Higher Education: A Conspiracy? How Students View Their Chances At A Four-Year Institution
Many students in four-year-degree institutions do not graduate within the stipulated time period. In this paper, we address a growing student explanation for this phenomenon: A “conspiracy” by university administrators to deliberately delay graduation by implementing poor academic advising in order to profiteer from student haplessness. It draws upon findings from a larger study exploring undergraduates’ usage and perceptions of as well as satisfaction with academic advising. The study was conducted in 2011 at a rapidly expanding mid-size public university in the Northeast. We utilize a mixed methodology with an online survey (3,331 respondents) and in-depth focus groups (103 participants). The paper concludes with policy implications and suggestions.
For students who begin bachelor’s degree programs, the college dream is often not a four-year affair. Many never finish and others take more than the obligatory four years to complete it. In fact, in fall 2002, only 57 percent of full-time students earned degrees within six years (National NCES, 2004). At the mid-sized public university where this research was conducted, 29.5 percent of students graduate within four years and 62 percent within six years, which are slightly higher rates than at comparable institutions (IPEDS, 2003–2009). This paper focuses on students’ perceptions of and explanations for low graduation rates with a particular emphasis on why they feel academic advising contributes to the delay. We pay particular attention to what these students coined a “conspiracy theory,” the belief that their university consciously ill advises students in order to extend their graduation and make more money from them.
The question why students don’t complete their college degrees in four years or why some fail to graduate at all is a highly researched topic, with many theories pointing to decreasing standards in high school education and lack of college preparedness (Greene & Winters, 2005). For example, 40 percent of students enrolled in institutions of higher education require at least one remedial course that not only adds time to the degree process for these students but also decreases the likelihood that they will graduate (Adelman, 1999). Others have focused on the type of students who are likely to face hurdles in higher education, with minorities and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds experiencing significantly lengthier programs and lower graduation rates (Bowen, Chingos, & McPherson, 2009). Thus schools, particularly state schools that are by and large more affordable and offer accessible options, accept a higher percentage of such students and see different graduation outcomes than selective private institutions, though it has been argued that graduation rates vary greatly even among selective universities (Hess, Schneider, Carey, & Kelly, 2009). Finally, some researchers have examined the characteristics of higher education institutions. Bound, Lovenheim, and Turner (2007) suggested that the rapid expansion of universities, coupled with decreasing state subsidies for public institutions and endowments for private institutions, has resulted in higher tuition, which in itself is a barrier to graduation. Furthermore, increases in enrollment to maintain institutional financial viability and decreases in funding have also diluted the resources available to students.
As institutions of higher education struggle to meet the growing needs of students while juggling demanding budgets, one such strained resource is academic advising, which is acutely felt by many. Numerous studies indicate that the quality of academic advising can directly impact a student’s chances of graduating (Backhus, 1989; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Steingass and Sykes (2008) highlighted a positive relationship between effective academic advising and student retention, especially for first-year students. Moreover, students who receive quality professional academic advising tend to have better retention and graduation rates (Steingass & Sykes, 2008; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). It can be argued that the rapid expansion of higher education institutions will exacerbate the problem as advisers struggle to identify and adequately deal with an increasing number of students. Compounding this is the reality that much of this expansion exists in state institutions that are more accessible and attract many first-generation college students with little or no practice navigating their higher education experience.
Studies have already indicated that academic advising tends to rank among the lowest areas of higher education satisfaction for college students (Keup & Stolzenberg, 2004; Basshart, Wentz, & Heller, 2009). Perhaps reflective of this problem is the fact that while faculty advisers provide approximately 75 to 90 percent of the academic advising in American colleges and universities, less than a third of the institutions formally compensate, reward, or recognize them for this responsibility (Habley, 2003, 2004). Indeed, faculty are often reluctant to perform these duties because they do not believe they will further their chances of tenure (Dillon & Fisher, 2000). Moreover, there are discrepancies between what students expect from faculty advisers and what faculty advisers assume is expected of them (Vowell, 1995). While both agree on several functions of advising, they have significantly differing opinions, notably in terms of a desire to build personal relationships. Students want to actually matter to their advisers, while faculty feel this is impossible given the constraints of a large campus environment (Allen & Smith, 2008). This restricts student access to academic advising, which may delay graduation and somewhat ironically actually increase the advising duties of faculty. Thus the disconnect in academic advising—between what institutions of higher education are able to provide and what students require—is an important factor in understanding why many students not only do not graduate in four years but sometimes fail to graduate at all.
Data and Methodology
This research was conducted in spring 2011 in a rapidly growing public university in the Northeast with approximately 14,000 undergraduate students. The study utilized a multi-method two-phased approach that involved an online survey followed by in-depth focus groups. During the first phase, all undergraduates received an e-mail questionnaire via the university’s listserv system. The questionnaire contained seven closed and five open-ended questions touching on issues such as types of academic advising resources used and student satisfaction with them. A total of 3,331 students responded, resulting in a response rate of 25.5 percent. Typical of most academic surveys, respondents were disproportionately women, students with high GPAs, seniors, and full time. The second phase of the research consisted of eight, one-hour focus groups ranging from eight to eighteen students (a total of 103 students). Information collected from the survey helped to shape some of the questions posed to the groups. Researchers coded the data from these sessions, extrapolated major themes, and made generalizations. Survey sample characteristics are included in the Characteristics of the Online Survey Respondents section below.
According to the online survey, 59 percent of students felt that academic advising is extremely important in achieving their educational goals. Indeed, approximately 88 percent of respondents had contacted someone for advising at some point during their college career. Generally, 61 percent of students were satisfied with the quality of academic advising, although a sizable minority (15 percent) indicated being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.
In focus groups, a surprising explanation emerged when students were questioned about their avoidance of and dissatisfaction with advising. Many believed the university was actively thwarting their academic success by “conspiring” to consciously delay their graduation, which would result in their spending more money at the institution. More than half the students who participated in the focus groups strongly believed in this “conspiracy theory,” which was also echoed in the open-ended comments collected via the online survey in spite of other plausible explanations such as financial pressure, lack of preparedness, work, and family issues. While students highlighted several examples of how the “conspiracy theory” was enacted, it was substandard academic advising that they pointed to for the strongest evidence:
“Many students [at this university] complain about not being able to finish in four years. Most of their remarks are my adviser screwed me, they did not tell me I had to take this class, I had no idea this was a requirement, [this university] just wants my money so I can stay longer.”
When asked why on average they approached peers and were more satisfied with their rather than faculty advice, students were very vocal about what they referred to as advising “horror stories.” These included faculty advisers providing students with information that led them to take courses that did not fulfill any requirements; students being pushed into courses they had no interest in taking; faculty failing to alert students to take courses that they needed to graduate; or worse, students being given incorrect advice that resulted in graduation delays:
“I was told false information by three different people and found out I never needed to take a certain class. Which means I would of (sic) been able to graduate this summer. Now I have another year, which is money out of my pocket because all these advisers that I am supposed to be looking to for help told me the wrong thing.”
While examples like this were not particularly common, such “horror stories” were well publicized and spread more quickly than those about positive advising. Indeed, most students “knew a friend” or a “friend of a friend” who had been poorly advised, and such narratives provided further evidence for students who believed the university wanted them to stay (and pay) longer.
When sharing their “evidence” for a conspiracy theory, students often referred to the university as a ubiquitous “they” or “them,” transforming it into a faceless organization where the staff in the financial aid, advising, and/or registrar’s office as well as faculty became part of a larger impersonal faction out to get them personally. For example, many students expressed the feeling that classes were cancelled specifically to make them stay longer, whereas, ironically, classes were often cancelled because of a lack of student interest. Students genuinely felt that the university was targeting them and developing a plan to foil their plans for a four-year graduation plan:
“They literally do everything they can to prevent you from graduating.”
“[I got] a letter in the mail saying you aren’t graduating in May because of an incomplete in a class. [I looked] closer and saw they put the wrong degree, the wrong major and a class that you never took.”
Indeed, the rhetoric of “us” and “them” superseded any personal relationships developed between students and faculty advisers.
Regarding bad advice given, students believed that it was not entirely the individual faculty adviser’s fault, but rather a reflection of the university as a whole that did not provide adequate faculty training or resources. Even when students placed the responsibility of bad advice squarely on faculty disinterest in the advising process, it was packaged in a way that the university’s demands on faculty time were the root cause:
“The advisers I’ve seen seem like they have too much going on to care.”
“A return phone call or a return e-mail would make such a difference. [I] can’t wait till I graduate .… oh wait, that is taking me longer now because [the university] has decided they need more money from me so they changed my major and GER requirements again!”
While a few students were sympathetic to the heavy workload of faculty members, many argued that by forcing the task of advising on faculty who may not have the desire or training to be effective, the university was knowingly creating a system that would never truly serve student needs. To them, advising policies and priorities were intended “to keep students in school longer, in order to collect more tuition money.” Significantly, a small number of students indicated that they didn’t think the feedback provided in this study would be read by an administrator, let alone addressed, or that the system would really change for the better. Such was their conviction in their “conspiracy theory.”
Opened-ended responses from the online survey further supported the pervasiveness of this conspiracy theory. Several students who never sought academic advising (n = 398; 12 percent of all respondents) revealed that they had not reached out as they felt academic advisers would “confuse them,” would not “provide useful information,” and would push them to “take unnecessary classes” that would “postpone graduation.” Others indicated that their advisers’ knowledge was no better than their own, with one student stating:
“There was nothing that they have told me, that I myself could not find searching the [university] website and asking a friend. I feel that should not be the case.”
Indeed, during their academic careers, nearly 41 percent of students relied on the advice of fellow students, with 72 percent satisfied with the advice they received. In contrast, 70 percent of students approached faculty advisers, yet only 64 percent felt they had had a satisfactory advising experience, a rate notably lower than that reported for their peers. Ironically, students’ belief that advisers provide poor advice and their subsequent preference to rely on peers who may not be the most reliable source of information could actually harm their chances of a timely graduation.
In spite of a strong belief among students that it was their own responsibility to seek help when needed, when college careers took a wrong turn due to bad advice from fellow students, it was the university that bore the brunt of the blame. In narratives about delayed graduation, students often made references to the incorrect information they received from friends, but ultimately it was the university who “did not do enough to inform [them]” of the correct information:
“I know of many people who did not graduate on time simply because no one [from the university] ever told them they needed to do x, y, and z in order to graduate by a specific time.”
As indicated by this statement, the strength of the conspiracy theory held by students was strong enough that narratives regarding the university’s responsibility for low graduation rates were constructed in spite of evidence suggesting otherwise. Hence, it is not surprising that several students believed that the university was “out to get them.”
In short, conspiracy theories constructed by students may actually start a vicious circle in which they avoid advising for fear of misinformation. However, the lack of advising means mistakes are more likely and may ultimately lead to the very circumstance students are trying to avoid in the first place—a delay in graduation.
As four-year graduation rates continue to elude a large number of students, leaders in higher education must consider how best to advise students to achieve their goals. At the institution where this study took place, slightly more than a third of students graduate in four years. Therefore, students’ suspicions that “something is up with getting out on time” are somewhat warranted, and it is understandable why they may conclude the university is conspiring against them to make more money out of their misfortune. While a timely graduation may not be possible for many students due to other reasons mentioned above, it is worrisome when students choose to lay the blame squarely upon bad advising.
While our survey data suggest that the majority of students enrolled in the university were satisfied with academic advising, focus group data (n = 103 students) indicate there is no news like bad news, and these advising “horror stories” and subsequent “conspiracy theories” easily spread like wild fire, especially in an age of social media. It is therefore imperative for administrators to address these issues promptly and effectively, because the stories may be detrimental to the university’s reputation and dissuade future students. This is especially the case at public institutions that draw predominantly from local areas where current enrollees can influence potential students. Indeed, threats of “I would tell people not to attend” were common among disgruntled students. Importantly, universities need to address the underlying problem causing students to struggle to obtain the advising they need to graduate on time.
Reflecting upon the data, we present some suggestions about how to reduce students’ paranoia that institutions are only interested in their money. First, universities should not promote themselves as four-year institutions if their average numbers more accurately reflect a five- or six-year completion rate. In fact, advisers should make realistic suggestions to students, perhaps outlining two plans – one for completion in four year and another in six years. Importantly, in an initial academic advising session, they should outline the consequences of not taking appropriate classes in the right order, switching majors, taking time for programs such as study abroad, or juggling work with studies. If students had realistic expectations about degree completion, then perhaps these damaging conspiracy theories would subside. Second, to minimize the number of “horror stories,” advisers should receive annual mandatory training on general university requirements and any online advising system as well as updates every semester on departmental requirements and courses.
While this research focuses on a single case study and findings cannot be generalized, literature would suggest that the root cause of the students’ perceptions of a conspiracy theory are deeply ingrained in the academic advising systems that many colleges and universities utilize. Indeed, informal conversations with faculty advisers from two other institutions support the pervasiveness of this “conspiracy theory” and highlight the necessity of larger comparative research studies. A more complex suggestion one might make from these findings is that academic advising at this institution and others is in need of an overhaul. This study indicates that the reliance on faculty advisers to perform the bulk of advising at mid-size public institutions (that often include a research component for faculty) is deemed unsatisfactory by a significant number of students. Faculty advisers need to be incentivized and rewarded for their advising, especially since their workloads are generally increasing and, in many cases, academic advising counts little or nothing toward tenure or promotion. Hiring professional advisers or an opt-in system may be a solution as students frequently suggested “only faculty who want to advise should.” Improving the efficiency of advising is not only vital in reducing the “horror stories” shared by students but should be a central concern of any institution of higher education.
Characteristics of the Online Survey Respondents
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About the Author(s)
Faye Allard, Ph.D., recipient of the 2013 NACADA Faculty Advising Award, is an assistant professor of sociology at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sangeeta Parashar, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. She can be reached at email@example.com.