Kendrick Baker: To solve CCAS advising problems, utilize faculty

Updated: Feb. 17, 2015 at 3:16 p.m.

My transition to college hasn’t been easy: Balancing school with internships, work and play is a constant challenge. So if you had asked me before I began my freshman year what could be in flux at the end of my first semester, advising wouldn’t have been anywhere on my list.

That is, until my adviser in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences left halfway through the fall semester.

Although I was able to meet with a different adviser to address immediate concerns – like getting a hold lifted so I could register for classes – the change has made a real impact on my ability to develop a four-year relationship with an adviser.

And, unfortunately, my experience is not unique. Last semester, three of the 18 CCAS advisers left their positions, and the department told displaced students to meet with any available adviser.

In a time of upheaval for the advising department, it would be prudent for CCAS to consider alternatives to the current system – and one solution might be hybrid professional-faculty advising.

Under this system, students would have a professional CCAS adviser their freshman year, just like they do now. But then, as sophomores, they would drop their CCAS adviser. Then they would receive a faculty adviser based on their majors who they would keep through graduation. If students haven’t declared a major yet, they can be assigned a faculty adviser based on their interests.

This way, professional advisers would be able to concentrate on introducing a smaller number of students to complex college requirements.

It would ease the workload of professional advisers while also lessening the impact of turnover: When one adviser leaves, his or her dozen or so advisees could easily be transferred to other advisers without significantly altering any of their responsibilities.

Meanwhile, older students would have the benefits of a faculty member familiar with their field of study – like research opportunities and networking connections.

There are currently a few options on the table to address the Columbian College’s advising problem: The University plans to invest between $9 and $17 million into undergraduate learning over the next decade, with part of that amount going toward improving the advising system. And Student Association members are looking into ways to supplement the advising provided by the school, like adding peer-advisers to the current system.

But at the end of the day, neither of these solutions will soften the blow of adviser turnover, which often leaves professional advisers overloaded. They each have an average of 279 students, but until new advisers are hired sometime this semester, the absences bring the workload to roughly 334. For reference, that’s far more than the Elliott School of International Affairs’ 223 students per adviser.

It’s also a higher ratio than the national average: Private four-year institutions normally have about 100 undergraduate students per adviser.

The University needs to take some of the burden off professional advisers. At other schools, using faculty as an advising team is not unheard of: At Washington University in St. Louis’ College of Arts and Sciences, incoming freshmen are assigned to a faculty adviser based on the field of interest indicated on their application.

But instead of overhauling its system completely, CCAS should adopt a hybrid system and model the faculty advising aspect after the successful program at WUSTL.

Many faculty members might be concerned that advising would take time out of their already busy schedules – and admittedly, they might need a bit of training to become advisers. But they ultimately stand to benefit from a hybrid advising system, too.

There are more than 400 CCAS faculty members: That means each one would be responsible for about 10 or 12 students, and advising wouldn’t take more than a few hours a week. That’s manageable, and would come back around to benefit professors, whose students would be more engaged in class.

There are other examples out there for GW to follow. New York University’s College of Arts and Science shifts the primary advising responsibility for upperclassmen to advisers specializing in particular fields. At NYU, although older students still have access to their general academic advisers, the field-specific adviser enables the school’s general advisers to concentrate on between 36 and 72 freshmen each.

This structure isn’t unprecedented at GW, either: The School of Engineering and Applied Science already has a similar system in place. Professional advisers aid SEAS students in the fall of their first year, before they are assigned to faculty advisers in their major during their spring semester.

Inevitably, any transition from an existing model would be difficult in a college with 5,015 undergraduate students. The transformation would have to be gradual, perhaps occurring department by department. But WUSTL’s College of Arts and Sciences has managed to enact faculty-based advising for its about 4,000 students, so it should be possible to do the same within CCAS.

At GW, so many faculty lead interesting lives outside the classroom. Students stand to benefit from their expertise, and I don’t doubt that faculty would love an opportunity for closer ties to their students.

Kendrick Baker, a freshman double-majoring in political science and economics, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported the number of students in WUSTL’s College of Arts and Sciences. There are about 4,000 students, not 7,000. We regret this error.

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