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Students navigate RISD course cross-registration

Students describe schedule, communication, financial concerns

<p>Obstacles that deter Brown and RISD students from cross-registration include differing academic calendars, lack of space in classes, prerequisites and associated supply costs.</p>

Obstacles that deter Brown and RISD students from cross-registration include differing academic calendars, lack of space in classes, prerequisites and associated supply costs.

Students at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design have historically been able to register for certain courses at the other school as part of a long-standing agreement between the two universities established in 1900. Still, barriers like schedule differences among classes at the two universities, difficulties finding courses and challenges communicating with professors have posed challenges for Brown students hoping to take RISD courses. The Herald spoke with students and administrators at Brown and RISD regarding the cross-registration process and the challenges some students have encountered. 

“The anecdote that I have heard is that in the early 1900s the president of Brown University was having lunch with the president of the Rhode Island School of Design on College Hill. Over lunch they crafted the idea of cross-registration and wrote an agreement on a napkin!” Michele Zager, assistant director and academic advisor of the Brown/RISD Dual Degree Program, wrote in an email to The Herald. Despite the lengthy history of this agreement, some students have encountered difficulties in scheduling and registration with RISD courses, which have been amplified by the challenges of the pandemic.

Anne Wang ’24, who is currently taking a course through RISD, said that she was confused about the cross-registration process at the start of the fall semester.

“I wanted to take a RISD course (during) my time at Brown, because it’s so close, and they’re so collaborative. I was just really confused about where the process began, because I feel that there is not a lot of guidance on where to start,” she said. 


Wang spent a significant amount of time looking into the process before finally receiving a link with instructions on how to cross-register from a friend’s Meiklejohn Peer Advisor.

Still, Wang noted that, even then, it was hard to actually secure a spot in RISD courses.

“Obviously, RISD prioritizes RISD students first, so a lot of classes already had people registered for it,” Wang said. “A lot of seats were less available.”

In addition, Wang noted that the registration period for the two universities were not entirely synchronized, which was stressful to navigate.

“The first day of classes was a Wednesday, my class met on Thursdays, but during this time period, my form had not been processed yet, so I didn’t know if I was officially registered for the class,” she said. “I didn’t know (if) I should have attended it or not. I ended up emailing the professor.”

Alison Sherman, registrar at RISD, wrote in an email to The Herald that “since Brown and RISD have different academic calendars, and cross-registration is on a space-available basis, it can be difficult for students to access classes that are in high-demand ... Because RISD’s add/drop deadline for the semester is earlier than Brown’s, Brown students may have to decide on a RISD class before confirming their Brown schedule.”

“The calendar differences also mean that students have to account for additional living costs such as expenses for food when their Brown meal plan is not available,” Zager wrote.

RISD courses are modeled on their own unique instruction style, which differs from Brown’s. “RISD courses often are offered one day a week for up to five hours. This is a significant block of time to have to clear from a student’s Brown schedule,” Lisa Mather, associate registrar for operations management at Brown, wrote in an email to The Herald.

Additionally, “RISD’s spring term does not begin until several weeks into Brown’s spring term,” Mather added. “Although students can and have generally made this work, they are both significant challenges.”

Still, “our office works with the RISD Registrar’s Office to make the process as easy to navigate as possible,” Mather wrote, emphasizing that students should reach out to the RISD registrar if they aim to take a course at the school.


Jia-Chen Jasmin Lin ’24 wrote in an email to The Herald that she inquired about taking a RISD course, but the professor for the course she was interested in explainedthat she would be unable to register because the class was reserved for illustration majors.

Class space and materials limit how many students can enroll in a given class, Zager wrote. In addition, higher-level RISD classes require students to have a background in a subject to keep up with its coursework, Zager noted. 

“RISD students take two semesters, a total of six foundation level studios, prior to being able to enroll in major studios.  Having the appropriate prior coursework or experience can be a factor in cross-registering,” Zager wrote. “Enrolling in a course is at the discretion of the RISD faculty member.”

These restrictions on cross registration “essentially means that for majors that are saturated, it is virtually impossible for Brown students to enroll or even be added onto the waiting list,” Wang said. “I feel that the cross-registration system should reserve a limited seat for Brown students, otherwise, it is impossible to get in.” 

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Octavia Rowe ’24 said that some RISD courses come with additional fees associated with course instruction and materials that go beyond the Brown tuition. For Rowe, who is taking a clay composition class this semester, “the hard part” of taking the course was “finding the money” needed to fulfill these costs.

While, upon her request, Brown covered the nearly $250 cost required for art supplies, Rowe was still required to pay an additional $100 instruction fee out of pocket.

In addition, Wang noted that it took a long time to get a RISD ID, which made it difficult to access buildings on the school’s campus. Wang said that she would like to see “better communication and (a better organization of) instructions of where to even get started.”

“The Registrar at Brown and at RISD have worked hard to adjust the process for cross-registration over the past year and a half. Prior to the pandemic, the process was not online and involved the student physically getting signatures from multiple offices on a form,” Zager noted.

“The move to the online cross-registration process has really facilitated the ease of getting necessary approvals,” Zager added. “The Brown and RISD Registrars coordinate closely.”

A previous version of this article referred to Lisa Mather as the associate registrar for operations management at RISD. She is the associate registrar for operations management at Brown. The Herald regrets the error.

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