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Combating the Course Schedule: Enrollment Through the Eyes of Undergraduates

by Jillian Dunlay

Adrenaline rushes through the veins of college students before the sunrise even peaks over the horizon. They jump up to the blaring sounds of their iPhone alarms and rush to their computers, fingers racing across their keyboards a mile a minute. As time passes, few students walk away from the computer screen with smiling faces; the rest drag their steps in defeat. 

The day is not one of the dreaded midterm or final university exam days. It is a day that harbors just as much, if not greater, stress for college students: course enrollment for the upcoming semester.  

Navigating the course schedule often stirs up a sea of groans from college students. While course enrollment appears to be a simple process, any college student knows that it is anything but. From courses filling up too quickly to conflicting course times, creating a course schedule for a single term alone is a challenge. As many college students struggle to put together a schedule that accelerates their progress toward degree completion, the difficulties of scheduling can not only delay a student’s path to graduation, but could even discourage a student from enrolling altogether. 

Enrollment Experiences at Public Institutions

During my time as an undergraduate student at my public institution, I have had my fair share of scheduling issues. One issue that I have repeatedly encountered is having too many necessary courses for my degree scheduled to occur at the same time. As a Secondary English Education major, my degree path is fairly rigid; I am supposed to take most of my English classes during my first two years and my education classes during my final two years.  

However, this last semester, almost every English class that I needed was scheduled at the same time. This made my scheduling process particularly tiresome. It took me hours to find courses that did not conflict with each other, and I was left to my own devices to figure out how my schedule could work in a way that would not delay my graduation. 

Recommended Resources: Schedule Refinement Strategies

The issue described above is not specific to my institution. Many universities struggle to address this issue of conflicting course times in students’ degree paths. Shreya Lingamallu, an undergraduate at a similar institution, also experienced the frustrating impact of this scheduling dilemma while attempting to enroll in an organic chemistry course for fall 2021.  

“General chemistry at [my institution] requires a lecture, lab, and recitation. The last digit of the course, lab, and recitation sections must match,” Lingamallu said. “When scheduling my courses, there weren’t enough spots open to where my lecture, lab, and recitation could match that also didn’t have a time conflict with my other classes.” 

Although she was fortunate to find other classes she could take, Lingamallu expresses that students should not be subject to reworking their course schedules because of time conflicts. 

“I have to make sure I take my science courses on time so that I am prepared to take the MCAT. If I can’t take a class because of scheduling problems, then I would be behind and unprepared,” Lingamallu said. 

“I think that colleges need to add more sections of high demand courses. I think this would also help avoid the time conflicts that most students have, while also making sure that everyone who needs to be in a particular course is able to and is not forced to take an alternate class due to the university’s inability to create enough space for its students.” 

Although, understandably, some courses are bound to conflict, colleges need to be proactive about tackling this problem. It is important for universities to not simply ask faculty which courses they want to teach when. Rather, universities should be analyzing the degree pathways of students, and scheduling courses at times that will ensure students can continue following their degree path. 

Recommended Resource: Understanding Completion Tracks and College to Career Pathways

As Lingamallu mentioned, another issue that universities must grapple with is meeting course demand. Course demand poses issues on both sides of the spectrum; on one hand, some courses fill up too rapidly, while others are canceled due to low enrollment.  

At my institution, I have had several courses end up being canceled at the last minute. This is bothersome, as these are courses that I need to take to complete my degree. For this upcoming semester, I enrolled in a course equivalent at my local community college to substitute a literature course that my institution had canceled on me. While I like my community college, it is irritating that I cannot receive the education for that course at the same place I’m taking my other classes. 

Enrollment Experiences at Private Institutions

On the other hand, Colby McArthur, an undergraduate at a private, Ivy League institution, has dealt with courses filling up too quickly because not enough sections are offered. Like Lingamallu, he had trouble with enrolling in a chemistry lab. 

“A lot of people try to get into Monday labs because they work better around lectures, which are almost always between Tuesday and Friday, and labs are generally only offered in the early afternoon,” McArthur said. “Because of this, the Monday chemistry labs filled up and I was forced to choose a 7:30-10:20 PM [Wednesday] lab, which really isn’t ideal for a morning person like me. It was pretty frustrating, and I hope I’ll be awake and aware enough during my lab to do well in the class.” 

Although McArthur is grateful he could enroll in the lab, he believes that his institution could improve at accommodating student demand by adding more courses when necessary. 

“I understand that there’s not really much that the university can do regarding most of our classes, but I think that the lab schedules could be more varied,” McArthur said. “At the moment, all labs are 1:30-4:30 pm or 7:30-10:20 pm. I think that offering some morning classes would be really helpful.” 

As course demand can fluctuate dramatically from year to year, it is the responsibility of the university to adjust course offerings. Universities should do their best to predict how many sections of a course they might need and look at historical enrollment data to change a degree program’s required courses if necessary. 

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While time conflicts and course demand are two significant obstacles that students must overcome when scheduling, just learning how to navigate through scheduling resources is an obstacle itself. For college freshmen, scheduling can be a baffling and overwhelming process. 

Mary Orzechowski, an undergraduate at a smaller public institution, has experienced first-hand just how troublesome enrolling in courses can be as a new student. 

“When I enrolled in my first classes in college… my advisor at that time called me 30 minutes before our appointment and rushed through the entire thing, which led to so much confusion and frustration for me. I had absolutely no idea how to fix or even find my own schedule for the upcoming fall semester,” Orzechowski said. “At my school, schedules are very hard to find due to the confusing and vast websites. Students do not have access to a master schedule and cannot enroll themselves without information from and a meeting with their advisor.” 

Orzechowski stresses the importance of universities having accessible scheduling platforms, as well as clear degree pathways outlined for students. 

“After a student’s first semester, they should be given access to a master schedule, their major’s course requirements list, and a sheet to layout their four [or] five years,” Orzechowski said. “[They] should be able to enroll and outline their courses themselves with recommendations and help from advisors when asked. This gives students the opportunity to see and understand what courses they need, when they can take these courses, and which courses they might want to take.” 

It is clear from Orzechowski’s experience that colleges should not be rushing new students through the scheduling process without taking steps to plan a student’s degree path and explaining how to understand the course schedule. Universities should also try to have specific courses and benchmarks for first-year students to ensure that they are staying on track.  

How to Support Students During Enrollment

Spanning ivy league institutions and public state schools, course scheduling problems noticeably infiltrate into a variety of universities. It is difficult for many universities to completely avoid scheduling issues because the course schedule is so vast and complex.  

For this reason, it is beneficial for colleges to invest in a course scheduling software like Ad Astra. From analyzing degree pathways and highlighting course conflicts, to predicting course demand and implementing schedule requirements for first-year students, Ad Astra’s software can simplify the scheduling process and ensure that each student has a course schedule that works for them.  

If colleges make moves to improve their scheduling process, the words “course enrollment” could no longer spark adrenaline and nerves in college students. Instead of racing to the computer to try to register for the courses they want, every student could be confident in registering for the classes they need and know exactly how they are making progress toward their degree. The purpose of a college is to educate its students. As such, colleges need to make their scheduling process about what the students need and strive to ensure that every student walks away from course enrollment with a smile on their face.

Recommended Resources: A Foundational Approach to Improving Registration

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