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A Major Lesson (or Why You Need a College Advisor)

by Mike Doolin

Years ago, when I was still in college as an adult, it never occurred to me that I needed to see anyone to put together a plan to either start or continue my college career. I had picked a major, I had picked a minor, I had a college catalog. I was all grown up, working, married, a parent, etc. What more could I need? I looked through the catalog, selected some courses that seemed both interesting and appropriate, and took them.

Fifteen years, twelve colleges and seven states later I finally earned a bachelor’s degree. When I graduated, I had accumulated enough credit hours to have earned a PhD. I know now that I could have shortened that trip through college considerably, just by sitting down with a college advisor.

But I never did. And I paid a high price in time and money.

I have a graduate degree now and teach in our local community college, mostly night classes full of adult learners. And I do a great deal of advising, again, usually with adult students. On the first night of class I note that in addition to
teaching the writing class they are in, I am also an advisor (one of only a literal handful of adjuncts in my college who has taken the requisite courses to qualify.) I encourage my night school students to see me with their questions about course selection, prerequisites, etc. I am continually amazed at the number of students who come to me who have never seen an advisor, who
have been ‘making it up as they go along.’

The most obvious hazard of picking classes based simply on your interpretation of the catalog requirements is that you will misinterpret those requirements and take classes that do not contribute toward 'that piece of paper'. Our school – like many colleges - has software that is supposed to pick up at least some of those errors, but because most curriculums include a fair number of electives, by the time the software sees classes that do not fit, it may well be much too late. And the report generated and regularly issued to the student doesn’t flag these extra courses in any significant, easily understood way. It merely categorizes them as "not applicable to current major."

If you are a typical returning adult student who is trying to work all day, raise a family, pay a mortgage and somehow shoehorn a college education into your very busy life, you are probably only taking two or maybe three courses per
semester. Add in an occasional summer school class and maybe an on-line class here and there, and if you are really cooking you might average seven or eight classes per year. Most adult students take around five or six courses per year, and given their lifestyles they are always hustling just to fit those in.

The average associate’s degree is about 62 credit hours, or about 20 or 21 classes; bachelor’s degrees are about 124 credit hours, or roughly 41 or 42 classes. At six classes per year it will take you about seven years to earn the four year degree. If you make a few mistakes in class selection and wind up with three classes that don’t count toward your degree, you have added half a year to your schedule, hundreds of hours of class attendance, reading and writing, and perhaps thousands of dollars of unnecessary expense. Choose five or six classes that don’t work and you’ll be spending an extra year on your project.

You can see the problem.

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