Two-pronged advising system helps students navigate academic life from the start

At Stanford, incoming freshmen are assigned two advisers – a pre-major adviser and an academic director – the summer before they arrive on campus.

L.A. Cicero Academic adviser Ruby Mason meeting with a student

Senior academic adviser Ruby Mason in the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Research meets with a student.

Stanford freshmen come from all walks of life, but they all share one thing in common: they "were the very best thing where they were," Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising, told the Faculty Senate last week.

"So when they think about advising, they think, no, no, no, I've got this," Lythcott-Haims said, during a presentation at the Nov. 10 meeting.

"They did what it took to excel, to exceed expectations in high school, often alone, or without recognizing the assistance around them, so they think, I've got this. I don't need advising. Or maybe they recognize that advising is valuable, but they don't think they need to hear anything from anyone older than 24."

Over time, Lythcott-Haims said, students will find mentors at Stanford, and find their way to the amazing and varied opportunities available to undergraduates.

"But because advice and guidance are so essential from the outset, and because many of our students are reluctant to go out and get that advice and guidance, we assign two advisers right from the outset, over the summer before they arrive at Stanford," she said, referring to academic directors and pre-major advisers.

Academic directors are full-time advisers with PhDs – people who have chosen undergraduate academic advising as a profession – whose offices are located in frosh and sophomore residence halls. Currently, Stanford has eight academic directors. Each one is responsible for advising 450 students.

"We need to create more academic director positions to lower that ratio," Lythcott-Haims said. "A ratio of one academic director to 450 students is not good enough.  Our peers that have similar roles – like the directors of studies at Princeton – have a ratio of 1 to 250. We are asking too much of our academic directors. And survey data shows that students often leave their academic director's office because there's a line out their door. So students know academic directors exist, and they are trying to utilize the resources, and we can't offer enough of it."

The program, established as a pilot project in 2004, was implemented for all incoming freshmen in 2008. The Class of 2012 was the first class in which each student had an academic director during the freshman and sophomore years.

Academic directors primarily work with freshmen and sophomores, said Kirsti Copeland, director of residentially based advising at Stanford, in an interview following the senate meeting. However, she said many juniors and seniors continue working with academic directors – even after they have major advisers – on a wide variety of non-curricular issues, including exceptions to university policy, managing academics during a crisis and grant applications.

Lythcott-Haims said Stanford will survey the class in June to find out what members thought of the university's advising programs.

Pre-major advisers

A pre-major adviser can be a member of the Stanford faculty, academic or teaching staff; a member of the non-academic staff; or a local alumnus. They volunteer to take six freshmen under their wing until they declare a major, usually near the end of their sophomore year.

Currently, Stanford has 310 pre-major advisers, up from 230 last year.

Lythcott-Haims credited the increase to Copeland's recruiting efforts.

"Every single pre-major adviser, all 310, regardless of the role they play at the university, has a graduate degree," Lythcott-Haims said. "That's new for us. In the olden days, there wasn't a requirement that pre-major advisers have a particular credential. We thought if you've done your own graduate work, you're in a better position to understand what these undergraduate years can mean in the life of a human. So that was a bar that we put in place, which eliminated some staff as pre-major advisers, but I think has been a standard appreciated by most."

Students are required to check in with their pre-major advisers each quarter until they declare majors. If they haven't met with their pre-major adviser one quarter, they can't register for classes the following quarter.

"And guess what," Lythcott-Haims said. "Last year, 100 percent of the Class of 2014 met with their adviser four times – during orientation, and during fall and winter and spring quarters, in order to have the enrollment hold lifted so they could register the subsequent quarter."

In the Q&A that followed Lythcott-Haims' presentation, Patricia Jones, the Dr. Nancy Chang Professor in the Biology Department, praised the policy.

"Students have developed a culture where they know they're going to come in and see you – and they have benefited from it," Jones said. "These meetings have been extremely useful. I get to see all of the students. Occasionally, you got a student who just wouldn't show up. Not that you didn't have anything good to talk about, but you just would never see them. That was one of the biggest headaches – tracking down the students you never saw."

Lythcott-Haims said Stanford surveyed current sophomores last summer (at the end of their freshman year), asking them how they felt about the enrollment holds. Twenty-five percent of the students said they would have met with their advisers anyway, and 41 percent said they would not have met with their advisers, but were glad the enrollment hold was in place.

"That leaves 34 percent saying I would not have met with this person, and I hate the hold," she said. "So we're thrilled that we grabbed 41 percent who said I'm glad for that hold. We've obviously got to do some work with helping that other 34 percent get on board."

Minutes available this week

The full minutes of the Nov. 10 meeting, including the questions and answers that followed the presentation, will be available on the Faculty Senate website this week.