Dude, where’s my advisor?

Are Michigan public university students taking longer to graduate because colleges aren’t investing in academic advisors?

It’s a question being asked at Central Michigan University, where in the spring of 2013, the school had one academic advisor for every 1,200 students – about three times the national average.

Only 20.6 percent of new freshman graduate within four years and 48 percent graduate within five years, according to the CMU Office of Institutional Research.

Not coincidentally, CMU students graduate with one of the highest debt loads of students at Michigan public universities – over $31,000 for 2012 grads. That’s higher than the state’s flagship public universities, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Michigan State University. The difference? Students at U-M and MSU graduate in four years at a clip two to three times that of CMU, avoiding the costs of a fifth undergraduate year.

Unfortunately, Central Michigan’s numbers are more typical of the on-time graduation struggles of most of the state’s public universities.

Twelve of Michigan’s 15 public universities have four-year graduation rates lower than the national average, and that extra time on campus is costly to students, families, and the Michigan economy.

Few counselors, few graduates

A majority of college students don’t earn a four-year degree in four years. Some switch majors or work part- or full-time. Others are enrolled in programs, such as engineering or education at some colleges,that are structured to take five years. But more should graduate on time, said Charlie Nutt, executive director of the National Academic Advising Association.

One reason cited for the low on-time graduation rates: inadequate academic counseling.

Counseling is critical for students who are making the huge adjustment from high school to college. “(Students) underestimate the amount of time it takes compared to a high school class,” Nutt said. “It’s a different type of preparation that they’re not prepared for.”

“There’s no question that in some cases, students don’t get the counseling,” said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “Proper counseling keeps them taking the course that keeps them on a steady path towards graduation. Budget crunches, however, cut back on that (counseling) staff.”

In the spring of 2013, CMU’s student-to-advisor ratio was a whopping 1,200-to-one. According to the National Academic Advising Association, the average ratio of students to academic advisors is 375-to-one. But setting a single standard for all universities is a difficult task.

“At some institutions, 375:1 could be enormous,” Nutt said. “We’re looking at every single model of advisor. It’s difficult to come up with an (ideal) ratio.”

Calls placed to Michigan’s 15 public universities confirmed the difficulty of tracking the data – as some institutions consider faculty as full-time advisers and others have more centralized systems, making it difficult to compare schools.

“There is a definite need to increase the number of advisors,” Nutt said. “There are some states out west that have a 1,200-to-one ratio. You can’t expect an advisor to handle that many students.”

Though the need to improve academic advising offerings varies among states and universities, Nutt insists that Michigan is on the right track.

“Michigan is not one of the states that has massive loads,” he said. “We may need to reallocate funding to other areas of support or to advisors. Those are decisions that campuses have to make.”

Steven Johnson, CMU’s Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services, acknowledged economic and advising issues play a role in the school’s on-time graduation rate. “We’re looking to improve the advising piece,” he said.

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Investing in advisors

Johnson said the correct staffing level at CMU would offer a 300-to-one ratio. He added, however, that CMU added five positions last fall to bring the student-advisor ratio down to 600 to one.

“I hope in a couple of years we can hit our ideal ratio of 300 to one,” Johnson said. “We are still below average compared to other universities, but we are working right now to bring it down.”

The economic case for more advisors is easy to make. If the incoming freshmen class of 2006 had graduated in four years at the national rate, an additional 416 students would have earned a CMU degree on time. Using just the school’s undergraduate tuition and fees for 2013-14, students and their parents could have saved $4.6 million.

Johnson said advising is also important to ensuring students are in line with their academic colleges earlier so they understand why they have a major and if it is right for them. However, since not all students are the same, not every student will complete their degrees at the same pace, said Johnson.

“Everyone cannot, and should not, complete in four years,” Johnson said. “That’s very student-specific depending on program study and levels of commitment.” But Johnson will not deny CMU’s on-time graduation rate needs to increase.

Efforts earn degrees faster

As it is, the CMU students who likely need the least academic advising – those in the honors program – have the most structured counseling regimen.

Honors Program Director Phame Camarena said honors students are required to seek advising on a regular basis, and almost all of them graduate within four years.

“Students take an intro to honors course their first semester,” said honors program advisor Kenneth Rumsey. “In that course, we use a document to plan out with students what they’re thinking about going into and what they’re pretty sure is the direction they want to go.”

Meanwhile, students with more spotty academic backgrounds have less guidance.

Johnson said the university will begin to have conversations with people in charge of the programs in order to apply stronger advising throughout the university. Other officials have also echoed the importance of advising and keeping students on track.

“Advising is central to helping students progress toward their career goals and includes not only course selection, but also helping students sort out all the possible careers open to students graduating in a specific major,” Provost Michael Gealt said. “We know that several programs are enhancing their level of active teaching practices, which are also known to support student success.”

Kyle Kaminski and Kurt Nagl are 2014 graduates of Central Michigan University, where this article was originally reported for a journalism class in which Bridge Senior Writer Ron French was a guest advisor.

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Mark T
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 12:44pm
My daughter experienced the opposite experience at MSU. She had an advisor for being a freshman, an advisor for her major (History) one from the school of education and another for being in the Honor's college. At times she received conflicting advice from these advisors and had to take a couple of summer classes so the should could graduate in 4 years.
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 4:51pm
My daughter just attended orientation at MSU and I was disappointed to find out that her advisor had no knowledge of the residential college in which she is enrolled. He also advised her and all others to take 13 credit hours her first semester rather than the 15 credits that are required to stay on a 4 year track for graduation - something that irritated me as the primary financier of this endeavor. I asked my daughter how old the guy was and discovered this "advisor" was most likely just a student at the school. She also received a schedule of classes that included a math class she had AP tested out of. We pointed this out and were told she would have to wait until late August - just before start of classes - to make any changes. By that time, the classes she wants and needs to take for her degree may be filled. No wonder it takes 5 years to graduate. $26,000/year and you can't even get the classes you need? I'm already not a happy customer and she hasn't even begun classes.
Fri, 07/18/2014 - 10:27am
Bob, The sad thing is that I was told the same thing 25 years ago when I went to orientation at MSU. I am a college counselor now at a different Michigan college and I can tellyou that the message often is that 12 credit is full time to receive the maximum Pell grant. However, you are right students definitely cannot graduate in 4 years if they only take 13 credits even in one semester. It is a difficult situation, because we often find that students have a harder time being successful in their classes if they over load themselves, but on the other hand if they don't take enough credits they are stuck taking summer classes or extending into a 5th year.