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Higher education is only as strong as its weakest link, and at many broad-access campuses, that weak link involves advising and counseling. With an adviser-to-student ratio of 1,000 or even 1,500 to one, and the number of campus counselors even smaller, students rely heavily on parents or peers, notoriously unreliable sources of guidance and support.

The results are everywhere to be seen: in the number of excess credits that students earn, the many who transfer or stop out after they are closed out of their preferred major, and the number of courses failed because the student is ill prepared to take a particular class. Then there are the mental health consequences: the prevalence of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, extreme loneliness and mood and behavioral disorders.

At every broad-access institution in which I have taught or administered, there has been a severe shortage of advisers and counselors.

No one is blind to this shortfall, and institutions have typically responded in a number of characteristic ways.

Many institutions have sought a technological fix:

  • Adopting an electronic advising infrastructure to consolidate student profile information, promote workflow efficiencies and make it easier for students to schedule appointments.
  • Using analytics to identify students at risk, target interventions and automatically send out behavioral nudges and shoves.
  • Others have adopted a self-service or do-it-yourself model to make it easier for students to access information:
    • Creating and posting degree maps for every major.
    • Implementing chat bots that respond to frequently asked questions.

Still others have responded to the adviser shortage by new forms of outreach, staffing and internal organization:

  • Instituting a more robust new student orientation and, in some cases, one- or two-week pre-enrollment bridge programs.
  • Relying heavily on peer mentors.
  • Adopting a one-stop shop approach to student support services.

I wholehearted support these efforts. Nevertheless, many students still find themselves adrift, without a single reliable point of contact when things go awry.

So let me suggest some alternative approaches better suited to the scope and scale of the challenge and acknowledge students’ need to interact with a real human being.

1. Offer more courses, especially at the lower level, that speak to issues involving well-being.

Let’s institute more courses that deal explicitly with issues that involve students’ socio-emotional development, ethical behavior and respect for difference. Might it not make sense to encourage students to take courses that address such issues as sexual harassment, consent in sexual relationships, bullying, microaggressions and coping with loss, disappointment and criticism? Among the topics that such courses might speak to include students’ psychosocial and identity development, transition issues, self-cultivation, and the psychological stresses of emerging adulthood.

2. Embed major and career selection within the lower-division experience.

Strategies that can help students select an appropriate major and initial career path include assignments that require students to reflect on their interests, strengths and aspirations, and opportunities to investigate career options in their area of interest. A class that includes an ethnography of work component, or gives students the opportunity to interact with alumni or employees in a field of interest can also be helpful.

3. Encourage nonfaculty professionals to offer courses in their areas of experience.

Much of the growth of employment in higher ed involves nonfaculty expert professionals: specialists in disabilities, LGBTQ issues and identity-conscious strategies for student success. We might encourage these specialists to offer classes that speak to the special challenges faced by today’s extraordinarily diverse student population, including low-income students, students of color, international students, students with disabilities, LGBT students, religious minority students, student athletes, students with disabilities, homeless students, transfer students, commuter and part-time students, adult learners, and student veterans. We should remember: many of these nonfaculty professionals are our own Ph.D. recipients, who were unable to find a tenure-track job and who have great expertise to share.

4. Expand multicultural co-curricular offerings.

I am a strong proponent of classes that combine discussion and analysis with co-curricular activities, such as attending museum exhibitions, concerts or theatrical, dance or opera performances. Rather than treating the co-curricular activity as a one-off, like a K-12 field trip, it should itself serve as an integral component of the course. At Hunter College, HUM 20100: Explorations of the Arts treats exhibitions and performances that are canonical and contemporary as texts to be interpreted and evaluated. I can assure you: the programming directors at neighboring venues ensure that the works that the students see are timely and relevant and speak to today’s multicultural audience.

5. Place every new student in a cohort program.

At most campuses, only two groups of students are members of cohorts, with a director and dedicated advising: honors students and those in equal opportunity programs. The vast majority of entering students, if they’re fortunate, may be in a first-semester or first-year learning community or a metamajor or freshman interest group. Otherwise, they’re on their own. Transfer students, in particular, rarely get a chance to participate in a cohort.

We can do better. A true learning community should have a thematic focus, synergistic classes, co-curricular activities and a dedicated faculty mentor and a clearly identified academic adviser. Near peer mentors can play a helpful role in enriching the student experience, providing success coaching, encouragement and valuable advice.

Let’s rededicate ourselves to educating the whole student. Let’s not only promote students’ cognitive development, but their psychological and moral growth, their inter- and intra-personal skills, and their maturation. Let’s treat really essential moral and developmental issues, especially those involving cross-cultural communication, respect for difference and healthy relationships, not simply as matter of training but of genuine course work involving close, critical engagement with the relevant scholarship.

There’s much talk in higher education these days about leadership training, introducing students to various leadership styles, preparing them to develop goals and plans of action, and helping them acquire team-building, conflict-resolution and decision-making skills.

I say, let’s go further. Let’s re-embrace higher education’s historic role: not just career preparation, but the formation of mature adults.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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