Many Advisers, One Message

With academic advising programs scattered and often inconsistent, colleges develop common mission statements and training.
July 27, 2006

Throughout her career at Oregon State University, Susie Leslie has overheard this conversation, or variations of it, a few too many times for her taste:

“Academic adviser?”

“Oh, you mean that person who counts my credits and allows me to register for classes?”

While that is the extent of the adviser-advisee interaction for many students, particularly those at large public universities, Leslie said advising offices generally set the bar higher for themselves. They can talk students through academic suspensions and departmental transfers -- but only if word gets out about the services they offer.

Problem is, many campuses have advisers who are embedded in academic departments. Some are full-time advisers; others are faculty members for whom advising is a small, and not necessarily highly rewarded, part of their job. They operate from different buildings and rarely communicate with each other, resulting in an advising system that is highly decentralized. 

That's why creating a unified message and delivering it to students is crucial, said Leslie, the academic programs and assessment coordinator at Oregon State.

“One thing that students complained about in past years was inconsistency,” Leslie said. “When they changed majors, they heard a different story and got different information from advisers in another department."

Oregon State has attempted to rectify that problem by creating a group made up of head advisers from each college, who together developed a best practices list. When students make their mandatory once-a-year visit to their advisers this year, every adviser will have similar talking points and every incoming student will have access to a week-by-week calendar explaining how to survive the academic year. A number of colleges have taken similar steps to bring their disparate advising offices and departments closer together in mission.

Charlie Nutt, associate director of the National Academic Advising Association, said that by having a common goal in mind, advising programs are able to more clearly articulate their purposes to students. At the group's summer seminar, Nutt is leading a session called "Developing Mission Statements," a practice he said still isn't widespread. 

“Institutions have to be more aware that developing a strong (student-adviser) relationship is key to the idea of student engagement, which numerous studies have shown is tied to retention rates," he said.

At the University of Louisville, increasing student retention was the motivating factor behind the recent creation of the office of undergraduate advising practice.

Janet Spence, the office's director, said undergraduate colleges were operating almost autonomously when it came to academic advising. The office has created an online program consisting of six modules that intends to give incoming students consistent information -- and advice -- about how to handle the first year of college. Topics include technology, general education and faculty-student interaction. Students must score 70 percent on each module before signing up for classes in their second term.

The College of DuPage, a community college in Illinois, recently hired a full-time staff member to coordinate advising on the campus. If departments within the college change their academic requirements, for instance, the staff member enters the information into a database for all advisers to see. The college has also created a web-based advising calendar on the student portal with descriptions of advising events.

“Everything was working in isolation before. We had academic affairs vs. general advising, and there was no communication," said Jocelyn Harney, DuPage's dean of students.  

On the recommendation of the National Academic Advising Association, both DuPage and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville developed adviser awards. At Arkansas, a newly established council made up of one faculty and staff member from each college distributes money to the winners.

Karen Boston, assistant dean for undergraduate programs at Arkansas, said the provost appointed the committee to develop an adviser training program and to agree on how to assess the advising system. 

Colleges with a limited budget for advising have to be particularly creative. At the Information and Academic Support Center, Portland State University's lone centralized advising office, advisers often determine which students they see not by major but by broader categories -- including veterans, community college transfers and those who are academically at risk.

Mary Ann Barham, interim director of the Information and Academic Support Center, said the idea is that while keeping a central mission is important, allowing advisers to personalize their message is equally important.

Leslie, the Oregon State coordinator, said that colleges will continue to have advising programs that reflect the institution, but that "consistency within the college" is paramount.


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