Navigating the System

To better understand the student experience, navigate across these themes to hear from students who have shared their stories with us.

JC, Undergraduate Student
With no guidance and little understanding of his school's systems, JC made regrettable decisions that he believes could have been avoided. These mistakes include unwittingly going to a technical school that was unaccredited, which set him back a year in time and tuition. Even these fundamental issues are not very clear to many students like JC. It is easy to see how frustrating completing a degree can be.

chasing the dream

First generation students like Jose often cannot turn to their family for advice about navigating the higher education system. For these students, strong external advising services are especially important. Read more

Unlike the educational experiences that precede it, colleges and universities expect students to be savvy enough to navigate the higher education system independently and comply with a bewildering array of administrative policies and requirements. Moreover, students must navigate both the system at their school, as well as the larger macro systems that surround the school (federal and state financial aid, scholarship programs, admissions process, testing, etc.) Students often learn the "ropes" of the higher education system through a process of trial and error that costs time, money and energy. Despite our cultural tendency to see this as a "right of passage," the system erects many barriers to success that prompt many students to give up or fall out of school.


Charlie, Undergraduate Student
Charlie talks about the lack of advice freshmen receive as they navigate academic bureaucracy.

Kristen, Undergraduate Student
After taking a year off, Kristen was unable to get help from administration with re-enrollment, which delayed her schooling an entire semester.

Academic departments may be like “many islands with no bridges” that students must traverse to get the right mix of courses to meet their needs. Students must then learn to connect the dots and align resources and activities to their personal goals. Even accomplishing the most trivial tasks can be daunting to students who have no experience with the codes, language and behavioral norms specific to their school. Different programs have different requirements and two departments at the same school may have entirely different approaches to teaching. Savvy students learn early to make demands and seek out decision makers and gatekeepers who can address the issues they face. Students less savvy, such as those without family or mentor support, often fall through the cracks. Many students expressed a sense of resignation to the system that was both pervasive and de-motivating.

Christine, Undergraduate Student
Christine shares her insight on how integration between academic departments would provide students with a more well-rounded curriculum. Christine knows from experience, as she was originally an art education major but later discovered that she preferred to work in communications.

The current model of education is based on the need to educate as many people as possible at the cheapest cost and with similar types of knowledge. Given the task at hand—to educate thousands of students at the lowest cost possible—this approach makes sense, but the system does not leave much room for customized learning. Most schools still assume that students will be in one place, at one time, and in similar circumstances. For example, students who balance work and school often struggle to align course schedules with work and, in most cases, get little “credit” for workplace activities even if they are relevant to a student’s major. Students who take time off may it find hard to restart and may lose valuable resources such as financial aid or health insurance. Many students reported that these systemic barriers often embittered them to education and de-motivated their performance.

Liz, Undergraduate Student
Liz talks about the difficulty of making it to class when full-time work is a priority.

Students that move from one school to another (from a community college to a four-year school, from a state school to a private university, or from a trade school to a community college, or example) consistently reported something referred to as "transfer shock." Trouble transferring credits can be a psychological challenge for students, who grapple with news that hard won - and paid for - college credits are less valued or not transferrable. The inability to transfer credits can also trigger financial challenges that delay or prevent graduation. Students need the flexibility to move to institutions that best match their needs. This single issue emerged as one of the most troubling barriers to student success.

Phil, Undergraduate Student
Because his first school refuses to transfer his credits until his tuition is paid off, Phil had the dilemma of either delaying his education or spending more money on classes he's already taken. Like many students, he is unclear about what he should do about the credit transfer situation. Should he pay for those credits or take them again? Unfortunately, like many, he is opting to repeat courses that cost him valuable time and money to earn a degree rather than dealing with the system to find out whether those classes actually would transfer.