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One Community-College District’s Bet to Keep Students Enrolled

Will allowing students to register in advance for a year’s worth of courses keep them enrolled and on track to a degree?

That’s the question Sandy McGlothlin and her colleagues at California’s West Hills Community College District hope to answer with Reg365. This spring, the district will roll out the new policy, which will give students at the district’s three colleges a chance to sign up during spring registration for classes in the following summer, fall, and spring.

“It’s going to put a little bit of pressure on all students to try to decide what they want to do sooner,” says Ms. McGlothlin, who is vice president for student services at West Hills College Coalinga. “Classes will be filling up.”

Students who sign up this spring for three semesters’ worth of classes will need to pay or arrange for financial aid within 24 hours of registering for the summer and fall courses, and by November 1 for classes offered in the spring of 2015. For students who complete their classes as planned, Ms. McGlothlin says, the spring registration may well be the only time each year they need to sign up.

“For the good students, it’s going to be a great plan,” says Ms. McGlothlin, who spent 18 years as an academic counselor. What about those who may not be as prepared or as organized? “It will be an eye-opener for them to see that they may need more than two years to finish their degree,” she says. Reg365 will work for them, too, Ms. McGlothlin predicts. “It’s just not going to be textbook.”

The new program is “a step in the right direction,” says Joshua S. Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and author of What Excellent Community Colleges Do, published this month by Harvard Education Press.

Encouraging more students to think ahead about their academic plans—and giving them some incentives to do so—is a solid idea, he says. But there are risks, he says. Do the colleges have enough academic counselors on hand to help students understand what an academic plan looks like, and create an effective one? What steps will they take to make sure the students who are least likely to be retained will be able to take advantage of the new policy?

If the counseling isn’t adequate, and more students are getting squeezed out of classes they need, then Reg365 could end up benefiting only the students who are the best informed and most organized—and who are likely to finish anyway.

Ms. McGlothlin acknowledges that the new system will be a big help to students who know, come April, exactly what courses they’ll need in the coming year. “The ones that don’t know? There still will be room for them,” she says. “But it will be limited access.”

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