It’s the law of unintended consequences. Administrators at the University of Houston main campus wanted to improve graduation rates. Too many seniors were getting to the home stretch and finding out at the last minute that they weren’t going to graduate after all, that they lacked a crucial course or two. The go-it-alone without counseling wasn’t working. The students who did show up for counseling would often have to wait for hours on end to see an adviser; that wasn’t optimal either.
But for at least one study area at UH, new procedures put in place there have backfired badly, and, in fact, have kept students from being able to get all the courses they want and need to graduate. At the very least they have created an absurd level of frustration leaving more than one student to wonder “Maybe they’re just not noticing how many students they have?”
It’s Friday morning and across Houston, several UH main campus students are sitting by their computers hoping to win the 9 a.m. lottery. Some have jobs, some have heavy course loads, some are going a little light on courses this semester – the ones who didn’t win the lottery last semester.
What they have in common is that they’re either communication majors or minors in the Valenti School of Communication and nearly all of them are seniors. The other thing they have in common is that starting at 9 a.m. – they’ve already logged on to the UH student system – they’ll be trying get an appointment with a communications department counselor.
And this is the only way to do it. They can’t call anyone. They can’t email – well they can but that won’t get them an appointment. There are no walk-ins allowed. This online grid is their only entry to a face-to-face with a counselor.
Without an appointment, the “senior hold” won’t be lifted and they’re barred from signing up for any courses. The appointments are very hard to get; turnover among the communications counselors has been extremely high for some time and sometimes there has been only one available for all the students. (The hold goes in place once a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences student has completed 90 hours. Other students who have a hold placed on them are new students as well as those on academic warning and probation.)
Often the slots are not open right at 9. “I hit refresh, refresh, refresh,” one student told us. (None of the students who contacted the Houston Press wanted their names used in this article). If they’re lucky, they hit the sweet spot and sign up for an appointment. But even more often, several students told us, when the schedule finally pops up, it has already been filled. Appointments are made for only that week ahead. To sign up for the next week students have to wait seven more days to have the chance to try again. Often this stretches out for several weeks.
“What they’re doing is creating sort of like a funnel effect so even the most proactive people are stopped from doing what they are trying to do by these outside factors that no one is really clear or transparent about,” says one senior, we’ll call him Ben. “You’re having to play a crap shoot with advising appointments.”
“It gets worse every semester. You would think that it would be done, but it’s not. It just continues,” Maria (not her real name) says. Maria, an English major and communications minor, says she can walk in at any time to the counselors for English majors. But when she called for help to the communications counselors she was told “I’m sorry you can’t speak to an adviser.”
Oh and one more thing. Even if you talk to an adviser, you’re not done. You still have to go online separately and sign up for your classes. And hope, after all that delay, that they haven't been filled already.
The University of Houston knows it has a problem. It is not one that extends across the university – several students told us their friends with other majors have no counseling or class sign-up problems — but it is a significant one for students taking communications courses.
When this official recognition kicked in is a little nebulous; but Sarah Fishman, associate dean for Undergraduate Studies at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, told us in response to our query that she plans to initiate significant changes in how the Valenti School approaches counseling by next week, that plans were already underway to fix a broken system. “There may still be online appointments but we will set up drop in times, walk in times,” she says. There will be students trained to answer basic general questions on the front line. There will be changes throughout. There may even be group advising sessions with seniors.
“This is not something we like to see happening,” Fishman says. “We are very actively intervening right now. We’re going to be increasing the number of advisers. We are implementing procedures to avoid this type of bottleneck. Our goal is the same as everybody’s goal. We all want more students to graduate."
So how did this happen if everyone wants the same thing? “It’s really a matter of leadership and I’m afraid that’s probably where the problem is. And that’s probably why we’re losing people,” says Fishman.
And that’s why starting next week, Director of Academic Affairs Janie Graham is moving herself over to the communication counseling offices which are in a different building on campus, to figure out where the problems are and what else needs to happen.
“I’ve been doing this for the past two semesters. I will call just to see if they’re available,” Maria says. “I’m an English major. In my department they have walk-ins, I can call and ask a question and they’ll answer for me. They’re very helpful.”
“I figured I could do the same over here [in communications]. I’ll call them and they’ll say ‘No, you can’t speak to an adviser. You have to contact by an appointment. So I’ll say OK can I make an appointment and they’ll say yes on Friday at a certain hour.”
She tried doing that and said she was a communications minor and she couldn’t get an adviser. “I went up there and asked can you help me. The guy told me try doing a communications major. I did that. It still didn’t work. I still couldn’t get an adviser.”
She did get some questions answered by email by two different advisers, but really would like to meet with someone in person. She has one more core communication course required for her minor but she says those are the courses that fill up first. Asked if the professors are aware of this, she says yes. “I do know how difficult it is to get advising right now,” one told her, she says.
But the turnover there takes its toll. The last time Maria checked in, one of the three advisers was on maternity leave, one was on vacation so there was only one left, she says.
“We know that it’s less than ideal to have that kind of turnover,” Fishman says, adding later and more forcefully, "There’s no reason for this level of turnover and we want it to stop.”
Maria says “I feel lost. The adviser she sent me an email ‘just follow the checklist.’ But it’s really difficult when the class isn’t even available for me to enroll in.”
“I took only two classes last semester because I couldn’t get into my minor classes,” Maria says. “And this semester I took three because I couldn’t get the fourth one. So pretty much I could have graduated last semester really or this semester at the latest and now I’m going to have to wait till the fall because the class isn’t even available in the summer.”
She says she was afraid to talk to the dean about what was going on, that it would upset the counselors if they knew she had gone over their heads. Fishman says she and Graham are more than willing to talk to any students undergoing these difficulties.
To be fair, academic advisers can be crushed by the number of students who wait till the last minute for clearance to sign up for their classes, no matter how many alerts UH sends them reminding them there’s a hold on their account. Procrastination is the middle name of most students after all. But this is like a store that advertises a huge sale and then doesn’t put any extra cashiers on. Couldn’t they stagger the hours? Find more advisers? They know exactly when the bulk of students are going to try to reach them.
Another student, let’s call her Ruth, had this to say: “It’s pretty hard. They’re not as organized as they should be. The advisers’ time slots don’t run the entire work day.” More than one student pointed out this makes it difficult to make the appointments they are offered especially when many of them work or have to walk out of a class to make the counseling session.
“Most of the advisers quit or end up leaving before the end of the semester,” Ruth says.
Ruth also told us she wanted counseling because she was considering dropping a communications class. It was the last day for her to do so, but she couldn’t reach any of the advisers. Ruth also takes classes in the Bauer College of Business. “At Bauer you can walk in.” She also says she knows her adviser there, unlike in the communications department. “I should be able to ask a simple question,” she says.
Ben says he understands what he needs to do, but can’t get to it. “The issue is that they’re blocking me from taking the course I know I need to take.”
Unlike some of the other students, Ben wants less not more interaction with academic advisers. “Even in the time I’ve been here I’ve had appointments with four counselors.” He had built up rapport with one adviser who he says, “looked out for me, but now there’s a new face every time I log into the website. So I can’t really say I just need you to check the box that says I’m OK to schedule my classes. I actually don’t need to come into your office for five minutes to say 'hey everything looks cool.'"
“We’re being blocked from taking communications courses because there’s two people handling 2,000 kids.” In two cases, he says, he was able to get into a course by emailing the professors directly.
At most universities, seniors are given priority in signing up for classes. Fishman says UH has a senior preference but it got buried under other programs. "The problem right now is we so many priority groups, we have honors college, we have UH in four, so all of a sudden seniors have been bumped below all of those. We just talked about putting the seniors first. I sat on a committee last week and we all agreed that we need to put the seniors first."
Full disclosure here. I have a relative this has happened to. Last semester, unable to get in for an appointment after countless tries, he emailed a counselor he had worked with before. As he came close to running out of time for the spring semester sign-ups, she granted him a waiver enabling him to sign up for his classes. He got three classes but couldn’t get the fourth. It was full. The counselor advised him to appeal to the professor of the class he needed. He did. The professor said no, he wasn’t going to expand his class load.
Now he’s trying to get that class this summer to graduate. He’s already been unsuccessful signing up so far for this next semester. Last semester I decided not to write about this. I have almost never written about anyone related to me in my journalism career. It was a tough break but lots of people have tough breaks and challenges more difficult than this. But when the class sign-ups opened up in late March and he got right on it and still wasn’t able to get through the system, I had to wonder if anything was going to change.
The final spark that made me decide to go ahead and ask more questions was during a conversation I had with a friend who has gone back to finish her degree at UH after being in the workforce for several years. She was talking about getting ready to do the graduation walk and added that she’ll still have to take two classes this summer (UH lets students walk in May if they have no more than two classes left, she said). She brought up the sign-up and made the “refresh, refresh, refresh” comment.
This wasn’t a novice kid who couldn’t find her way out of a paper bag. This was someone who’s worked, managed people and capably negotiated all sorts of major events, and if she couldn’t get through this UH maze without a problem, who could? That night I had some apologizing to do at home.
This was no longer an anomaly, but the beginning of a pattern. I opened my questions up to any UH communications student who wanted to talk to me. A few did and their stories were echoes of each other in stress and missed opportunities.
One thing that Fishman emphasized was the huge change in attitude at the university that she's been at for 30 years now. The change arrived with System Chancellor and UH president Renu Khator. Previously what was of primary importance was new research, Fishman said. That's where most of the funding went. Khator and Provost Paula Short have made it clear that the students are the priority and that has enabled many positive changes, Fishman says.
But one department in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind sort of way has done some things that just do not make sense. Clearly a red flag was that counselors didn’t stay. The system employed wasn’t modeled on any best practices anywhere, least of all on what other departments were accomplishing at the same university.
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There was little attempt to establish rapport with students, when — unlike other counseling departments — students weren’t allowed to drop in and have their questions answered. The unfortunate part is that so many students and their families have had to go through this and the extra costs it means. That one more class may not be all that much by itself but it arrives accompanied by additional parking and other college fees.
UH has made great strides to improve its four- and six-year graduation rates. It will probably receive a boost once it sorts things out in the Valenti School, which Fishman seems committed to do. “We’re intervening very actively right now to ensure this doesn’t happen again. We know what we need to do.
“One thing I tell all my advisers at the beginning of the year is that I don’t like students crying in my office. Don't make that happen.”