Guide at the Side
To boost student success, make advising part of every professor’s job.
Opinion by Paul B. Crilly
In Andrew Rossi’s 2014 documentary Ivory Tower, the value of college is called into question because so many students require extra time to complete their degree, driving up costs and debt. Don’t blame surging tuition for higher education’s 40 percent average four-year graduation rates, however. The problem is inadequate advising.
Quality guidance is acutely needed in engineering, where on-time graduation rates average 31.6 percent and “opportunity costs” include lost wages and retirement savings. At the same time, ABET criteria and course-scheduling requirements often conspire to create institutional barriers that discourage students from pursuing enriching opportunities, such as studying abroad, or even catching up.
Consider the student, one of many I helped during my decade as chief academic adviser at a large, research-intensive university, who began his final semester having thrice failed a required engineering course. The program allowed just two retakes. Moreover, the curriculum had just undergone several changes. While the school’s appeal process might have permitted a fourth try, the course was only offered in the spring, guaranteeing delayed graduation. Hopeless? Hardly: Another policy let students meet graduation requirements under any catalog since matriculation—and his transcript revealed a set of completed courses that fit the rule.
There’s plenty to debate about graduation policies. The simple matter, however, is that this student met the stated requirements—and I had a long memory and enough familiarity with arcane curriculum changes to quickly shepherd his degree application, without compromising any standards.
Our present system is designed to satisfy ABET Criterion 1, whereby students meet catalog requirements, with any transfers, course equivalencies, and prerequisite waivers properly processed. But there is no incentive for advisers to ensure students complete their degree in a timely fashion or learn about course content outside their own areas or schools. Indeed, it’s easier to say no to deviations rather than risk putting a program at odds with an ABET evaluator.
Moreover, except at small colleges and teaching-intensive schools, there’s scant interest or incentive for advising excellence. Research papers, Ph.D.’s granted, and grants are easily measured and highly valued for promotion. Academic advising is not. Nor is encouraging exploration, such as international experiences. As a colleague at a pricey private school explained: “Determining course equivalencies and credit transfers is a tough problem when students study overseas or participate in academic exchanges. We can’t figure this out.” Besides, he added, “I once was in Europe, and after a week I was glad to return home.”
Better guidance could help students stay engaged and on track. That doesn’t mean establishing some new “Counseling Center” bureaucracy. Ideally, advisers will have taught almost every undergraduate course and therefore know the curriculum and various textbooks. Inexperienced advisers must be willing to delve. The key is being able to appropriately determine course equivalency and help students—particularly strugglers—earn credit outside the department or school. Conversations should center on the question: “What must we do to minimize the time to graduation?”
While students certainly need to take ownership of their learning, we professors can at least get them started and be their advocates. Advising, like teaching, should be required of all regular faculty members; after all, ABET criteria commit us to be engaged in students’ academic progress. Moreover, professors are the primary source for career and academic advice. And our employment and graduate school recommendations carry considerably more weight than any professional adviser’s!
To further promote quality advising, schools should diversify teaching loads. This would allow faculty to better know the program’s undergraduates and course content, and thus make wiser course transfer and substitution decisions. Teaching outside one’s immediate areas also might lead to more informed decisions on curriculum at faculty meetings—or even spur new research interests. Additionally, there should be at least one lead adviser to mentor junior faculty, perhaps conducting the course credit and substitution process for a transfer student while the inexperienced educator sits in.
Finally, engineering programs should work with other schools or departments to develop articulation and more liberal transfer agreements. That way, if a required course is full, students will have alternative pathways to earning credit and graduating on time. One simple fix: Permit waivers to the ubiquitous “final 30-hour rule” that limits credits to on-campus courses.
Of course, undergraduates must do their part and arrive for advising sessions having thought through which courses they wish to pursue. Don’t tolerate sloppiness. Sometimes the best guidance involves sending unprepared students away to encourage full engagement in their academic plan.
Paul B. Crilly is a professor of electrical engineering at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and an ABET program evaluator. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions of any organizations with which he is affiliated.