As an incoming Western Washington University student, Jen Black was excited to take an integral step in the journey of becoming a Viking. In the fall of 2021, Black sat down at a computer and joined a Zoom meeting: Western’s newly-implemented online freshman orientation.
The experience, however, was not what Black had hoped for — and Black’s general disappointment is a sentiment held by more than a few classmates.
“When I met with an adviser then, it would have been really nice to have that person help plot and plan at least a couple of quarters out with me to make sure I was good to go,” Black said. “She more said, ‘You should do these few classes your first quarter and then figure it out.’”
In the fall of 2022, Western had the largest freshman enrollment in its history with 3,223 new first-year students. The transfer student headcount came in at 919. This influx of new students comes at a time when the university is trying to increase first-year retention rates from around 80% to around 90%, and six-year graduation rates from 70% to 80%.
Western’s advising system may be holding students back from graduating on time, according to the Western Educational Longitudinal Study exit survey. Between 2010 and 2020, 38-48% of graduating students chose “I received poor advising prior to declaring my major'' as a major or minor reason their graduation was delayed.
The Office of Institutional Effectiveness administers this annual survey and publishes the results online. According to this data, student sentiment toward academic advising has worsened over time.
This chart shows percentage of WELS survey respondents who chose "I received poor advising prior to declaring my major."
This chart shows the percentage of WELS survey respondents who chose "I received poor advising from my major department."
Western’s Academic Advising Center is open to all students but is particularly crucial for undeclared students who do not have a major adviser. The student-to-adviser ratio is 1-to-518, well above the National Academic Advising Association recommendation of 1-to-300-350.
Following this ratio, each adviser would need to set aside 130 hours to meet once with every student. This equates to 3 1/2 weeks of 40-hour work days.
To ease some of this pressure, Western follows a student-led advising model that puts the responsibility on students to seek out advising. Studies by the NACADA recommend a mandatory advising model, where each student is required to meet with an assigned adviser.
Once a student declares their major, they are left to the whims of each department's unique advising system. Departmental advising practices vary widely, and according to the undergraduate exit survey, so does student sentiment about each department’s advising experience.
Many transfer students feel they are overlooked by Western’s advising system. They can struggle with coming from a college that has a different advising model than Western — where they do not receive any specialized advising compared to first-year students.
To combat these issues, Western President Sabah Randhawa initiated the application process for the university to join Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. One of the program’s main focuses is transfer-specific advising.
Sarah Wilson is the executive director of Student Success Initiatives, an organ of WWU administration which houses the Academic Advising Center. She said Western needs 11 more advisers to fully implement mandatory advising. This year’s budget request to the state outlined a student retention package, including the addition of one full-time adviser.
“We're not going to get 11 new advisers,” Wilson said. “I don't even have a place to put 11 new advisers.”
In April, the request for one new adviser was denied.
Despite this setback, Western is attempting to stretch its resources to closer resemble national standards. This winter, Student Outreach Services began a pilot program for mandatory advising with a small caseload of students.
The request from Western’s Enrollment and Student Services office emphasized its staffing levels being “inadequate to support student demand of providing advising support and facilitating timely major declaration.”
The Academic Advising Center's on-campus office in Old Main is under construction to add five new office spaces to promote one-on-one time with students. Fifteen-minute Zoom meetings have replaced in-person advising since the start of construction during the early days of COVID-19.
For advisers, 15-minute meetings add up quickly, especially near the end of the quarter during the registration rush.
Last-minute panic about prerequisites, classes that aren’t offered every quarter and major application requirements add stress to both advisers and students when it comes time to sign up for next quarter’s classes.
These short meetings don’t give students and advisers enough time to cover all the factors that go into academic planning. Yumi Haskins, a second-year student at Western, said her first academic adviser meeting didn’t include time for going over Degree Works.
Degree Works, an online tool that lays out graduation requirements, shows students what portions of their degrees have or have not been completed. If a student has not completed all of their communication, qualitative and symbolic reasoning, and natural sciences General University Requirements, Degree Works will show a red circle next to the sections.
When the section is completed, the circle becomes green and a checkmark inside signals its completion. Utilizing the simple tool became Haskins’ favorite way of planning her academic future, yet she said she received no guidance on where to find it or how to use it.
Haskins did not fault the adviser; rather, she felt her Zoom meeting simply wasn’t enough time. She said the advising experience felt rushed, as the previous student’s meeting went over time, leading Haskins’ meeting to be even less than the 15-minute Western standard.
“I was not mad at them,” Haskins said. “But I was like, ‘This seems like a really short amount of time to be like seeing students back-to-back.’”
Haskins said longer meeting times would be helpful, but educating students on what their degrees require is also important.
“I feel like a lot of people — I know this is true of my friends — don't come into Western knowing exactly how their major works,” Haskins said.
While Western emphasizes the need for students to be proactive when it comes to understanding what their degree requires, its advising system — with only a single day of mandatory advising at the beginning of the college journey — allows room for students to miss important details.
Alumnus Andrew Glass said he feels more frequent mandatory advising would have benefited him during his time at Western.
From the time he was admitted to the point where he had passed all his biology prerequisite courses, he was not aware of Western’s student-led advising model and had not once been contacted by any advisers — neither in the Academic Advising Center nor in the physics department, his previous major.
On Western’s website, under “Academic Advising at Western,” the university describes a system of shared responsibility. Its statement reads:
“Western's expectations of students may be different from your last high school, college or university. At Western, academic advisers and faculty are well prepared to assist you, but rely on you to initiate advising conversations.”
This graph shows major reasons cited for delayed graduation in the 2020 WELS survey.
Sharon Aiken-Wisniewski, assistant vice provost of Academic Advising at the University of Arizona, said this model is not ideal for student success.
“There has to be leadership that's really fostering [and] nurturing that care within academic advising because academic advising is a tricky job,” she said. “We're here to support students, but we're also here to enforce [university] policy.”
After a few years of cruising by without help from an adviser, Glass reached out to faculty he trusted within the biology program.
“I thought I had it figured out basically, and it took a really bad academic quarter before I even thought about reaching out to anybody,” he said.
This gave him more direction going forward. However, Glass’ degree took two quarters longer than expected to complete.
After Glass graduated in 2018, he attended Oregon State University to earn his master’s degree. Glass participated in extracurriculars where he interacted with undergraduate students, and overheard talk of mandatory yearly advising. Some majors even required quarterly pre-registration advising at the university.
“I know they complain a lot about it, because, you know, they’re young and don’t know the benefit,” Glass said. “But, oh boy, I feel like I would have done a lot better in my undergrad if I had that sort of forced advising.”
Aside from orientation, the only other required meeting through the Academic Advising Center comes if a student reaches 105 credits without declaring a major. At this point, they are put on a registration hold and cannot sign up for more classes until meeting with an adviser.
Students are typically juniors when they reach this threshold unless they came in with transfer credits.
“Those students are a retention risk,” Wilson said. “They're not on the path to finish anything.”
During Wilson’s time at Western, she has written and contributed to numerous budget proposals. Almost all of the proposals included requests for more advisers. Since 2019, the number of full-time employees in the Academic Advising Center’s division has decreased, while multiple requests for more staff have been rejected.
The idea of mandatory advising, specifically for nursing students, first appeared in Western’s 2007-2009 budget proposal. At the time, Washington was experiencing a shortage of healthcare practitioners, and the initiative was meant to create a pipeline to those careers. Since 2015, at least one new academic adviser has been requested.
In the most recent budget proposal, Western requested a recurring budget of $90,000 to hire one adviser for 2024 and 2025. This amounts to around 2% of the total first-year student retention package. The package was focused on improving student success and included two new disability counselors, 14 new tenure-track faculty and an expansion of freshman English and math courses.
Wilson said Western anticipates an “enrollment cliff” — or a decline in new students after this
year. Enrollment is estimated based on birth rates 18 years prior. She believes that this is
another inspiration behind Western’s current focus on retention, which has reignited the
conversation surrounding advising’s role in student success.
If the state did approve the funding for a new adviser, this price tag would represent 0.07% of the almost $240 million granted.
The Academic Advising Center doesn’t have enough state funding for academic advisers to match the needed level of student assistance. Melynda Huskey, vice president of Enrollment and Student Services, said small pieces of the budget — like a staff adviser — can be overlooked and slip through the legislative cracks.
“In new majors and in research, the legislature is very generous to us,” Huskey said. “But in the big picture, one or two advisers, I mean, that's budget dust to the legislature.”
Craig Moyer, a professor in the biology department, received little to no guidance in advising students when he first taught at Western in 2012. To his knowledge, there is still no training in place.
Western’s tenured or tenured-track professors split their time between three responsibilities: teaching, scholarship and service. A main component of the service category is student advising.
Moyer estimates that a third of his time is dedicated to advising students. This quarter, he was assigned 28 students. He also casually advises students who are not assigned to him. Including “adopted advisees,” his workload jumps to around 40 students.
“I seem to always have at least one or two folks that I've never talked to before They might have been on my official list, they might have been on somebody else's official list, but they're not going to talk to them with that quick of a turnaround and they're desperate,” Moyer said. “I feel like I'm doing more emotional support than I am actually advising. Which, that's OK too.”
Glass sought out advice from Mike Williams, an instructor within the biology department who he trusted, rather than his major adviser.
Glass said one of the things he appreciated about Williams was that he didn’t jump straight into the advising aspect of their relationship. Instead, they would start their meetings by talking about how their days went.
“It was kind of just more personable,” Glass said. “And being able to kind of relax and know that the person at the other end of the table is a person and not just an authority figure.”
The biology department has 34 faculty members and seven different major emphases. Moyer feels that with the growth of the department over the past decade, the community is not as tight-knit as it once was.
“You're probably not gonna get to the bottom of the problem or solve everything in the first meeting or the second meeting,” Moyer said. “Sometimes they have to get to know you, and there has to be a comfort level there before they'll open up and tell you what they really want to do or what their goals are.”
Elizabeth Baldridge, who worked as the coordinator of Academic Support Services in the Center for the First-Year Experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, views practices like faculty adviser training as a key to successful departmental advising.
"A lot of what faculty advisers spend their time on can be the most time-consuming, and faculty advising is the mentorship piece,” she said. “So I think that's most important, receiving training or professional development around mentoring students."
Baldridge highlighted the importance of coordinated efforts in onboarding new faculty members. She mentioned the need for assistance in learning the technology behind advising and understanding the advising expectations of the department. This kind of support can be beneficial for faculty advisers who may be new to the role.
Some of the technologies Western’s advising system has implemented include Degree Works, planning sheets and Navigate. Navigate is a platform that allows advisers across campus to communicate about students' needs.
Unlike Degree Works, Navigate is only used by academic and faculty advisers, not students. It has the student’s degree and course information, and advisers can leave notes or meeting summaries on a student’s profile.
Conflicting advice from different advisers can be a challenge for students, Baldridge said.
Some departments, like those within the College of Business and Economics, have faculty advisers whose main role is to advise. The CBE’s student success specialist Teri Hall advises pre-major and business interest students.
The CBE has five departments. In the 2019-20 academic year 618 students graduated with a business degree. Business administration, management and operations was the fourth most popular field of study at Western with 154 graduates, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Hall has worked with roughly 1,000 students per year since the pilot program began in 2014.
“If Western could implement a program like the one CBE has piloted where there is an academic adviser for each college, who does the same sort of outreach I do for all programs housed in the college, we might begin to meet the needs of students who, on their educational path, are feeling lost or confused,” Hall said.
Ashley VanCurler, Western alumna and program coordinator for Western’s Department of Theatre and Dance, has a similar role to Hall in a smaller department.
In 2014, she was hired to be a point of contact for students before referring them to a faculty adviser. Faculty left their positions following COVID-19, and the Theatre Arts program saw an opportunity to reorganize. VanCurler became the primary adviser to theatre majors, while faculty advisers focused on specialized programs and career opportunities.
“We were noticing people weren't getting advising because they weren't coming in to ask questions because they thought they couldn’t,” VanCurler said. “That was a faculty decision, we needed to open the doors.”
Pre-majors or students with an interest in a theatre degree can direct their questions toward VanCurler before establishing a trusting relationship with professors. This system provides another avenue for undeclared students to seek help charting their college pathways, aside from the Academic Advising Center.
“Y'all pay good tuition for us to be here for you – use it,” VanCurler said.
VanCurler said there are around 10 faculty advisers and 150 majors within the theatre department this year. These numbers boast a more than ideal student-adviser ratio of 1-to-15, not including students who are undeclared or have a minor in theatre.
Since 2014, 27% of theatre majors who took the WELS survey cited poor major advising. In the past four years, the percentage of students who blamed poor theatre advising has steadily decreased.
VanCurler was not aware that this data existed. The survey is published online, but OIE has disabled permissions for users to download the data in an Excel spreadsheet for further analysis.
This graph shows the percentage of theatre students who chose "I received poor advising from my major department."
The OIE conducts this survey and publishes the data. When an undergraduate completes the
survey, OIE sends a thank-you email, claiming this survey has led to improvements in Western's advising. Student sentiment regarding major advising worsened over 10 years, reaching a new low in the 2020 survey.
Rather than offering transfer-specific advising to help students understand these processes, the Academic Advising Center treats transfer student advising the same way it treats first-year advising, said Meagan Bryson, assistant director of Advising Services.
“I thought I was going to be graduating in the fall [of 2023],” said Black, who transferred to Western from Whatcom Community College in 2021. “Even with taking summer classes this summer I'm probably not going to graduate, just because I can't take more credits … and one of the quarters they're not even offering the class that I need.”
The only difference is transfer students receive additional messages to connect with academic departments for major- and minor-specific advising.
When transferring, Black said the process did not go smoothly. Black did not know what classes were still needed for a degree or what credits had transferred.
In the WELS survey, 30% of students who had delayed graduation claimed they lost credits when transferring from another institution.
Black, like Glass, said sitting down with an adviser for a longer period — looking at Degree Works and sifting through which credits counted for which courses — would have been highly beneficial.
“My graduation is delayed because I didn't have that,” Black said.
Black is a biology major and American cultural studies minor and said the assigned adviser within the biology department was not responsive or helpful, making it impossible to form an individualized relationship.
In the American cultural studies department, however, Black was able to find assistance. Even though Black’s minor adviser has no connection to science majors, she has been stepping up to fill the gaps.
“I'm very thankful to her,” Black said. “And she doesn't even advise other students anymore and she has just kept me and a handful of other students to advise.”
Western’s lack of transfer-specific advising allows both students and credits to slip through the cracks.
Aiken-Wisniewski said a solution to this could involve Western implementing transfer-specific advising models.
“Some state systems have worked out articulation plans that make moving from a two-year to a four-year institution pretty straightforward for a transfer student,” she said. “Many institutions have programs and resources for first-time students but not as many or no programs for transfer students.”
To assist transfer students in making their transition to Western smoother, Randhawa initiated the application process and joined the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. Robert Squires, vice provost for outreach and continuing learning, oversees the program at Western.
Squires said providing tailored advising for transfer students is one of the program’s three key goals.
“They need guidance — to help decide which pathway to follow, to help identify resources and plan how to use them, to navigate the inevitable obstacles they encounter along the way, and, in many cases, to reassure them that they really are capable of succeeding,” reads Aspen Institute’s Transfer Playbook.
Aiken-Wisniewski echoed these transfer-specific needs and said the larger span of ages in the transfer-student population is another reason they often need individualized advising and support.
“If the student is going to spend less time on the four-year campus, they might not have high-impact practices such as research, internships or Honors programs,” she said.
Top 5 tips to mastering Western’s current advising system:
- Reach out far in advance — sooner than you think you need to — and get an appointment before the registration rush, Aiken-Wisniewski said.
- When applying to Western, students are required to state an interest. To keep the Academic Advising Center updated, students should update their intended interests frequently as they go through courses, Wilson said.
- Don’t be afraid that you’re reaching out to the wrong person. Even if you are, Western faculty can assist you in getting to the right person for your concerns, VanCurler said.
- Visit the Academic Advising Center at least once per quarter before declaring your major and check in with your departmental adviser once per quarter thereafter, Bryson said.
- Learn the ins and outs of Degree Works and Web4U as much as possible. These will help ensure you know what classes you need to register for and when, Haskins said.
Without appropriate funding for a growing student body, Wilson and her team of advisers are forced to reorganize and experiment with the resources they do have to contribute to Western’s broader goal of increasing student success.
“I literally don't have enough advising staff to try to mandate [advising] for all first-year students,” Wilson said. “But we are clearly moving in that direction.”
Student Outreach Services, which is housed in the Student Success Initiatives unit along with Academic Advising, is leading a mandatory advising pilot program that began this winter. Nine hundred first-year, first-generation and/or Pell Grant-eligible students were chosen for the program.
These students were identified during the admissions process and are already assigned an academic support coordinator through Student Outreach Services. Wilson said her team will review the results of this pilot program this summer, with the goal of improving support to students deemed a retention risk over the next few years.
Huskey said the university's ultimate goal is to mandate advising for all first-year students, and potentially second-year students. Students would likely need to meet with an adviser once a quarter before registering for classes under this model.
Aiken-Wisniewski has firsthand experience with starting a mandatory advising program, which she helped to implement during her previous job at the University of Utah.
“We collected data to show that there was a change, not only in retention, but there was also a change in graduation rates when students were coming in and interacting with their advisers,” she said.
Aiken-Wisniewski reiterated the need for intentional relationship building between students and advisers, and said that was a priority in the University of Utah’s pilot program.
“It wasn't a willy-nilly type thing,” she said. “We were very clear about what that interaction would look like.”
Researchers at NACADA have found that mandatory advising may “be the best option for a particular campus to achieve campus-designated outcomes.” The association has also conducted studies that found students favor required advising, though mandatory advising is not an instant solution to improving graduation and retention rates at every university.
The complexity of implementing this model can often stop universities from doing so, as has happened at Western.
Western’s Academic Advising Center did see one victory from the state’s budget: funding for a new student development and success center. According to the predesign report, this building will accommodate Student Success Initiatives, Enrollment Management and Counseling, Health and Wellness Services. It will also include a new welcome center.
Both the Academic Advising Center and Admissions, which is a unit of the Enrollment Management Division, are currently housed in Old Main. Wilson said these departments will now be more accessible to students and families, as this building is situated at one end of campus and can act as a “front door.”
The plan is to start construction sometime in 2024, to be finished in 2025, Huskey said. In the meantime, Wilson’s team is used to streamlining the process to its fullest potential — in the absence of much-needed staff roles.
Wilson recently hired Thanh Tran as a Navigate administrator. Navigate allows advisers across campus to communicate about students' needs.
“I think my magic wand was hiring her to work a hundred percent with that product and really utilize it more fully,” Wilson said. “We can get advisers, staff and faculty across campus talking more with each other in ways that I think will enhance our retention efforts quite a bit.”
When Wilson envisions the future of the Academic Advising Center, she sees expanding its reach with drop-in advising throughout the campus community. In current advising meetings, ideas about collaborating with the Tutoring Center, the Disability Access Center and the Veteran Services Office are circling.
Huskey emphasized her number one priority as hiring more staff to implement mandatory advising, though that process can be slow and discouraging. It is a matter of consistently pushing for a place in the budget, and showing evidence that improving advising will improve student success.
“We have got to come up with a better name than mandatory advising, which makes it sound like a punishment,” Huskey said. “Because what it really is, is engaging in advising. We want students to be connected, not just to what classes they need to take, but to all of the campus resources that advising can support them with.”
Tableau is OIE’s preferred method to publish summary data. Unlike many other online data formats that are simple to scrape using basic coding, Tableau is not easy to scrape from a screen. Tableau does allow data to be downloaded or put into a workbook, but OIE has turned off those functions for the WELS data.
We first confirmed the survey software OIE uses – LimeSurvey – is capable of being exported into an Excel spreadsheet. “How to export LimeSurvey data into Excel” is the first item in LimeSurvey’s online instruction manual. We then sent a public records request to OIE Director John Krieg requesting the public data regarding questions about advising in Excel format so we could analyze it by department and perform other analyses. Krieg twice responded, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”
The state’s public records law stipulates that the holder of public data has five business days to respond to a request for public information. Krieg failed to provide a valid response within the legal deadline. When contacted again about the missed deadline, Krieg referred the inquiry to Western’s Assistant Attorney General Melissa Nelson and University Policy & Public Records Director Dolapo Akinrinade.
Akinrinade denied the request for public information saying, “The Public Records Act does not require that state agencies create new records to fulfill public records requests” and directing us to a link to the online data.
However, we did not ask for new records to be created, we asked for the records in Excel format so we could analyze the data. The state’s public records law contains a “fullest assistance” provision (WAC 44-14-04003) that states, “If an agency translates a record into an alternative electronic format at the request of a requestor, the copy created does not constitute a new public record.”
We sought assistance from two data consultants to scrape the public data. One was ultimately able to load the data into Excel for analysis. Our analysis was limited because we had access to only one question in the 218-question survey. We focused on the question regarding advising and graduation rates, which asks, “Which of the following were a major or minor reason for your graduation being delayed?” It offers students the response options of “I received poor advising from my department” and “I received poor advising prior to declaring my major.” For each of these questions, students are able to choose “major factor,” “minor factor,” or “not a factor.” For our analysis, we combined all students who said poor advising was a factor (whether major or minor) in delaying their graduation.
It's important to acknowledge this data does not capture students who felt they experienced poor advising but for whom it did not delay their graduation. That means our data may have undercounted students who were dissatisfied with advising.
Over time the question was moved from the end of the survey (question #210), to the middle (between questions #25 and #70) to the beginning of the survey (question #5), which may mean students paid less attention to the survey in prior years.
We sent emails to various departments and colleges at Western asking for adviser-to-student ratios within their departments. In the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, for example, tenured and tenure-track professors are required to turn in an annual activity report indicating the number of students they advise. We hoped that this data would provide insight into the advising workload across departments and colleges.
On April 18, we emailed Deborah Arthur, the operations manager of Woodring College of Education, who did not respond.
On April 16, we emailed Karen Piela, operations manager of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. She said that the college does not tabulate the data from the annual activity reports. The OIE and the Registrar’s Office also said that they did not have this information centralized on April 24.
On April 16, we emailed the College of the Environment, to which Department Chair Rebekah Paci-Green and Undergraduate Adviser Kathryn Patrick expressed concerns about our ability to accurately represent this data. Paci-Green sent us to the dean's office for this information. We then reached out to Linda Lutrell, the operations manager for the College of the Environment’s dean’s office, who sent us to the department managers. Our emails to the department managers were forwarded back to Paci-Green, who again denied our request.
Isabella Loy (she/her) is one of two copy editors for The Front this quarter. She's a fourth-year transfer student majoring in news/ed journalism with a concentration in Religious Studies. She has also worked on publications at her community college and at Western's magazine, Klipsun. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ravi Regan-Hughes (he/him) is the campus editor this quarter. He is a news and editorial journalism major, an anthropology minor and was previously a sports reporter for The Front. Ravi enjoys spending his free time watching basketball, taking photos and being outside.
You can reach him at email@example.com.
Meghan Fenwick is a senior at Western Washington University and a campus reporter for The Front. She is majoring in environmental journalism.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe Kramer (he/him) is a sports reporter for The Front. He is an aspiring sportswriter majoring in journalism. Outside of journalism, he enjoys baseball and spending time with his family, especially the dogs.