Need That Class, Desperately? The Course Concierge Will See You Now

Jean Dixon, University of Nevada

Paul Neill, whom students think of as the "course concierge" at the U. of Nevada at Reno, can cut red tape that might be beyond advisers' reach.
February 21, 2010

Paul Neill's title is director of the core curriculum at the University of Nevada at Reno, but students there know him as the "course concierge." He's the one they contact when they can't get into a class they need.

A few years ago, officials at the university decided that they had to do more to reduce the hassles of registering for courses. They imagined a kind of registration czar, someone who could communicate well with faculty members but who had the authority of an administrator. Mr. Neill, a faculty member who works in the provost's office, fit the bill.

Soon Nevada was promoting Mr. Neill as the course concierge, the man advisers and students could turn to when stuck. Each semester, he helps 50 to 60 students solve their scheduling problems, working one on one with those who need a particular course to graduate, or who have trouble getting into classes they must take in a sequence. Often he creates a spot in a class that's full, or steers students to suitable alternatives.

"In the past, it was often left up to the student and the professor to see who could get in where," Mr. Neill says. "It was very informal."

Even in times of plenty, students often learn a tough lesson when they register for courses: You can't always get what you want. In this era of budget cuts, however, students on some campuses have scrambled to get not only the courses they would like but also those they need for their majors and to satisfy core requirements.

As colleges pack more students into fewer courses, the scheduling puzzle has become more challenging for administrators, instructors, and students alike. Institutions are using a variety of strategies to alleviate the course crunch, and often that begins with improving the registration process.

Nevada's president, Milton D. Glick, proposed the course-concierge program as a way to improve timely progression toward degrees at the university, which has about 13,000 undergraduates. Over the years he has learned that even small scheduling snags can discourage students, delay their progress, and make them more likely to transfer or drop out.

After he arrived, in 2006, Mr. Glick developed a plan to improve Nevada's retention and graduation rates. He pledged publicly that students would get the courses they needed to graduate on time. To that end, his course-concierge program provides a backstop for the university's academic advisers.

Mr. Neill is not a replacement for advisers, who continue to meet with students and help them select courses. But they sometimes encounter dilemmas that they can't handle on their own. "They don't always have the ability to cut through red tape, to get through to the department, to get something done," Mr. Glick says. "Paul can get a phone call through."

'A Relief Valve'

When Natica Rudavsky contacted Mr. Neill this winter, she was frantic. Ms. Rudavsky, a transfer student who has a bachelor's degree from another university, wanted to pursue a second degree, in nutrition, at Nevada, but she was confused about which core requirements would apply to her. Would the university waive that required mathematics course?

By the time she and her adviser had sorted that out, it was late in the registration cycle, and all the courses she needed were full. Mr. Neill evaluated her record, then discussed her options with her. Ultimately, he found Ms. Rudavsky a spot in three of the four courses she sought. "If he hadn't helped, " Ms. Rudavsky says, "I probably would have just waited until the next semester to enroll."

The course concierge doesn't cater to whims. A student who just wants to avoid that 8 a.m. class would not get help from Mr. Neill. The same might go for a senior who had never bothered to register for a required course that he had every opportunity to take.

The service does cater to those who truly have a need, or are simply stuck or confused. "We've taken some of the burden off the shoulders of advisers," he says. "It's a relief valve."

The course concierge has also helped the university plan more effectively during a difficult time. For the current fiscal year, the state cut the university's budget by $33-million, or 15 percent. Last semester, Nevada offered 96 fewer course sections than it did in the fall of 2008, a 6-percent reduction.

Recently, Mr. Neill's work with students helped him identify scheduling conflicts that made it difficult for them to register for the right courses. For instance, freshmen and sophomores taking biology or chemistry courses are supposed to enroll simultaneously in Math 127. Yet Mr. Neill realized that that math lecture overlapped with several of the laboratory sections.

He discussed the issue with the three departments, which adjusted their schedules accordingly. "The departments probably would have become aware of this," he says, "but the concierge service helped them understand it quickly."

Better Communication

Elsewhere, administrators have looked for ways to make small but meaningful changes in the registration process. This fall the University of California at Santa Barbara, which has seen substantial budget cuts and an enrollment surge, created an online waiting list for courses. The system formalized the process of determining who gets a spot, allowing advisers to better evaluate students' needs and communicate with them more effectively.

"It was a huge help," says Mary Nisbet, acting dean of undergraduate education. "Now faculty aren't getting hundreds of e-mails, and students know there is somewhere to go where advisers will get back to them."

This past fall, the university reduced the number of credits students could sign up for during the second round of registration. As a result, juniors and seniors, who have priority, can snag a total of four classes, instead of five, at that time.

In the past, many students eventually dropped their fifth course anyway. The new policy has encouraged older students to focus on getting the courses they really need, and the change recently freed up at least 1,500 class spots for other students, Ms. Nisbet says.

For the first time, the university is offering schedule-planning workshops, in which students learn how to prioritize. "We're trying to help students weather a storm," she says.

Many institutions have turned to sophisticated data analysis to better anticipate course demand. At the University of California at Berkeley, Catherine P. Koshland helps lead a task force that will determine which courses students will need—and how many—in the coming years.

To do that, Ms. Koshland and her colleagues have begun to examine a decade's worth of enrollment data, which help them predict how many freshmen will need to take a specific math sequence, for instance, or how many sections of pre-med physics courses the university will need.

"We can bring some rationality to the offerings, rather than having departments guesstimate," says Ms. Koshland, vice provost for teaching, learning, academic planning, and facilities. "We're bringing more and more discipline to something that could grow organically before, when there was elasticity in the system. There's no elasticity now."

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