In an effort to improve its disappointing retention rates, Portland State University will increase its team of academic advisers from 10 to 24 this fall. The move follows a decision to make advising a mandatory element  of the incoming class’ college experience.
“If we’re going to require students to seek advising, we should have more advisers,” said Mary Ann Barham, director of PSU’s Undergraduate Advising and Support Center. She said the decision is in line with the priorities of the new president, Wim Wiewel, and stemmed in part from recent faculty research  showing that students are more satisfied when they have access to professional advisers, rather than just faculty advisers, as had previously been the case. The new advisers will be distributed throughout the schools and departments to work in collaboration with faculty advisers for students who have declared a major.
Barham says that efficient advising is one of the first steps to success and retention, and the new advising process is meant to help students find their way through college by helping them with everything from registering for classes to applying for financial aid. All new students will also now be required to see an adviser during their first term, whether they have declared a major or not. Until now, advising was optional; students could register for classes, change their majors, and go through college without ever seeing an adviser if they didn't want to.
“They need to have clear pathways, and they need to have people to guide them along those pathways. This is the first step in that direction,” Dan Fortmiller, associate vice provost for academic and career services, said.
Having students rely primarily on faculty advisers was a mixed experience Some faculty members were well-versed in all aspects of the university, while others had too many responsibilities to make advising a priority, Barham said. “What I would like to see is that all students will say, ‘I have an adviser,’ and they know who that might be, and that they don’t just take advantage of advising if they want to,” she said. “I would like to see that their advisers are trained very broadly about all the things they need to know to support students.”
Of the 1,523-person class matriculating as freshmen in 2008, only 68.9 percent continued into their sophomore year – well below the 77.2-percent average across 13 comparable institutions. On average, 75.4 percent of students who transferred to PSU stayed at least another year. The freshman retention rate held steady at about 68 percent from 2005-8, while six-year graduation rates have been at 32 percent since 2001, also below average according to a 2007 university report. Although recommendations to hire more advisers had been made in the past, financial constraints hindered the process.
Self-reported adviser ratios from colleges and universities nationwide show that, on average, there are about 300 students for every full-time adviser in a four-year public institution. Barham said Portland State was aiming for 600 students per adviser, but was denied sufficient funding. The university allotted $1 million for the hires, which provides one adviser for approximately 1,000 students – not close to the goal, but certainly an improvement.
“All the literature shows that students who are connected with a representative on a regular basis are more likely to be retained and more likely to persist to graduation than those who are not,” said Charlie Nutt, executive director for the National Academic Advising Association.
Nutt added that despite many universities’ goal of a 300-to-1 ratio, no official ratio recommendation exists. A university’s advising needs depend on the institutional model, its mission, and the types of students, he said; nonetheless, the more advisers, the better.
Portland State hopes to have all the new advisers hired and integrated into the campus environment by November.