by James A. Bacon
University of Virginia old-timers (like myself) remember what it was like to find help in picking courses and deciding majors. We’d latch ourselves onto a professor who took an interest in us, and he or she would walk us through the process. It did require some initiative on our part to reach out, but then, we were accustomed to taking matters into our own hands. I was fortunate. My advisor, history professor Joseph C. Miller, was not only a charismatic teacher and a leading scholar in his field, but he regarded the care and tending of students — even lowly undergraduates like me — as part of his vocation.
That’s not the way it works anymore. Faculty members are still expected to play a role in advising students, but it is a much diminished one. At UVa, responsibility for dispensing advice has been bureaucratized.
At the UVa Board of Visitors meeting Wednesday, the Ryan administration highlighted what it is doing to improve student advising. The dominant themes of the session were (1) the student experience is lacking for many, and (2) the answer is hiring more advisors and investing in the latest, greatest technology.
The picture that emerged is that UVa has numerous fragmented initiatives at the school and college level but no coherent university-wide vision. Practices vary widely. The cost of programs was not discussed. No cost-benefit analysis has been conducted. With no clear objectives beyond “we want to be the best,” there are no logical limits to an endless expansion of programs.
It was evident from the presentations that some very earnest, well-meaning people have been working on the issue for a considerable time, but the Board heard no analysis of how the perceived problem came to be, nor did anyone suggest that the answer might be returning responsibility for advising students to the professors. Blasted with a firehose of information, Board members were given little time to formulate questions.
One obvious question, never posed, is how much it costs to advise students. The inflation-adjusted cost of “student services,” of which student advising is a significant component, increased 22.4% between 2012 and 2022. To what degree does expansion of advising programs contribute to the ever-rising cost of running the university — costs that must in turn be covered by higher tuition?
Brie Gertler, vice president for academic affairs, led off the discussion with the observation that UVa has one of the highest retention rates and graduation rates in the country, immediately raising the question of what the problem was. If UVa few students transfer, and if the overwhelming majority graduate on time, how is the advice they’re getting deficient?
Instead, Gertler raised the bar on what should be expected. “We want more,” she said. “We want students to take everything UVa has to offer.” Like what? Well, like internships. And participation in student government and student clubs. UVa should prepare students to “thrive” after they graduate, she said.
Sensing that something was amiss in the way UVa approached advising, a specially appointed task force studied the issue and, as tasks forces are by their nature inclined to do, identified problems and made recommendations.
UVa is a complex institution, with eight different schools for undergraduates. UVa allows undergrads to take classes and declare minors in different schools, which can make it difficult to coordinate. That sounded like a real, though solvable, issue, but according to Gertler, so much more should be done. Student needs transcend administrative silos. UVa must evolve toward a system of “holistic” advising that encompasses academics, career preparation, belonging and inclusion, and wellbeing, she said. “A struggle in any of these areas affects a student in other areas.”
Kathryn Densberger, director of academic student support, briefed the board on the vast array of “resources” that are available to students. To help them find those resources, UVa has rolled out a new website and launched a “chatbot” to answer questions. The website does serve the useful function of organizing a vast body of information. It covers far more than nuts and bolts like how to register for classes or who is offering internships. It links to pages devoted to such warm and fuzzies as “caring for your whole self,” “well being,” and “getting involved.”
Board member Doug Wetmore asked if “the onus” is on students to seek this material themselves or if there is a “structure” to proactively connect them with the resources.
The answer: The onus should not be on the students. UVa needs to build a structure that would spoon feed them the information they need when they need it.
To help provide that structure, UVa is working with Stellic Inc. to set up an “advising” platform that will allow students to view all the courses they’ve taken, track their progress toward graduation, and identify and schedule classes they need to take in order to complete their degree. This productivity tool is due to be available to students by the fall of 2024.
The only mild pushback of the Board session occurred in regards to the Stellic platform. Rector Robert D. Hardie asked if the Stellic software might take humans out of the advising equation. “I have five data points in my family,” he said. “They would love to do this on their computer” without any human intervention.
Provost Ian Baucom insisted that the software would supplement human advisors, not substitute for them.
Engineering Dean Jennifer West presented what was styled a success story. In 2015 the engineering school moved to a system of “embedded advising” and “embedded support” for students, with the goal of making advising and support services more readily accessible for engineering students. First-year engineering students see their advisor twice a week during the first semester. Moreover, students who don’t get along with their advisor have access to two free-floating “student success counselors.” The arrangement was deemed so successful, the school is adding “enhancements” — increasing the frequency of contacts with faculty advisors, adding more career development programming, and subjecting the first-year advisors to monthly training sessions.
By way of justification, West noted that UVa’s engineering school has a four-year graduation rate of 92%, up from 89% before the program was implemented, compared to 32% nationally. However, she did not provide the comparable national number before 2014. Was UVa’s incremental, three percentage-point gain over eight years attributable to the new system or other factors? There is no way of telling.
Christa Davis Acompora, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, took a different tack. In her presentation, she said forthrightly that the system for pre-major advising in the College “is not working.” She was emphatic on the point. But the path forward, she added, “is not entirely clear.” What will likely emerge, she suggested, is a “sustainable resource model that is worthy of investment.” Translation of academic gobbledygook: something that costs more money.
Elaborating on the nature of the problem, Acompora said a survey found that students give high marks to their academic experience but lower scores to their advising experience. The gap suggests that a deficiency exists.
How to fix that deficiency is another question. “A lot of people are dedicated to advising already,” Acompora said. The problem, she explained, is that they are not well connected.
“The College’s web of support is no less populated than many institutions, however, there is no ‘guide’ to shepherd new students as they begin their journey at UVA,” states a chart in her presentation (page 47). Guidance for academics, career planning, belonging & inclusion, and health & wellbeing are fragmented and scattered.
One logical conclusion from Acompora’s presentation is that Arts & Sciences has ample resources for advising students but is managing them poorly. Acompora never said that outright, however, and no one on the Board questioned her about it.
It’s not even clear that a problem exists. According to the data she presented, 71% of UVa students responding to a multi-institutional survey said they had access to academic advisors and 64% rated the quality of their experience highly. That was lower than the 83% and 78% figures respectively for peer research institutions.
The comparison sounds unfavorable but what does it tell us? Maybe peer institutions are spending too much to too little effect. Maybe the answer is for UVa professors to spend more time advising students, not to hire more support staff.
Acompora addressed only academic advising. What about the proliferation of advisors for non-academic concerns? Are students clamoring for health & wellness advice? Are they demanding administrative help on how to achieve belonging & inclusion? Why is the answer always creating more “programs” and hiring more staff? Those questions were not asked.
Summing up the session, Hardie told the Board, “We’ve been talking about this since 2013.”
Based on the presentations, the Board arguably needs to talk about the topic a lot longer.