As part of our Curious UNM project, our reporters are taking questions about the University of New Mexico. These questions can look at any aspect of life on campus, from historical moments to current events. This story by Sevía Gonzales looks at the question of “Why is it so difficult to schedule meetings with advisors?”
By Sevía Gonzales / NM News Port
The College of Arts and Sciences rang in the start of the Spring 2020 semester with a new A&S Advisement Center texting system, which lets students ask questions and receive guidance from their cell phones.
The system was made available earlier this year via a mass-text. The goal is to make advisement services “more accessible” to UNM’s Arts and Sciences students.
“It was based on our experience that response rates to emails are low… and students get a lot of email,” Associate Dean for Curriculum and Instruction Diane Marshall said. “We really want to be sure that students have every possible chance to know what’s coming up and to know that we’d like to hear from them.”
According to Stephanie Hands, Manager of Academic Advisement, the plan is not to completely replace the current email and in-person structure of A&S advisement, but to build on existing systems to better fit the evolving needs of students.
“We decided that texting may reach more students and in a mode that resonates with them,” Hands said.
The move to more accessible communication can also save money and improve graduation rates. Large caseloads and massive gaps in advisor salaries across departments could also improve.
Advocacy organization Complete College America reports that just 36% of full-time students seeking undergraduate degrees at flagship universities graduate within 4 years. The report also found that many students waste time and money earning credits that don’t contribute to their degree, accumulating an average of just over 136 credits for bachelor’s degrees with 120 credit hour standards.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Some College, No Degree report, some 36 million Americans dropped out of college without a completed degree.
Active advisement plays a crucial role in getting students where they want to go — helping them choose the right courses and scheduling them in the most efficient way. Having an in-person connection on campus also strengthens engagement, which has been shown to foster student success.
The functionality of a primarily face-to-face system however, rides on the ability of advisors –in an office rife with turnover and limited availability –to handle student appointments.
Accounting student Jake Miller, who is in his third year at UNM, said he would take advantage of a system that would let him skip in-person meetings.
“I don’t know if I would ever go in there if there was a [more accessible] online option,” Miller said. “It’s just hard for me to get in with them…I had a lot of conflicts with other classes going on and work so there’d be times I’d need to sign up for a class but I can’t meet.”
UNM’s advisor to student ratio is on par with the national average for public bachelor institutions, at just over 260 students per advisor.
However, keeping advisement departments staffed is an area of struggle, due to lack of funding.
According to Marshall, over 95% of the annual budget is committed to the salaries of existing personnel within the college. UNM’s Operating and Capital Budget plans for the 2020 fiscal year show an allocation of just under $68 million for Arts and Sciences – up from $66 million in 2019 – about 35 percent of the general budget for main campus academic affairs.
Despite the increased funding, Marshall said that budget cuts have created substantial salary disparities between advisement departments across campus. This inequity, and the resulting turnover, Marshall said, is one of the main challenges in retaining advisement staff and ensuring continuity of service for students.
In fact, UNM’s Sunshine Portal shows the salary of the highest paid advisor to be nearly double that of the lowest paid, a gap of just under $28,000.
Among the top 10 highest paid advisors listed, not one serves a department within Arts and Sciences, the largest college on campus.The highest salary for an A&S advisor still sees a gap of over $9,000 with the best-paid advisor at UNM, who oversees students in the Dental Hygiene program.
Of the 10 lowest advisor salaries, seven go to those serving Arts and Sciences departments. The lowest advisor salary overall also goes to A&S, at just over $30,000, according to the UNM Salary Book’s latest data. What’s more, there’s a nearly $19,000 pay gap between the highest and lowest salaried advisors within Arts and Sciences itself.
As advisement personnel leave their seats with the office for better-paying positions at UNM and elsewhere, students are hit the hardest, as their relationships with advisors are uprooted and they are forced to start over with someone new every time an advisor leaves.
“That always is a disruption of the flow, I mean, we can’t tell them they can’t move to other jobs,” Marshall said.
But meeting consistently with the same advisor throughout their college career seems to make little difference to students.
“I do see the same guy every time. But it is a little frustrating because he sees so many people that he doesn’t remember my situation, so I am re-explaining,” Miller said. “It seems to be very surface level advice, therefore not very valuable.”
What students seem to want is a new system that they can access at any time and which could offer guidance regardless of an advisor’s in-person availability.
“They just have so many kids they have to deal with that they really don’t want to get in too much depth with any one kid,” Miller said. “It’s not my advisor’s fault but the system he’s built into.”
The new texting system marks a step in this direction and according to Marshall, an interactive “student pathway” workflow that would allow students to view and track their progress and options in real time is also in the works.
Plans to address the advisor pay gap are also moving forward. Marshall said an overhaul is to be expected in the coming months, as negotiations between UNM Human Relations and the staff union are settled.
“They’re in the final stages of working that out… I believe within the next six months we’ll have some adjustments to get closer to salary parity across colleges,” Marshall said.
UPDATE: All UNM advisement services have moved to remote and online platforms following nationwide shutdowns due to COVID-19.
Sevía Gonzales is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. She can be contacted on Twitter @GonzalesSevia or at firstname.lastname@example.org.