Advise and Conquer

Can centralized advising boost four-year graduation rates?

Iris Camille Claudio

With two fall classes behind it and another on the way, UT’s experiment with centralized advising for first-year students appears to be working as intended. Created to help students who didn’t know what major to pursue, the Center for Strategic Advising, located in the School of Undergraduate Studies, offers them close guidance while they sample the University’s wide range of academic delights for one or two years before choosing one they really like. It’s all with an eye toward improving retention and graduating more students within four years.

Before 2009, students applying to UT had to pick the college in which they expected to major. Unfortunately, many prospective students did not have enough good information to choose well. And many first-year students, who arrived in, say, communications only to learn they might want to do business or engineering or math, could only get advising within their college. As a result, they chose majors that were inappropriate for them and later, in the inevitable process of changing, lost valuable time toward graduation.

Since the fall of 2009, however, applicants unsure of what they want to study have been allowed to opt directly in to the School of Undergraduate Studies, which itself does not have any majors. There, specially trained advisors help students choose a major within any of the other colleges and help them apply, so that they graduate in four years.

“I have always thought it cruel to require students to choose a major before they come to college,” says Paul Woodruff, dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies. “The University offers many more opportunities than a high school student can imagine, and we need to help each student find the opportunity that works best. Smart students, after a little exploration and some skilled advising, always make good choices.”

The initial numbers look promising. The college expanded from 769 students in its first year to 1,570 in its second. At press time, 677 have declared majors in other colleges, including the most competitive ones. Had they all gone into liberal arts, it would have spelled disaster for one of the Commission of 125’s key notions: that there are bright students who just don’t yet know what they want to do, and that centralized advising can help them decide.

Promising as these early numbers are, administrators won’t know yet if they’ve discovered a working formula until students in these first few cohorts start graduating. If they show a better four-year graduation rate, the centralized advising model—widespread at competitor schools—will be validated here, and UT will be able to point to the program as a real academic productivity gain.

Read more about UT’s School of Undergraduate Studies here.


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