Students do better when they stay with one advisor. Here's how one university made it possible.

Best practice from the Academic Affairs Forum

Providing students with a dedicated point of contact at the university throughout their career can make a significant impact on engagement, retention, and completion. Leaders at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) hoped to leverage professional major advisors to create a more responsive and consistent source of support, but were stymied by the problem of major-switching: 76% of their graduates finished in a different major than the one they first declared. The vast majority of students, it follows, switch major advisors at least once, and because of a traditional “walk-in” approach to advising, students may see several different advisors within each major.

To better understand how students move through the university (and thus restructure professional advising around that movement), UTSA’s provost commissioned an analysis of student major declaration and graduation patterns based on five years of data. The analysis identified each graduating student’s initial intended major and the major they completed upon graduation, excluding transfer students and double majors.

The first notable trend observed was that most students gravitate toward a small number of popular majors. Nearly two-thirds of all graduates fall into UTSA’s 10 most popular majors. Even more important was UTSA’s discovery that different majors naturally fell into reliable enrollment patterns.

UTSA was able to use these enrollment patterns to create a foundation for restructuring its advising approach. First, the school centralized professional advising under the provost and dean of the university college. Prior to the change, advisors at UTSA were grouped into “centers” controlled by college deans. The centrally appointed executive director of advising, who focused on training, policies, and evaluation, had little influence over advisors’ actual responsibilities.

To make the change, the executive director of advising worked with university leadership and new advising cluster directors on the creation of trans-college cluster assignments to maximize the potential for students to remain with the same advisor, even in the event of one or more major changes. Each advising cluster director is responsible for liaising with academic departments and evaluating the performance of advisors under their supervision.

For example, in the “Life and Health Sciences” cluster, 82% of UTSA graduates over the previous five years remained within a cluster of twelve related majors. Under the new system, those students will be able to remain with one advisor during their entire academic careers. Administrators calibrate each cluster to balance the likelihood that students would remain within the cluster, with reasonable limits on the number of majors an advisor can be expected to be responsible for and the disciplinary relationships between the programs. Undeclared students are grouped together in a specialized advising cluster designed to aid and accelerate major selection.

Moving from the proposal to full implementation in the space of one academic year required intense transitional planning, decision-making, and rapid organizational change at UTSA. No fewer than 12 task forces were formed to tackle each of the various issues implicit in reforming student advising around major migration patterns and standardizing the institution’s approach to ensure consistent levels of quality.

Advisors were encouraged to participate in task force proceedings and share preferences on cluster placement to minimize disruption, but reminded that student demand would ultimately dictate staffing decisions in the new structure. With greater central oversight and more reliable student caseloads, advisors at UTSA are now much more accountable for student persistence and graduation.

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