Student: “I HATE MY SCHEDULE! I have 8 a.m. classes, my professors aren’t friendly, and I might not be able to pass my math class. I need to change my schedule!”
This familiar scenario is experienced by thousands of students their first semester in college. In addition to being anxious about leaving home and finding their place in a new environment, they may be unsure about their academic pathway and that can play out in complaints about their course schedule.
It's important to listen to your student's concerns, and parental support is important as they navigate the early weeks of college. But before encouraging them to drop or change a course, direct them to their academic advisor. There are multiple factors to consider and an advisor can help your student identify and resolve them.
Here are a few things to know.
1. Course load directly impacts the degree completion timeline.
Ask how many credits your student needs to take each semester if they plan to complete their degree in four years (traditional semester plan is eight semesters). Commonly, programs are 120 credits, in which a student takes an average of 15 credits (five classes) each semester.
If a student drops a class, they will need to “make it up” somewhere, usually with a summer course. Your student shouldn't decide whether to drop or not based on this calculation but should be aware of the implications.
2. Switching sections can be disruptive and may set your student back.
Often, after just one or two class meetings, students decide whether or not the professor is “good.” Good may mean friendly, approachable, easy, or knowledgeable.
Ask your student about their professors. What do they like about them? What concerns do they have? Encourage them to develop strong communication and interpersonal skills so that they can get to know their professors and classmates.
This is especially important for students who say they want to change sections so they can take classes with their friends. This is a high-school-level sentiment from which they need to be weaned.
3. Students have options.
Typically, when a student seeks assistance from an academic advisor, the advisor will present and explore these options with them. If the advisor does not proactively do so, encourage your student to be prepared to ask, “What are my options and what are the implications of each?"
Options may include a referral to tutoring, a writing or math lab, discussion with the professor, study groups, study skills, and counseling. They also may include add/dropping, dropping, or withdrawing. Let me explain the differences.
There are several types of schedule adjustments. Early in the semester, students have the option to adjust their schedule. They should consult their academic advisor before making any changes, as some changes may significantly impact course sequences (ex. ENG 101 is required before ENG 102). Have your student consult the academic calendar to identify deadlines by which to take action.
Drop/Add: This usually lasts for the first week of classes. Students can drop a course and add another in its place. This could be a change in course itself (drop MAT 101, add PSY 101). The change could be in the section, which identifies meeting time, location, and professor (drop/add MAT 101). There are generally no penalties for drop/add, but make sure that you know all the policies pertaining to this period.
Drop: Generally, dropping a course means that it will be removed from the record with no academic or financial penalty. If done during the first week, there may not be any financial implication. Colleges may have a staggered refund policy, wherein you’d receive 100% tuition and fees back during the first week, 75% the second week, and so on. A drop period precedes the withdrawal period, which has different implications.
Withdrawal: The withdrawal period begins after the drop period; generally about 3–4 weeks into the start of the semester. Unlike drops, withdrawals have specific academic and financial consequences. If a student withdraws during the withdrawal period, a grade of W (or something similar) will be noted on the student’s transcript and will remain there. An isolated occurrence of a W is not cause for concern, but a pattern of withdrawals may indicate deeper problems that your student should discuss with an advisor. Withdrawals also impact financial aid. Check your institution’s policies for how withdrawals impact your student’s eligibility for aid. Too many withdrawals may impact your access to student loans and other aid. You may also end up owing money to the institution if your student withdraws from a course. The benefit of a withdrawal period (as opposed to dropping right away) is that it tends to be a generous period (1–2 months) during which a student can remain enrolled, take advantage of tutoring, mentoring, and other supports, and hopefully become successful in the course. This helps to avoid a knee-jerk reaction of getting out of the course right away. Make sure you and your student understand the policies and deadlines at your student’s institution.
Medical or Retroactive Withdrawal: Some institutions provide options for students with significant medical or personal issues. If your student experiences such a challenge, direct them to ask about these options. A medical withdrawal may have different implications than a traditional withdrawal. Retroactive withdrawals are rare and would be approved sparingly in extreme situations such as the death of a family member on the day the student had planned to withdraw.
The first weeks of college are a whirlwind of excitement, fun, and anxiety. Help to serve as the voice of reason (as you have thus far) and work through the issues with your student.
At this point in their transition, it's most helpful to refer them to the campus resources they need. Let them know they have options and encourage them to work through their challenges. They can do this!
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Dr. Sue Ohrablo (she/her) is a nationally recognized consultant, speaker and author in the areas of academic advising and student services. She has over 35 years’ experience in higher education, holding positions in advising administration, academic advising, career and personal counseling. Dr. Ohrablo holds a doctorate in Higher Education Leadership as well as degrees in counseling and psychology. She is the author of The Pocket Advisor: A Family Guide to Navigating College, and currently supports students and higher education institutions as the founder of My HigherEd Partner. Connect with Sue via www.myhigheredpartner.com or [email protected].