Navigating the logistical and curricular demands of a four-year degree can be daunting, especially for students who lack financial, social, or parental support.
With no one unit to hold accountable for a student's success, institutions find many students are shuffled between a confusing array of offices while advisors focus primarily on important—but narrow—curricular concerns.
Distributed ownership hurts students and staff
Two factors contribute to the narrow focus of many advising interactions:
1. When professional advisors are controlled and deployed by separate academic units, they are likely to specialize in only a small number of majors and track academic progress, rather than overall student "health."
2. A surprisingly large share of students change their major at least once prior to graduating, leaving them to start over with a new advisor or advising office with each switch.
How UTSA reimagined its approach
When the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) studied its students’ first declared and final majors, they discovered that more than 3/4ths of their graduates switched majors at least once, often moving between colleges with entirely different advising practices. In order to turn advising from an uncoordinated, decentralized activity into a student-centric, relationship-based asset, UTSA fundamentally reimagined its approach.
Creating new major clusters
First, academic affairs leaders created nine new major “clusters” based on historical student enrollment data. These clusters are designed to maximize the likelihood that students will remain within one cluster throughout their entire academic career, even if they decide to switch majors. This ensures advisor caseloads remain relatively constant, allowing students and advisors to build personal relationships and familiarity over time.
Centralizing professional advising
Second, UTSA centralized professional advising under the provost and dean of the university college. An executive director oversees nine advising clusters, each led by a director responsible for liaising with academic departments and evaluating the performance of advisors under their supervision.
How the clusters work
In the "Life and Health Sciences" cluster example below, 82% of UTSA graduates over the previous 5 years remained within the included primary and secondary majors. Administrators calibrate each cluster to balance the likelihood that students will remain within the cluster with reasonable limits on the number of majors for which an advisor can be expected to be responsibleand the disciplinary relationships between the programs. Undeclared students are grouped together in a specialized advising cluster designed to aid and accelerate major selection.
Advisors were encouraged to participate in task force proceedings and to share preferences on cluster placement to minimize disruption, but they were also reminded that student demand would ultimately dictate staffing decisions in the new structure.
UTSA's experience shows that the establishment of reliable connections between students and their advisors is not merely a matter of advisor training or performance; decentralized organizational structures often prevent these connections from forming in the first place. It's critical to build student support infrastructure around the enrollment patterns of students themselves, which often transcend internal silos.