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In my department (math, US, medium-sized public university), the current practice is that undergraduate students declare a major when they enter, and are assigned a faculty advisor. The advisor is always a full-time faculty member, and will normally continue to advise them until they graduate. The student meets with their advisor at least once per semester to discuss what courses they should take in the next term; the advisor is also available to help with degree planning, academic difficulties, bureaucratic problems, advice about careers and grad school, etc.

There is a proposal from our administration to change this by hiring a "professional advisor," a staff member whose full-time job would be to fill this role for each student's first 1-2 years. (After three semester, they would be assigned a faculty advisor as before.) The hope is that this will somehow help with "student success", i.e. retention and graduation rates, which are lower than we would like.

I am curious about the pros and cons of this approach. I assume this has been tried at other institutions, and it would be interesting to know what effects were observed (either anecdotally or backed by research).

Possible pros and cons that we have identified:

Pros

  • Saves faculty time

  • Students may be too "intimidated" to approach a faculty advisor with their problems. A professional advisor might be easier for students to work with.

  • A professional advisor could come in with special training or education on advising students, and common student issues. Faculty advisors usually just have to pick it up as they go along.

Cons

  • Students will not work with their faculty advisor for as long (about 2.5 years instead of 4). This will reduce the strength of their academic relationship.

  • Math faculty may be better qualified to help address academic difficulties in math classes, which are frequently encountered by first- and second-year students.

  • The professional advisor would not only advise math students, but also those in other areas of science. There are concerns that the advisor could unduly influence students to change their majors away from math, which is considered a "difficult" major, if they start to struggle academically. There are even concerns that implicit bias on the advisor's part could lead them to do this disproportionately on the basis of gender, minority status, etc.

  • Math faculty are involved in designing the requirements of the math major, and so are best qualified to advise students on how to satisfy those requirements. Also, since they actually teach math courses, they would be better able to help students decide which courses would best fit their interests.

I wonder how these work out in practice, and if there are other issues we haven't thought of.

  • Presumably faculty would continue to hold office hours to help students who need help. I helped many students in classes other than my own. – Bob Brown Oct 25 '18 at 14:11
  • Please keep the comments civil, folks. – eykanal Oct 25 '18 at 16:03
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I've been to schools with both systems, so I'll give my perspective as a student:

The Third pro you list (a professional advisor being more specialized) is HUGE. Students get very frustrated when their advisor doesn't have the answers that they want, and in my experience, most of the questions that students ask are for administrative stuff, like, "How do I sign up for classes" or "Can I skip this prerequisite?" that a qualified advisor would be able to easily take off of your plate, and would probably be able to handle more quickly, which would improve the student experience.

Addressing the cons: You should not be concerned about an advisor steering students away from your program. That would be horribly unprofessional for them to do, so that would be something I'd wait for it to actually happen before addressing it. As for the fact that they might not be as qualified to deal with certain problems, it would just be a common part of their job to come and find information that they aren't qualified to give. The lack of a long-term faculty relationship is a real concern though.

Additional thoughts: Providing a single point of contact for students is a very valuable thing indeed. A person whose sole job it is to listen to students and address their problems has always been very helpful for me, because I never felt like I was bothering them when I went to ask them a question, which is how I felt any time I was talking to my normal faculty advisor. It also makes it easy to know who to go to with a question early on. You don't have to remember your specific advisor, you can ask anyone and everyone will know who the advisor is, and be able to point you to them.

  • About the "steering": I agree that it would be unprofessional, but some of my colleagues reported having experienced exactly this at other institutions. It was not necessarily overt, so we're concerned that it might be hard to identify if it starts to happen. There can be a fine line between helping a student find the right major for them, and this sort of "steering". – Nate Eldredge Oct 25 '18 at 16:17
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My university has gone through multiple systems for advising new students, though none exactly corresponding to the proposal you describe. The biggest problem we in the math department perceive is the last on your list of cons: advisors from outside the math department don't know which classes a (potential) math major should be taking. They can read the list of major requirements, but don't know to give advice like, "course A isn't a prerequisite for course B, but most students take course A first so it's probably a good idea to take it first", or "course C isn't required for the major, but can be counted as a technical elective and is extremely helpful background before going into the more advanced required courses".

(For interested math faculty, the examples I have in mind are: A = linear algebra, B = real analysis, C = "transition course".)

I haven't spoken to colleagues in other departments about this so I'm not sure whether they see the same problem.

  • Your example is something faculty should document for a professional advisor if there is one. In fact, a colleague in another program prepared a flow chart with multiple paths through the program's courses, decision points, and decision criteria. (The hard part is keeping such a thing up to date as the curriculum changes.) – Bob Brown Oct 25 '18 at 14:14

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