How do you decide when you don’t know what to decide? The new College of University Studies is helping
by Kristin Proulx Jarvis
Bob Fitzpatrick, PSU’s Dean of the Academic Experience, has spent a good part of his summer on the phone. During these hours of telephone calls, he has discussed classes, majors, jobs and schedules with first-year students. He has personally helped students get into the classes they want for the fall semester, and he has encouraged students to examine their strengths and interests in the warm months before they move into their dorm rooms.
These hours of telephone calls are part of a new project designed to assist deciding students (students who have not declared an academic major) with the challenge of choosing a major. The more early advice and advocacy these students have, the more likely they are to choose a major that suits them.
“The point is to get students to choose the right major sooner,” says Fitzpatrick. “Students need some kind of guidance to make a choice that will make them happier. They now have this intensive personal contact before they even get to campus.”
Choosing the right major sooner also means a better chance of graduating on time, says Fitzpatrick. Students who wait until their second or third year to declare a major, or switch majors one or two times, have a lot of catching up to do. Some take five or six years to graduate. Others leave the school out of frustration or lack of finances after realizing they won’t be able to complete their academic requirements in four years.
Plymouth State is far from alone in this problem. Nationally, fewer than 60 percent of college students graduate in six years, according to statistics from The Education Trust.
“For first generation students, whose parents didn’t go to college, parents are expecting a four-year experience,” says Fitzpatrick. “If students don’t graduate, it’s a tremendous financial burden.”
Fitzpatrick and others at PSU believe deciding students are most at risk for leaving school or taking too long to graduate. The College of University Studies, a project currently in its pilot phase, is designed to change those statistics.
A one-year study, running from April 2005 to June 2006, will determine if targeted advising and yearlong support helps deciding students choose the right major and succeed academically. This year, 50 students were chosen to participate in theCollege of University Studies project. These students will receive added support throughout the school year, including access to interest inventories, faculty advising, aid in course selection and frequent contact with Fitzpatrick and other advisors—all of which are designed to help students make the right choices about classes and majors.
The College of University Studies will also create a strong link between the Academic Affairs and Student Affairs departments. Each department will provide students with support, advice and services. Patrick Cate of the Residential Life Department feels this connection will provide the necessary continuity both new and established students need.
“We tend to look at the same problems with different lenses,” he says. “We’re going to sit students down and figure out what they want to do in life. It’s going to be mutually beneficial.”
PSU already has a strong, nationally recognized support network for first-year students. The University was one of 12 institutions named a “Founding Institution” by the national project Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year, which praised Plymouth’s advising, orientation, teaching and housing programs.
Because of the number of support services available for first-year students, most students succeed and return for a second year, says Fitzpatrick. But for students who have not yet declared a major, or who change majors, the second and third years of college can be the toughest as they try to make up for lost time by completing requirements and prerequisites required of a new major.
“Many students return after their first year to discover that their newly chosen degree program will be difficult to complete within four years,” says Fitzpatrick.v
Some students make the mistake of choosing a major they aren’t necessarily interested in because they think it will offer more job opportunities once they graduate. As they move forward in the major, they realize too late that they have made the wrong choice.
Students experience much more academic success if they choose to major in a subject they are interested in rather than thinking vocationally about their college careers, Fitzpatrick explains. “What’s important is to graduate in something you like. The point of the undergraduate degree is to learn to learn.”
Students without declared majors also have a tough time getting into the classes they want. By the time they register, certain courses such as history, English or chemistry may be already filled by students who major in that subject. Deciding students need advocates who will help them get into the classes they need.
“Plymouth is becoming, more and more, a first choice school,” says Cate. “Because of our popularity, because we have so many students who want to come here, we have to develop programs that serve them.”
Another problem faced by deciding students is a lack of an academic department to call home. While students who declare a major in art, biology or education have a set of faculty members they can turn to for academic advice, deciding students often feel isolated. Professors notice this trend as well.v
“We lose a lot of students who are undeclared,” says Professor of Psychology David Zehr. “They don’t have a connection to the school.”
Fitzpatrick hopes the College of University Studies will add that needed connection. A physical home for University Studies on the bottom floor of Hall Residence Hall is planned for fall 2006. Students will find a comfortable lounge, coffee shop and opportunities to ask questions and get advice from faculty and staff.
This developmental advising—looking at a student’s hopes, goals and strengths, developing emotional intelligence and assessing where a student is in his or her academic process—is the key to the success of the program, says Fitzpatrick. The summer phone calls, group advising sessions, faculty advice and follow-ups throughout the year are designed to make sure students do not fall through the cracks. “We’re giving the deciding student a leg up.”
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