Saturday, January 30, 2016

Are We a Correctional or an Educational Institution?: A Discussion of Our Horrific Advising Practices

Assuming that the university will continue to operate for the remainder of the school year and into the future, we will have a number of practices left over from the past administration to clean up or eliminate entirely if we are to recover from the precipitous enrollment declines of the past six years.

In my estimation, our recently mandated advising procedures stand right at the top of that list. They are not only a failure, they are a complete disaster. Frankly, as poorly conceived as these practices are, it is a wonder any students continue their studies at Chicago State University. I have already discussed this issue in earlier posts, but I spoke recently with someone (a former CSU employee) who has first-hand and very recent knowledge of what goes on in the Advising Center. Here is the story:

With recent staff departures, the number of advisors working in the Advising Center has been reduced to 6 persons. According to administrative fiat, these persons are supposed to do all the undergraduate academic advising at Chicago State (with the exception of First Year Students). One year earlier, the workload now handled by these 6 people was spread among 40 faculty and staff (excluding administrators) doing undergraduate advising in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business, Education, and Health Sciences. Needless to say, the phenomenal reduction in staff has created a number of operational problems (as a caveat, many faculty continue to do advising in spite of the administrative fiats).

Students endure long wait times, up to 5 hours in some cases. Often, advisors are called upon to advise students in programs with which they are unfamiliar. The former employee described the university catalog as the only real source of information available to the poor persons charged with advising our students. When someone becomes an advisor, the training period is negligible, s/he is basically thrown into the water to see if they can swim. The advisors are unable to give students hard copies of their programs or other information because the equipment is broken down. Often students are advised out in open areas, a clear violation of FERPA. The advisors often work long shifts, far in excess of their assigned 7.5 hours and are not compensated with overtime pay. The advising staff is demoralized with predictable results like high absenteeism, putting further strain on other employees.

The consequences for our enrollment should be apparent. How many students have experienced this fiasco and decided to look elsewhere? How many students have been discouraged by the process and just dropped out for a semester? Why on earth are we putting students through this? When the advising staff bring their concerns about the process and its effect on our students up to administrators they are told that “we’re not going back to the old system.” This rigid administrative belief that somehow by force of will these 6 persons can turn this debacle into a functioning system represents a textbook definition of insanity.

Many years ago, when I began my law enforcement career, I worked the 4-12 shift in the intake area of the Alameda County Jail. During the shift, buses arrived constantly from the various Municipal and Superior Courts in the county. Those buses contained both prisoners returning from their court appearances and newly remanded prisoners who had to be processed or “booked,” a procedure that involved placing them into a large holding area, then calling them individually into an area where we typed up a booking sheet, took a photograph, and rolled three fingerprint cards. It was not unusual for 1 or 2 Deputies to process up to 75 new remands in an 8-hour shift. It was not atypical for people remanded to wait for several hours to be processed. Because of the pace of the work, it was highly unusual for me to be able to sleep until around 4am.

Why am I talking about this? Because when I go up to the Advising Center during peak business hours, I am viscerally reminded of the old booking office. Substitute a huge holding cell for the chairs on the fourth floor, long waits to be “processed,” and a separate processing area for the fourth floor offices used by our advising staff and voila! You have the Alameda County Jail of 1971 instead of Chicago State University. Substitute harried and overworked Deputies trying to wade through dozens of tired, hungry people who simply wanted to get a bunk and something to eat for the advising staff trying to provide service to dozens of tired, hungry people waiting to sign up for classes, and again I am reminded of a four-decades old custodial experience.

I am appalled by the way we exploit our advising staff and mistreat our students. Let’s stop treating our advisors and students as if they were staff and prisoners at the local county jail or state prison. Let’s act like we’re running a state university instead of the Stateville Correctional Center or San Quentin State Prison. I realize that these comparisons should not be overdrawn, but I urge everyone to visit the Advising Center and see for themselves the conditions under which our staff and students must function. For the sake of the school, our colleagues, and especially our students, why don’t we scrap this system and come up with something sensible, and dare I say, humane?


  1. In the past three years I have been active with my children in their collegiate careers and been exposed to the advisory systems of 4 different colleges with students populations ranging from the size of CSU (4,000) to over 15,000 - all on a central advisory system. I have to say, by far, CSU's advisory department is the worst - even before the new system came into play. The blame for the horrendous state the advisory department is in now, though can not solely lie on the staff cutbacks or minimal evaluation reference tools (catalog) or simply because there has been a change in the process. As you have pointed out, it's the training, experience and knowledge that these remaining advisors possess. I can only really speak regarding the one advisor I have come in contact with at CSU, but if all of them are like that advisor, the dysfunction explains itself. For an advisor to go into a departmental class and tell the students that they are the ones responsible for knowing what classes they need to take and if errors are made it is not the school's fault, speaks volumes on how, at least the one advisor, does not want to take accountability and has formally released any responsibility for incompetent performance. It is this same advisor that for whatever reason also believes that the only way to increase your GPA is to increase your credit load. "Are you sure you only want to take 15 hours? That's fine if you're okay with only get a 2.5 GPA." Seriously, this conversation came up when applying for Fall & then again, Spring courses.

    This is not to say that students should not be involved, aware and responsible for knowing their curriculum responsibilities. Ignorance is never an excuse. But the whole burden should not be placed on a student - if it is, what's the point of having an advisory department.

    I do think that there is an enormous correlation between the affects of student advising and graduation rates. To find that you've been poorly advised on what classes you need to take and now it's going to prolong graduating, I could see a student just quitting, possibly for the mere fact that they can't afford to go those extra years. What ever happened to a 4 year graduation rate for a full time student? It seems like 6 years is the norm now, but the amount of credits to graduate at institutions has remained basically the same.

    1. I don't typically reply to comments on this blog, but a post as thoughtful as yours deserves a response. I would never say, nor would I imply that the previous advising system was perfect. We certainly have our share of indifferent or downright poor advisors. For these persons, it is unlikely that any training or experience will raise their performance standards--like the person you experienced, they either don't know anything or simply don't care.

      This circumstance is exacerbated exponentially when the advising loads are as staggering and multi-programmatic as they are here. In this case, even advisors who take pride in their work (the majority in my experience) will see their performance suffer. Thus, the reason for advising dysfunction cannot solely be the responsibility of the individual advisor. Finally, if someone is performing at a sub-standard level, disciplinary remedies exist up to and including termination. In a setting in which the structure is like the one we currently possess, those remedies become moot--the staff simply have no chance. As far as your final questions, universities do calculate both 4-year and 6-year graduation rates, although the 6-year rate is the one used to measure a school's performance. It's important to understand that this graduation rate only measures students who enroll at a university for their first semester then subsequently graduate from that university (or do not graduate). Anyone transferring is not counted in that calculation. In our case, the percentage of students to which that graduation calculus applies is an average of around 7 percent. That means that 93 percent of our students will never be counted. Anyone coming from another university or a community college is not counted. Part-time students are not counted. We typically have a part-time population of around 33 percent. The only schools whose graduation rates fit the model are universities with large residential student populations (ie. University of Illinois).

    2. I thank you for your acknowledgement and response. By no means did I want to infer that all of the advisory department at CSU is incompetent and is solely to blame for the state of disarray - it was more of a need to vent the frustrations at having been assigned to an advisor who is obviously lacking either that knowledge or desire for quality performance. I feel for the students where their only source of support is an advisor like the one we've experienced. The administration at CSU has faltered in not providing the students the basic resources to take on that responsibility. Even the Evaluations office has said that a student can't use the Degree Evaluation module in their student portal as a curriculum planning tool because it is outdated and inaccurate. How are transfer students supposed to get a solid answer or understanding as to how their transferred credits were applied and what classes are left that they need to take? Sorry, again as I am venting.

      The information you have provided both here, and in your previous posts regarding how graduation rates are calculated has been very informative. It seems, with the growing enrollment over the past few years at community colleges, that under this formula, a lot of university will see declines in graduation rates if transfer students are not inclusive to that calculation. What I was trying to question more though in the 4 yr. vs. 6 yr. graduation rates, is simply...why does it take a full time student (transfer or not) 6 years to graduate? Are students nowadays only taking 12 credit hours on average each semester thus prolonging graduation? What are the factors that cause those students, carrying full course loads to not be able to graduate within a 4 year period? Is it poor advising? Changing majors? Failing or withdrawing from classes?

    3. I think it has been common for a number of years for students to take more than 4 years to graduate. All the factors you mentioned might contribute. Also, life sometimes intervenes. You might find these figures interesting, they track graduation rates for 4, 5, and 6 years (through the 2007 cohort):