REPORTS & SURVEYS | SEPTEMBER 1ST, 2013
Perspectives from Indiana College Students and Advisors
Indiana’s higher education attainment rates are lagging behind national averages at a time when postsecondary credentials are necessary for success. To address this problem, Public Agenda held 11 focus groups with current students, students who had dropped out, professional advisers and faculty advisers and also reviewed past studies on how students progress from enrollment to completion – what we refer to here as student pathways. Our work supports the Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s (ICHE) efforts to address this problem.
This study had three goals:
Students and advisers saw promise in these policies and proposals, but many also had concerns and open questions that need to be taken seriously. If these kinds of policies are to be implemented and have the intended results, Indiana's policymakers and higher education leaders should continue to engage those closest to the issues.
In the first part of our conversations with advisers and students, we sought to explore their perceptions and attitudes about why so many students fail to complete degrees and credentials. Four factors were mentioned most frequently by our respondents:
Many students initially select programs for which they are not suited. As a result, they frequently take courses that will not count towards their eventual degree, fail or drop courses they do take, and sometimes drop-out of education altogether. Advisers say their caseloads are too large to be able to help students make better initial program choices.
Once in a program, students often select courses that will not count toward the program degree or fail to select courses that must be taken as prerequisites, further slowing their progress. Sometimes students are unable to take the courses they need because of conflicts with work and family; often they make poor selections because they self-advise based on inadequate information.
Advisers report that they lack adequate information, citing frequent and rapid curriculum changes (which are often not communicated in a timely fashion) and poor communication between professional advisers and academic departments.
Transfer students have particularly daunting challenges. Communication between two and four year institutions is fragmented. Students, as well as advisers, complain that it is difficult to determine which courses will successfully transfer. Courses that do transfer are often counted only as electives, further slowing progress.
In the second part of this research, we presented participants with three policy or practice proposals that the Indiana Commission for Higher Education is currently considering. These proposals are especially focused on addressing mismatches between students and the programs they select, the tendency of some students to make inappropriate course selections and shortcomings or lack of capacity of current advising systems. The following is an overview of respondent reactions to these three proposals:
Proactive advising and informed choice focuses on helping students make better course selections and alerting schools when a student is potentially going off track.
Degree maps and guaranteed courses assist students in selecting a program of study and to help them move through that program all the way to graduation.
Block schedules and structured cohorts is an even more structured solution, in which students select a block of time to take all their courses, with the same schedule each semester.
Providing guided pathways for students has been central to some of the largest higher education reform and student success efforts at two- and four-year institutions across the country. To reduce time to degree, these institutions offer supports to bolster student progress and interventions to address common challenges. State- and institution-level practices for guided pathways fall into two broad categories: 1) strategies for accelerating completion and 2) strategies for preventing wasted credits.
In the third part of this research, we proposed common best practices for guided pathways, as well as ideas that emerged from participant groups, to gauge their responses and identify opportunities for progress in Indiana. The strategies included:
Our conversations with students and advisers suggest there is broad support for the Indiana Commission of Higher Education's policy priorities associated with creating clear pathways for students. There is also a great deal of knowledge and expertise still to be leveraged from within institutions, as well as areas of legitimate concern and disagreement.
Policymakers should engage Indiana colleges as true partners in decision making to ensure that policies pursued are informed by the experiences of students and frontline faculty and staff. These recommendations are aimed at making certain that guided pathways policies in Indiana are inclusive of and oriented by the knowledge, values and commitments of those implementing and subject to these policies.
Indiana's higher education attainment rates are lagging behind national averages at a time when postsecondary credentials are necessary for success. Our work supports the Indiana Commission for Higher Education's (ICHE) efforts to address this problem.