04/18/2013 06:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2013

Offering the Courses Students Need When They Need Them

When my daughter was a freshman at Austin Peay State University, I reminded her about preregistration for her first spring semester. "Remember, you have to go online at midnight to select your courses. Make sure you have the course numbers you need written down in advance so you can register as quickly as possible." In essence, I was giving my daughter advice about how to compete in her race with other students to get the courses she needed. To the extent she got the courses she needed, some other students might not be able to get the courses they needed.

What a lousy piece of advice for a university president to give!

Why should students have to compete to get the courses they need to graduate? We want them to graduate, right? We know graduation requires taking courses in the right sequence along a pathway to a degree. Why in the world should we be creating a "first-come, first-served" environment, when our aim is to serve all our students?

In a world where graduation rates matter, it matters to a university whether its students get the courses they need, when they need them. It matters whether students get the courses they need, or just the courses left over after other students have gotten the courses they need.

Maybe offering the courses students need when they need them used to be difficult because we couldn't be sure which students needed which courses in any particular semester. But now at Austin Peay State University, with our nationally recognized, and -- through Desire2Learn -- nationally available program, Degree Compass, we don't have to guess what courses students need any more. We don't have to roll schedules forward from one year to another just because that's the way we scheduled things in the past.

Now, Degree Compass creates an individualized pathway to degree for every student, more than ten thousand of them on our campus at present. Perhaps even more important, Degree Compass gives us the ability to see where those ten thousand pathways intersect each semester. We can now see for each student what that student needs to take this semester. Consequently, by aggregating the needs of all our students, we can see what sections, and how many sections, we need to offer in any particular semester.

It isn't unusual for our provost, Dr. Tristan Denley -- the inventor of Degree Compass, to call department chairs now and tell them they need to offer particular courses. The department chairs sometime say, "Well, we normally offer that course only during the fall." Dr. Denley can now say, "But I can see that there are fifty students who need the course this semester." So, the course gets listed and immediately fills up.

Degree Compass doesn't solve all our scheduling problems, of course. Knowing what sections to offer is not the same thing as knowing precisely what time of day to offer them so that students will be able to build course schedules of the five or so courses they need. But Degree Compass is a big step in the right direction.

If universities are serious about timely graduation for their students -- and who can afford not to be serious about this subject? -- then they have to become overwhelmingly serious about offering the courses students need each semester.

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