Creating a path towards success

Posted on June 26, 2008. Filed under: NODA Internship |

Every single adviser I have talked to talks about creating freshman schedules that will help them succeed and not set them up for failure as new students at SJSU. I think that part of the reason that this idea is stressed so much is because a large percentage of SJSU students must take remedial math or English courses when they first enroll. Students must take the Entry Level Math test (ELM) and English Placement Test (EPT) before coming to orientation. Their scores on these tests (the SAT or ACT or AP tests are also sometimes used) determine which math and English classes students must enroll in during the fall term. While this seems relatively clear and aimed at ensuring that students are not in over their heads, other policies seem to contradict with this concept.

For one, scores on the ELM and EPT, high school GPAs, and other test scores have no bearing on what majors or colleges a student can choose between. A student who must take two terms of remedial math can just as easily major in engineering as a student who comes in with a perfect score on the SAT. In another case the pre-Nursing program at SJSU is impacted; this means that there aren’t enough spaces or resources for all incoming nursing students to go through the entire program. In their first two years of college these student must compete with each other for limited spots in upper-division courses. However, their high school work has no bearing on whether they can mark pre-nursing as their major of choice. I contrast that with my undergraduate institution where the College of Engineering had different admission requirements than the College of Arts and Science, which had different admission requirements than the College of Business. If a student couldn’t meet the more rigorous requirements they came in as pre-engineering or pre-business and had to work their way up. I’m sure there are benefits to both systems, but it is currently my belief that setting specific expectations right off the bat for certain majors makes the advising process easier and more honest.

Easy and honest in the sense that I won’t be looking at a student and telling them, “Yes we admitted you into this college and yes we knew that in all likelihood you’d have to drop out of it”. Easy because I won’t have to look at a student and tell them “There’s no way that you can graduate with this degree in four years”. Honest because I will be able to tell a student “You didn’t have the high school grades or test scores needed to get into your major of choice, however here are the requirements you need to meet in order to transfer into this major”.

I will concede that there are some pitfalls to this system. I am well aware that some students simply don’t test well and therefore their math or English scores may never completely reflect their knowledge. However, the first few years of college usually involve a number of tests and in compacted programs like nursing, tests will ultimately be what determines whether a student can move on in the major. I am also sure that their are some students who somehow make the magic switch and despite all signs pointing otherwise go on to be successful in their chosen field. The question as it so often becomes is how much support can we give a student who is challenged by a certain major and what support is best when the challenge seems too great? Is it better to let a student down easy and early or should we allow students to continue on in majors, colleges, careers until THEY recognize that these things are no longer feasible?


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2 Responses to “Creating a path towards success”

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Thanks for writing on this. I firmly think the question you pose at the end is one of the essential questions of advising. In one respect, a skilled advisor often has the cognitive tools to assess abilities and interests in an individual before they see it themselves. What I always tell myself, though, is that it is not my story to write. Everyone is unique and on a different timetable with their life. There are many substantial artists, personalities, and thinkers who take longer journeys to make their mark. I have no qualms at all about a student with underdeveloped skills heading towards a specific major, provided that student is well informed about that major. Let’s take Engineering for example, and two potential incoming Engineering majors. In my mind, there is a difference between “Student A” who, while perhaps possessing math deficits, is well-studied about major requirements, has talked to faculty, has job shadowed an engineer, and has visualized himself/herself in the academic and work environment, and “Student B” who also possesses math deficits and tells me he/she wants to pursue Engineering because engineers “make good money”. Student A is making an informed decision and likely understands that the time to degree completion will be longer because of the math deficit. Student B not only has the math deficit, but an information deficit as well.

So, while I would never tell Student B, “You can’t do this.” That is not my job. My job is to help the student to shore up the information deficit. I would strongly promote the importance of making an informed decision, and encourage him/her to gather the necessary information to make an informed decision. For some students, seeing the major requirements will immediately make the “deal breakers” visible (e.g. math requirements,etc.). Other can and should gain the experience and wisdom that comes with taking introductory classes in a given area to help them determine if the major is a good fit — even if the time to degree is longer.

Again, everyone’s story is different. I understand the model you describe that requires specific separate college admission requirements. Economics often dictates that model. Our Art department at OSU has such a model, and I think that it is driven very much by a finite amount of studio space, faculty, and of course by the high standards dictated by the program. Their initial classes assume a base of knowledge and skill set, and the art faculty have years of experience in determining what kind of student has the goods to make it as an Art major. That is frustrating for some students who just haven’t had the opportunity to develop or explore that skill set. In that situation, I talk to students about seeking out opportunities and environments (e.g. community colleges) that will allow them to cultivate and develop their skills to get up to speed with what our environment would ask of them. I skew toward the democratic, so I wish OSU had more options available to them, but that is not realistic in the current climate.

I agree that it is not an advisor’s role to assess a student’s abilities and make a decision about whether or not that student should be allowed to major in certain subjects. I would say this is particularly true of incoming students who have little more than standardized test scores and high school GPAs to show their abilities. By the same token, I think that having systems like OSU’s Pre-Engineering program can help advisors steer clear of this quandary and provide students with a more thorough understanding of their major/career before they even begin taking classes.

As for your comments about economics dictating these types of issues, well there is one program at San Jose State that is compacted (I’m not sure if this is the same term everywhere, but basically there aren’t enough resources for all students who start out in the major to graduate in the major). Pre-Nursing students compete with one another through the first two years of the program in order to get accepted into the nursing program. With this being said, there are no additional requirements asked of Pre-Nursing students and so they can encounter the same problems as engineering students who come in needing to take remedial courses.

Another note about economics that I think needs to be made here is that engineering and nursing are both fields where a bachelor’s degree can result in a fairly lucrative career. I feel that as higher education becomes a greater necessity, but as increasingly expensive, more and more students will be looking to go into such majors. This will only increase the chances of this programs being compacted. I think it is the shared responsibility of advisors and the academic departments to find the best way to educate and support students in these areas of study while also assisting those who either aren’t quite ready for the field or need to find a better fit.

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