Do Students Need an Ombudsman?

In recent years, most colleges and universities, at least in the U.S., have adopted explicit initiatives to promote student success, which they assess aggregate metrics in terms of retention and graduation rates.  Yet at the same time, I wonder if there aren’t institutional structures that get in the way of individual student’s success, often times the individual students who need help the most.

Think about the transfer student coming from a community college to complete his last two years at a four-year school.  He transfers in during the summer, after the normal registration for fall courses is complete.  He has all of his general education courses done, and many of his electives.  He finds it difficult to find open courses in his major.  He ends up taking a minimal full-time course load with courses he hopes will count towards graduation.  He can only get into his major during the spring semester, which means he is unable to graduate by the end of his 4th year in college.  It could be worse.  Suppose he is in a major which is vertically building, meaning the major requires a sequence of courses to be taken in order.  In this case, he misses a full year in the sequence which requires an additional year to graduate.

Consider a student who decides to change her major at the beginning of her third year.  Last Spring, she registered for a full course load, but those were courses in the previous major.  With the new major, she requires an entirely different set of courses, most of which she can’t get into as she runs into the same problems as our transfer students above.  Maybe she feels like she’s wasted the semester.  Maybe she feels like dropping out.  Maybe she can’t afford a fourth or fifth year of college.

This is not a picture of student success.  Can universities do something about it?  As long as the school’s aggregate metrics are improving, maybe they don’t perceive this as a problem.  But, in my view at least, students are not an aggregate.  I don’t teach courses, I teach individuals.  How could we change these outcomes?

Faculty advisors are in the best position to see these problems, if they are paying attention.  But faculty advisors have limited power.  If one of my majors needs to get into a closed course in my department, I will go talk my colleague, the instructor.  I’ve even done this occasionally with colleagues outside the department, though not when I don’t know them.  Transfer students and new majors are more problematic since advisors don’t yet have a relationship with them.  Perhaps it’s the department chair in the new major who is in a position to find them classes in the department, assuming the chair is aware of the problem, and willing to make the effort.  All it takes is one faculty or staff member to step up and carry the load, to help the student get over this hurdle.  But often times this feels like extra work.  I wonder if students don’t need an ombudsman, someone who is tasked with helping in situations like this.  Ideally, this would be someone in the new major.  Otherwise, it may need to be someone with power, like a dean, to force the situation.  How many students with these kinds of problems are we willing to let down before we fix this problem?  Ten per year?  Twenty-five? How many?

Image “Ombudsman Scrabble” courtesy of House Buy Fast via Flickr.com

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