Why Faculty Advising Matters

Students like Nayla Kidd at Columbia University might not disappear from college if they had the opportunity to have meaningful relationships with faculty advisers, argues Claire Potter.

June 10, 2016

At the liberal arts college where I used to work, we did some of our most interesting teaching in the context of academic advising. Each faculty member had five to six nonmajor advisees and a dozen upper-level major advisees. Advising meant having a lot of conversations, ostensibly about credits, requirements and majors. Yet those conversations also became the foundation for teaching students how to build a relationship with an adult who was not a parent, boss or guidance counselor.

We faculty advisers offered ourselves as mentors to nonmajors, and by spring of sophomore year, were helping students find new mentors who matched their intellectual ambitions. We supported young people as they struggled to survive the routine traumas of the first 24 months at college: discovering that other students were as, or more, capable than they were; coping with a sudden illness; managing heavy reading burdens; and dealing with divorcing parents, class anxiety or coming out -- to name a few. Those conversations helped to solve problems, but they also encouraged students to reconnect with their own resilience and self-confidence -- essential qualities that college can quickly whittle away.

I thought about this last week as I read about Nayla Kidd, the 19-year-old Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science undergraduate who went underground -- prompting fears that she was in danger and a police search for her -- rather than finish her sophomore year. A formerly good student whose mother is a research scientist, Nayla attributed her need to disappear to the “high pressure and unreasonable expectations” of a selective science program. But she also told a reporter from The New York Post, “School just wasn’t interesting to me anymore because I didn’t have any close connections to my teachers.”

Although it caused her mother a great deal of worry and pain, Kidd then demonstrated the kind of pluck that a faculty adviser could do a lot with. She turned the act of dropping out into a carefully planned, and successful, adventure in taking back her life. She raised a stash of money by working hard and selling personal belongings. She found a place to live in New York. She went off the grid, closing out her regular phone and her Facebook, and refusing to take calls on the new number she had given to friends.

Could Nayla Kidd have used that initiative to make a connection with a teacher? It’s hard to say. Because faculty members do less advising than they ever have, the mentoring relationship that might have kept Kidd at Columbia may be less likely to occur now than it ever has been.

The urban university where I work now, which has made the shift to centralized advising, is typical of that. Although students may have a faculty adviser and even a peer adviser, the ordinary meetings that became the foundation of student-faculty relationships -- preregistration, making an academic plan, adding and dropping classes, solving institutional problems -- are now usually handled by administrators who specialize in advising.

This is true at the vast majority of schools -- even at Columbia, which has a far higher proportion of full-time faculty than my own university -- and it has consequences for students in crisis over an academic career that has gone off the rails. A 2011 survey by the National Academic Advising Association revealed that 22 percent of colleges and universities use full-time professional advisers exclusively, 18 percent use full-time faculty advisers exclusively and everyone else uses a mix. Whatever the approach, according to a 2014 article in The New York Times that cited the survey, “rarely do faculty advise in the first two critical years of college when students are more likely to transfer or drop out.”

That means that, during those years, students at a whopping 82 percent of colleges and universities may have, as their most structured adult contact, someone who is not an intellectual mentor or role model. These students will need to come to campus with the self-confidence and skills to reach out and establish relationships with faculty members -- whether their own teachers, or those they hope to learn from in a major, on their own. At large, multicampus universities like Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, students might not even create a relationship with a single professional adviser. The business of advising can be accomplished by dropping in or making an appointment at an advising center on any of the four campuses, through careful use of the advising website, or through online chat.

I don’t know what opportunities Columbia offered Kidd; they also have an advising center that handles routine institutional tasks. And I do know that faculty members don’t always do a terrific job as advisers, are sometimes frustratingly unavailable and can be ill informed about things outside their department.

I am also not implying that professional advisers are not good at what they do, or that faculty, peer and professional advisers do not function as the wraparound service teams that many university websites claim they do. “Think about your academic adviser as a partner as you go about developing your network of success,” a short video on the New York University advising website proposes.

The mission of advising offices, as their websites will tell you, is not relationship building: it is “student success.” This concept includes steering students away from courses of study where they have struggled in the past and toward majors in which good grades and on-time graduation are more likely. It includes making sure students have the right credits in the right departments to graduate in a major and a minor or two, can be sent on to postgraduate education, and can identify internships that, in turn, will lead to employment.

These are not small things. However, professional advising websites also imply that academic problems, which must bring in a healthy number of clients, are linked to failures of character. Columbia’s advising office lists six attributes that a student needs to bring to the advising “partnership.” They include active engagement with the adviser, being “forthcoming about perceived obstacles to success” and looking for information on their own. The Office of Academic Services at Rutgers instructs a student that he or she must “accept responsibility for making your own plans and decisions” and “become an educated consumer.” At Liberty University, “Professional advising exists to help students build ownership and critical thinking skills as they work to achieve their spiritual, academic and professional goals.” The University of Pennsylvania devotes a whole page of its advising website to student responsibility, a virtue that includes the making and keeping of appointments (something that demoralized students are even less good at than their peers, in my experience), being “active and informed participants,” and “learn[ing] to take responsibility.” Rutgers advises students that one key to making good use of an adviser is to “be on time.”

It’s hard not to see the heavy hand of the market in this language. Every personal quality I have listed above is a useful character trait and a foundation for success in any moneymaking endeavor, including being a college professor. But they are qualities students develop at college and should not be prerequisites for accessing higher education or for making a successful mentoring relationship with an adult. They smack of the ideology of individualism that has transformed economic, social and political citizenship since 1980: if you can’t stand on your own two feet and make good decisions, we can’t help you. Yet students often end up in academic trouble because they haven’t made good decisions, a skill generally cultivated as a mature person.

One great obstacle to students’ overcoming the various forms of failure they will encounter in their first two years at college is the mistaken belief of many otherwise successful young people that they ought to be able to solve problems on their own, and certainly without bringing their teachers into it. One way to change this is to have students practice making relationships with faculty for no practical reason at all. As Harvard School of Education Professor Richard J. Light wrote in How to Make the Most of College (Harvard University Press, 2004), after having a general discussion with each of his first-year students, he would give each one a task: to have a conversation with one faculty member other than himself that semester. It is an “obvious idea,” Light writes, “that part of a great college education depends upon human relationships.” The attenuation of faculty advising eliminates a crucial opportunity for a student not only to practice these relationships but also to do so in ways that may be self-revealing and not entirely goal oriented.

As an experienced adviser, I can testify that it isn’t unusual, even at a small New England college that prides itself on advising, for students to disappear or for a graduating senior to not know more than one faculty member whom they feel comfortable asking for a recommendation. Nor is it unusual for a student to respond to profound unhappiness, and the isolation and fear often tangled up in that, by embracing solitude and self-reliance. I once had a student who went to bed about a week after arriving on campus, leaving her room only to eat and to visit with me, her adviser, every two weeks. She assured me her classes were all going well. Not one of her instructors let me, or her dean, know she had stopped attending.

It’s easy for faculty members to slam professional advisers, and I don’t mean to do that. I am pretty sure that many who work at colleges and universities where they partner with faculty members have a lot to say about how unavailable many of us are often are for the conversations that bright, capable students might require. Yet that relationship with a faculty adviser prior to establishing a major program may be the key to making college seem worthwhile to students like Nayla Kidd, who expect, and need, a conversation -- not a prepackaged path to success.


Claire Potter is professor of history and director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at the New School in New York City.


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