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Improved retention, graduation rates linked to good advising

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - February 19, 2008

The University’s retention and graduation rates are up, and a big part of the reason for that is improved advising, according to Dolan Evanovich, vice provost of enrollment management.

The latest statistics show that 61 percent of students who were freshmen in 2003 graduated in four years, up from 43 percent of those who entered the University in 1996.

The five-year and six-year graduation rates are also up.

And 93 percent of freshmen at Storrs who entered the University in 2006 came back for their sophomore year, a statistic that places UConn among the top 20 public universities in the U.S.

“The research shows that students who receive good advising tend to be more successful,” Evanovich says, “and more graduate on time. The University’s improved graduation rates have a lot to do with giving students good advice on the front end.”

Over the past five years, the University has increasingly emphasized helping students to complete their degrees in four years, and has developed an infrastructure to support this goal.

Steps taken include improved advising; a wide range of First Year Experience (FYE) programs to help first-year students adjust to college life; packaging of classes for entering students in certain majors with stringent sequential requirements; additional seats and sections of required courses; increased availability of courses during the summer and winter intersession; a revitalized W and new Q Center to provide writing and quantitative skills support; and an early warning system and mentoring services for students who are struggling.

Although students are still generally advised by a faculty member in their major department or professional school, there also has been a growth in the number of professional advisors and the role they play.

The Academic Center for Exploratory Students (ACES), which is staffed by professional advisors, was established about 10 years ago to provide advising to first- and second-year students who have not yet declared a major.

Not only did this alleviate the problem of students’ having to change their advising “home” if they switched from one major to another, but it entailed a philosophical shift:

Calling such students “exploratory” rather than “undecided” was intended to encourage them to explore their options.

“ACES is the umbrella organization that can catch students and help redirect them,” says Evanovich.

University-wide resource
ACES has become a University-wide resource for advising.

“We work with students in transition – transition first to the institution, and then to departments and majors,” says Steve Jarvi, director of the Institute for Student Success, which includes ACES, FYE programs, and the Center for Academic Programs.

“We have created a pool of expertise and resources on issues related to first and second-year students.”

Jarvi encourages faculty, including those in the professional schools, to refer students to the ACES advising center, which offers walk-in appointments for students.

“It’s unrealistic to expect faculty to keep abreast of every new rule, every catalog change,” he says.

“A lot of questions involve nuts and bolts, and that’s where ACES advisors can help. That enables faculty to focus on what they do best – mentoring, and offering advice about graduate programs, careers, capstone projects, and research.”

Adds Jarvi, “We don’t turn any student away, although we do encourage them to follow up with their school or college.”

The University has taken steps to support advisors and foster good advising. An institution-wide Advising Council, for example, which includes representatives of both professional and faculty advisors, serves as a way of promoting information flow among the various groups involved.

Activities include presentations by speakers from other offices on campus, such as Student Health Services and the Center for Students with Disabilities, to which advisors may refer advisees.

In addition, awards are now offered annually for outstanding advising among both professional advisors and faculty.

New challenges
The role of advisors has changed over the years, with new challenges facing them.

Statistics professor Nalini Ravishanker, right, with advisee Ross Yudowitch, a sophomore majoring in mathematics and statistics.
Statistics professor Nalini Ravishanker, right, with advisee Ross Yudowitch, a sophomore majoring in mathematics and statistics. Ravishanker was 2006 recipient of the Outstanding Faculty Advisor award.
Photo by Jessica Tommaselli

The introduction of new general education requirements, for example, ushered in a new set of rules to be mastered and posed some challenges during the transition.

And there has been a growth in the number of students taking double majors and minors.

“We enroll ambitious and creative students,” says Jarvi, “and they’re looking at how to maximize their experience at UConn. One of the ways they can do that is through double majors or minors.”

The growing number of transfer students have a special set of advising needs; they’re new but not freshmen.

And the number of students with drug and alcohol issues, including use of prescription drugs, is going up.

Evanovich says one of the major challenges for advisors is that the expectations of students – and their parents – have increased.

“We survey students when they enter the University,” says Evanovich.

“They expect somebody to be interested in them and help them be successful. They don’t understand the difference between faculty and professional advisors because they’re more familiar with the high school guidance counselor model.”

Unlike high school, he says, the University operates on a decentralized model.

“The University has a number of different resources for students: if they have a health problem, they go to Student Health Services; if they have a mental health issue, they go to Mental Health Services,” Evanovich says.

“In high school, they get all these services in one place – the guidance counselor does it all.”

In addition, parents are often more involved with college students than was the case a generation or so ago.

Douglas Hamilton, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who oversees the CLAS Academic Services Center, a centralized resource for advising in the College, says, “One of the big challenges some departments face is the phone call from the parent who’s not happy about the courses their son or daughter is taking next semester. That’s very different from when I was a student. My parents would never have thought of calling to complain that their child couldn’t get into a course.”

The College has its own Undergraduate Council, similar to the University-wide Advising Council, which meets monthly to discuss advising and other academic issues. And the Academic Services Center has produced an advising handbook that is distributed to all faculty advisors in CLAS.

A rewarding role
Hamilton says the advising relationship benefits both student and advisor.

“In a big University like UConn, advisors have a role in trying to personalize it a bit,” he says.

“Each student needs a community of people around them. The academic advisor is one member of that community.”

Hamilton, a physics professor, adds that advising is a “wonderful opportunity” to do some teaching.

“It’s more than just suggesting what courses to take next semester. It’s an opportunity to talk about why the student is here at the University, what he or she hopes to accomplish, and what I, as their advisor, can do to help make their four years here more successful.”

The biggest reward, he says, comes at Commencement.

“Nothing is more rewarding than going to Commencement and seeing one of the students you’ve worked with for four years shaking hands with the dean and picking up his or her diploma,” Hamilton says.

“Advisors have a very challenging and often underappreciated role, and a lot of unrecognized work has to be done before a student walks across Gampel Pavilion and picks up their diploma.

Yet with all the great challenges, there are great rewards.”

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