Students Tell All: 5 Reasons Students Struggle to Access the Courses They Need

Students Tell All: 5 Reasons Students Struggle to Access the Courses They Need

Administrators often hear anecdotal stories about how students struggle to get into the classes that they need; however, data has only recently become available that sheds light on the scope of the problem. Coursedog and College Pulse recently collaborated to survey 1,500+ students and interview over 100 students to learn more about the challenges they face. The insights from this work provide a clearer picture of the obstacles that often impede students' access to essential courses.

The survey found that students most frequently experienced the following challenges when trying to enroll in the classes that they need. Student interviews revealed similar themes that this article explores in greater depth below.

Limited Seats Block Enrollment in High-Demand & Foundational Courses

A recurring theme focused on student frustration around the scarcity of available seats in crucial courses. Particularly in high-demand foundational courses like biology 101 or introductory mathematics, students frequently encounter full classes and insufficient sections when trying to register.

“The most common problem is that classes get full too quickly or don't have enough sections. This tends to happen with the more popular classes that fulfill multiple prerequisites or are foundational to your later classes, like intro to biology. This happens a lot with labs because they're so small and there's not that many sections technically.” - Community college student in the Northeast 

First-year students reported encountering these challenges most due to lower registration priority. Barriers enrolling in foundational courses can then delay students from being able to enroll in required courses later on as they haven’t completed the prerequisites.

“During my freshman semester I got into none of the classes that I attempted to register for. And the only reason I even got into my calculus class was because my advisor had to manually put me into one that was already full.” - Student at four-year flagship university in the Southwest

Scheduling Conflicts Force Students to Choose Between Degree-Critical Courses

Unfortunately, students often encounter scenarios where two crucial courses are scheduled at the same time, forcing them to choose between required courses and delay taking certain courses until the following term. This predicament underscores the importance of transparent scheduling to ensure that essential classes align, thus minimizing conflicts and maximizing students' ability to progress seamlessly through their academic plan. Institutions can achieve transparent scheduling by leveraging a scheduling system that hosts all data in one place and all relevant parties can see. 

“Some problems I had getting into classes were that the classes I needed were offered at the same time. So you would have to pick one or the other.” - Student at four-year flagship university in the Northeast

Unclear Prerequisite Requirements Impede Degree Progress

For many students, the path to completion is fraught with unexpected obstacles, such as unclear prerequisite requirements. When students encounter prerequisites that they are unaware of or believed to be outdated, this can disrupt their academic plans and throw off which courses they’re able to take in subsequent terms. At worst, it can prolong their time to completion and discourage students from moving forward. To prevent this from happening, it is imperative for the catalog and other institutional sources to clearly display the most current requirements.

“There've been times where I've tried to take a class that I have to take and they said that I haven't met a pre-req, even though it's not a pre-req anymore or the class isn't needed anymore.” - Student at four-year public university in the Southwest 

Standardize & Publicize Course Timing & Formats to Support Student Success

Students frequently expressed surprise when they found out that certain courses were only offered once a year, often throwing a wrench into their meticulously crafted academic plans.

“I've had a lot of trouble getting into the classes I need to graduate and the reason why is because a lot of them are only offered once a year. So it makes it really difficult to enroll in the ones that I need at a specific time.” - Community college student in the Southwest 

Similarly, discrepancies in course formats can stall students’ academic progression. For example, students were caught off guard when they began taking classes in one format (e.g., in a certain modality, at a certain time of day), only to find out that classes further along in their degree were no longer offered in the same format. This is especially challenging for students balancing work commitments as a change in modality or timing impacts how they are able to manage their professional responsibilities.

“As someone who works full time, I usually lean towards taking night classes and I found that a lot of the classes that are offered at night aren't like the higher level ones. Like you could take anatomy one, but maybe not anatomy two at night. So I had to really mess with my schedule and take some time off from work in order to make it work in order to make school work.” - Community college student in the Northeast

Students With Work & Family Commitments Feel Scheduling Challenges More Acutely

For a significant subset of students, finding a course schedule that fits around their work or familial responsibilities can feel like an uphill battle.

“I worked a part-time job at a grocery store. Working around those hours and school made it difficult to find classes that lined up with my times.” - Student at four-year public university in the South 

Whether it's coordinating around work shifts or aligning with childcare arrangements, these students face unique challenges that necessitate a more intentional approach to scheduling. Particularly for institutions with large populations of working or caretaking students, consider when these students are most likely to be available. This might be at night for those who work, or during local K-12 school hours for those with children.

“I struggle during scheduling classes because I have three kids and they don't always have classes on the days that I need them to at the times that I need them to.” - Community college student in the South 

As institutions strive to foster environments conducive to student achievement, addressing these challenges head-on becomes imperative. By implementing strategies to expand course availability, enhance scheduling flexibility, and streamline prerequisite communication, colleges and universities can empower students to navigate their academic journeys with greater ease and confidence.

Top Class Scheduling Practices & Tech: Survey of 340+ Colleges & Universities

Survey results from 340 institutions on the state of academic scheduling across higher ed.

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