A final report from a University of Colorado Boulder committee recommends the school increase the number of advisors so they can work more proactively with students.
The Foundations of Excellence final report, published in March by a committee of 17 university employees, emphasizes the importance of advising for student success.
Researchers have analyzed the effects of academic advising on students for decades. A 2006 study commissioned by the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative said “the quality of academic advising … is the single most powerful predictor of satisfaction with the campus environment for students” at four-year schools.
A 2004 study by ACT similarly found that academic advising “plays a pivotal role in student retention.” Advising was found to be one of three key factors in retention at four-year public colleges.
Shelly Bacon, committee co-chair and assistant vice provost for advising and academic services, said CU Boulder has been working on aligning its advising structure for years now, and found a good opportunity to do so with this committee.
Mary Kraus, vice provost and associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education, emphasized this is key for a large campus. The university can ensure all students take classes and meet with advisors, but there’s little control elsewhere. This way, all students will have a place to find out about other resources.
“Advisors are one contact with a grown-up to get a sense of belonging,” Kraus said. “All the national studies indicate that that sense of belonging is critical to student retention, and this is one more point where that sense of belonging can develop.”
The committee’s report includes nine recommendations:
- Adopt a campuswide vision and mission statement for advising
- Establish campuswide coordination to align advising programs
- Adopt a student-driven model
- Reduce caseloads
- Adopt a first-year advising model across campus
- Integrate faculty and departments
- Use physical spaces strategically
- Adopt a consistent position and salary structure, including a career ladder
- Develop a holistic student success ecosystem
Right now, advising varies across CU Boulder’s colleges. The biggest change these recommendations would create is availability to students, and the creation of a “concierge” model in which the advisor would be the first point of contact to get students to other resources on campus.
“Right now in most programs we have a fairly reactive model; we are available for whichever students seek us out,” Bacon said. “We need a little extra bandwidth for advisors to be able to shift to a more proactive model” and instead seek out students.
Some departments require students to meet with an advisor annually, but not all. Some also have triggers that require an advising visit, like a decrease in academic performance.
The committee recommends advising become more consistent, especially for the first four semesters, which is part of the first-year advising model, Bacon said. It recommends students meet with advisors each of the first four semesters.
Bacon said it also recommends establishing advisors specifically for the first year.
“A lot of major change happens particularly in the first year,” she said. Establishing advisors that are separate from departments will allow students greater freedom in academic exploration, she explained.
To accomplish these goals, Bacon anticipates the university would have to hire around 25 advisors, which would happen over several years, to address the advisor-to-student ratio. Right now, that ratio varies across the colleges, the highest being at College of Media, Communication and Information, which has 625 students for every one advisor.
The report recommends the university get to an average of 200 to 250 students per advisor.
The committee also recommends several changes to help retain and support advisors.
The report recommends instituting a career ladder, which will provide advancement opportunities that are still student-facing, as well as professional development opportunities to help both advisors and the new system.
When asked if burnout is an issue, Bacon said: “That’s one piece of the puzzle that we’re trying to address. In order to make for the best student experience, we don’t want our advising staff to turn over.”
To get feedback on advising, Bacon said the committee identified four key student learning outcomes, which are feeling a sense of belonging; having a growth mindset; engaging in their degree planning process; and engaging in career and life planning. The identification of these four goals also will improve consistency across campus, she said.
The committee also recommends embedding academic coaches, in addition to advisors, in department programs. Coaches focus more on short-term relationships to come up with strategies for reading or studying, for example, Bacon said.
In terms of space for the extra advisors, Bacon said CU Boulder is thinking “outside the box.” One possibility is using a single location for designated drop-in hours that would increase availability and also not require single offices, she said.