06:24 AM

Summit takes a closer look at academic advising

The 120 or so people attending the Academic Advising Summit at the Fawcett Center could have easily overlooked the PowerPoint slide staring back at them. But after a slight pause, Jayne Drake put it into context.

“I’d be willing to bet there’s no other position in the institution where someone is responsible for as many pieces of a student’s life and well-being as an academic advisor,” she said.

The list that flashed on the screens behind her encapsulated the importance and challenge of a job that Ohio State recognizes as essential to the success of its students and the university as a whole.

“Look at all the areas that advisors are responsible for,” she said, naming just a handful. “Curricular requirements, mandates from state legislatures, legal and ethical issues, professional development, counseling and mental health issues, academic support services.”

It’s a far cry from what academic advising used to be, said Drake, a former vice dean at Temple University, a national leader in professional academic advising, and the keynote speaker at the March 23 summit. “Good advising doesn’t just happen, it’s intentional, and it’s more than scheduling. If you get to know these students, if you help these students find their direction, they will tend to be more successful.”

Ohio State President Michael V. Drake announced the advising summit in his State of the University Address in January. It follows similar presidential summits convened in 2015 to examine teaching and learning, and access and affordability.

“Advising for a university as complicated and as large as ours, with all the different majors we have, and with all the different backgrounds that our students bring, is quite a challenging enterprise,” the president said in his opening remarks. “But a system that works really well needs to reach those students who require help and maybe don’t even know how or where to ask for it.”

The summit brought together a diverse group — university leaders, academic advisors, faculty members, students, career counselors, and support staff — to identify Ohio State’s areas of strength and those needing improvement. Topics included time and resource limitations, turnover, career progression, steps to improve student interaction, and misperceptions about the advisor’s role.

Recommendations will be compiled by the office of Undergraduate Education and sent to President Drake and Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Bruce A. McPheron.

Ohio State’s Columbus campus does not have a central undergraduate advising office; each academic program maintains its own to provide more specific information. The result is that a student in multiple programs could have multiple advisors.

Summit participants noted that this decentralized system can pose communication challenges –notably among advisors who share students, but also between the administration and advisors, who occasionally feel disconnected from the whole. And then there’s a more fundamental communication problem: getting the message across to students about the help that academic advisors can provide and the financial benefit of taking advantage of it.

“Poor academic advising or students not using their academic advisor can have large consequences on a student’s time to graduation,” said Abby Waidelich, vice president of Undergraduate Student Government and a senior in biological engineering. “One extra semester can cost students thousands of dollars, which is a conversation that comes up a lot with my peers.”

Danielle Whitaker, another summit participant and the assistant director and manager of outreach for University Exploration, said the role of academic advisors is widely underappreciated.

“We desperately need better advocacy for the importance of the work that we do,” she said, “to get our stories out there for people to see that we are a professional body that provides a vital service to students and aids the university in reaching its goals.”

Academic advising has come to the fore as the national conversation about higher education increasingly turns to affordability, student retention, graduation rates, and time to degree. President Drake pointed to the success of Georgia State University, which has increased its graduation rate by more than 20 points over the past six years through improved personalized advising and data analysis, techniques that have proved especially effective with first-generation and low-income students.

Ohio State — which along with Georgia State is part of the University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 public universities dedicated to improving graduation rates — will adopt a similar analytics system beginning in fall 2016. The data will allow the university to identify students before they begin to struggle academically, and help ensure that they stay enrolled and graduate on time.

“The summit was a great event that finally brought together some of the major stakeholders involved with advising,” said Matthew Swift, the program coordinator and production manager in the Film Studies Program. “There are many hurdles as OSU moves forward, but hopefully this initiative won’t lose steam.”