s staff. In cases where late registration is still common practice, the 16-week term is frequently reduced to 15 weeks of instruction—cheating students of their tuition and learning opportunities. An instructor might begin day one with 30 students and come to the next class session to find that 15 of the day-one group have dropped out, and 15 new students have taken their place. The third class session of the first week is often a crapshoot. Realizing this, many instructors attempt no serious organization or instruction in the first week of classes.

Faculty give careful consideration to orienting students, creating a sense of class community, helping classmates connect, presenting course overviews, introducing themselves and their perspectives, and making initial assignments—all in the first day and first week of class. This initial groundwork early in the term is the key to subsequent success for many students, but the preparation and orientation process is constantly interrupted by the comings and goings of late registrants.

When students are allowed to ignore deadlines and spend a week or more milling about campus to orchestrate their schedules, we create the illusion that they do not have to show up on time or care about their decisions. If we are to prepare the workforce of the future with the work habits required for the 21st century, the myths propagated by this culture of late registration must be debunked.

Impact on students

The practice of late registration has been studied for more than three decades, and results have overwhelmingly indicated that it is detrimental to student success. In a study by Smith, Street, and Olivarez in 2002, 35 percent of new students who registered late were retained to the next semester compared with 80 percent of those who registered on time. The study also found that new students who registered on time for their courses withdrew from 10 percent of their course hours, while those who registered late withdrew from 21 percent of their course hours.

A 2010 Goodman study, which polled 2,159 first-time full-time students enrolled in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, found that “students who registered late for their courses were less likely to persist through their first year of college.”

The study examined predictive behavior of students related to persistence through their first year of college based on three variables: course registration time, transfer-orientation, and income level. Of these three variables, course registration time had a direct, significant correlation to student persistence—specifically, late student registration was directly related to a lack of persistence during the first year of college.

In addition, students who register late are likely to find their desired courses and sections closed, further sapping their motivation. The challenge of securing financial aid, purchasing books and arranging child care at the last minute—in a system that is overstressed—is often the last straw that drives students away.

Instead of practicing late registration, colleges that want to create conditions that support student success and completion should encourage the policy and practice of early registration. There is some evidence that students who register early are more successful than those who register late.

Early registrants are more likely to be more motivated, to be full-time, and to have access to more courses and more sections of courses. While many colleges reserve early registration times for returning students, the sooner colleges can register all students—especially underprepared, first-generation students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds—the greater the likelihood those students will be successful.

O’Banion is president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College and senior adviser for higher education programs at Walden University.