Advising isn’t working. How does Yale plan to fix it?
Students and administrators alike say that undergraduate advising needs to improve. But how that might happen is not yet certain.
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
Lula Talenfeld ’25 did not hear from her advisor during the crucial first weeks of the fall semester. When she finally succeeded in tracking her advisor down, the two had a ten minute call over Zoom and have not followed up since.
“I didn’t know who my advisor was,” Talenfeld ’25 said. “She never reached out to me, ever. Then we had a little ten minute Zoom where she was like ‘it seems like you know what you’re doing’, and then we never talked again.”
In interviews with the News, dozens of Yale College students recounted similar experiences with the University’s advising system. Many students emphasized that their advisors were friendly and willing to provide support, but that they lacked the knowledge to make recommendations on selecting courses or other academic opportunities. Others simply never met their advisors at all.
Many four-year colleges, including Yale, tout low class sizes and close student-faculty relationships as integral components of the liberal arts education. But interviews with faculty, administration and students revealed a growing impression that the state of advising at Yale is falling short of students’ needs and that the system is due for an overhaul.
“I think advising has gone downhill,” said Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’82 ’02, a professor of history who advises around a dozen students, ranging from first years to seniors. “Generally speaking, when I was a student, faculty met with students fairly often, and there was a sense of camaraderie. And I think that’s declined a little bit.”
His ideal advisor, Gitlin said, should act as a “uncle.” He recalled his own advisor, professor emeritus of history Howard Lomar, treating him as a member of his family.
Yale undergraduates are typically assigned a slate of advisors to guide them through course selection and help them access career and extracurricular resources. First-year advisors, typically fellows within a student’s residential college, are generally the first step. Residential college deans and heads are another source of early support, as are first-year counselors, who are typically closest in experience to issues that underclassmen face. Rising sophomores may then choose a new faculty member to become an academic advisor or remain with their previous first-year advisor. Later on, as students begin choosing majors and concentrations, the directors of undergraduate studies in each program or department become primary advisors, as do the faculty members who ultimately serve as thesis advisors. All in all, students have access to at least half a dozen advisors during their four years at Yale.
But many students report underwhelming experiences with advising — especially with the first-year academic advisor system. Out of 35 undergraduate students asked by the News whether they found the advising system to be helpful, 30 said that they did not. Some reported that they had not expected much out of their advisors to begin with, while others said they felt let down and struggled with constructing schedules or exploring various fields on their own. Students noted that first-year academic advisors were often unable to answer questions about course selection or did not have knowledge of Yale College.
“I feel like my advisor had good intentions, but I didn’t find our meeting particularly helpful,” Cindy Li ’25 said. “After the first meeting, I didn’t really feel like it was worth reaching out for a second one.”
First-year advisors are volunteers drawn from nearly every corner of the University and are not necessarily professors. They may bring a wide range of experience to their advising, but this sometimes comes at the expense of their ability to offer specific advice for undergraduate course selection and long-term planning, students said.
“My advisor has been pretty helpful as far as navigating Yale goes, helping me explore the resources and options that Yale students have available to them such as study abroad programs,” Justin Dominic ’25 said. “But when it comes to academic advising, I feel like they haven’t been as helpful.”
Another issue with the advising system, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, is that students are not meeting with their advisors with the same frequency and depth.
Several students interviewed by the News have only met with their advisors once since the beginning of the year — for the mandatory initial meetings that occured in August and September.
“The first and only time we met was at the beginning of last semester,” Samuel Getachew ’25 told the News.
University administrators, Dean of Undergraduate Education Pamela Schirmeister are exploring ways to make these advising relationships less transactional while encouraging follow-up meetings. She further emphasized the significance of understanding student needs with respect to advising, noting a possible disconnect in what students and faculty expect from the advising relationship.
“I think the faculty and the administration feel that there should be holistic advising conversations, not ‘take these six courses,’ but ‘what do you want out of your education?’” Schirmeister said. “But my sense is that students do not want to have those conversations. And I feel in a way, what they want is something more transactional, like out of these four physics courses, how do I know which one to take?”
Questions about specific courses are often directed at first-year counselors, or FroCos. FroCo Luis León Medina ’22 explained that many of the academic needs of first-year students can be met with the help of peer-to-peer advising, with students who have had years of experience in Yale College providing first years with practical scheduling and course selection advice.
But while this system has proven helpful for many first-year students, it cannot fill all the gaps left by the current advising system, León Medina said. FroCos can provide advice based on their experience, but are limited as a group in the breadth of academic subjects on which they can offer insight.
“While the FroCo job is a team effort, there are limitations of the number of majors that a group of 8 -10 seniors has sufficient knowledge about to be able to support every first-year properly,” León Medina wrote to the News. “Yale students love being able to provide support. However, peer-to-peer shouldn’t be the only resource for students. It shouldn’t be solely in my hands as FroCo (as someone majoring in sociology) to sway a student one way or another.”
Administrators appear to be aware of the system’s shortcomings: about five years ago, a new committee called the Committee on Advising, Placement and Enrollment was formed. This committee, alongside various University deans and administrators, enacted a number of policy changes, such as the shift to an early registration system as well as the removal of the signature requirement for schedule approval.
But professors such as Gitlin see the ensuing shift to online advising as harmful to the characteristically personal component of the advisor-advisee relationship. English professor Leslie Brisman specifically condemned the elimination of the signature requirement, and Schirmeister concurred, explaining that while it was intended to make advisor meetings more than just about getting a signature, instead it made the meetings stop occurring altogether.
“Now students do not need to consult us at all before more or less deciding on their programs, and even if they do, we are no longer asked to approve a program but to attest that we have spoken with the student about it,” Brisman wrote to the News in February. “Yale is still the Ivy League school with the most commitment to teaching, but the abolition of faculty advising is a blow to the values that commitment represents.”
The Committee on Advising, Placement and Enrollment is not convening in 2021-22, but the Committee on Teaching, Learning and Advising will meet. Advising was not a focus of that committee this year, Schirmeister said, but will likely be taken up by the committee in depth during the next academic year.
When considering why the advising system seems to have unraveled in recent years, Karin Gosselink, the director of the undergraduate Academic Strategies Program and a co-supervisor of the First-Generation, Low-Income Community Initiative, said that the University has not kept pace with the needs of a student body that is increasingly coming from more varied backgrounds. Yale has undergone radical change in the diversity of its students with respect to racial and ethnic diversity, socioeconomic diversity and a diversity in past educational experience, she noted. These differences in student experience, she said, mean that the advising system must adjust as well.
“The need that’s emerging is this differential between the expectations that the old system had when we had a more homogenous student body with a more homogenous degree of experiences and the radical diversity of our student experiences,” Gosselink said.
Faculty may also be discussing the state of advising now because of the establishment of the Poorvu Center and the increased visibility of low-income students on campus.
Changing advising seems to be a process of trial-and-error and could take some years. The elimination of the signature requirement, for example, served as a reminder that a policy shift meant to strengthen the advising system — and which had seen approval in focus groups conducted by Schirmeister and another dean — can, in practice, end up having negative effects on advisor-advisee relationships.
Risa Sodi, assistant dean of Yale College and director of advising and special programs at Yale, told the News that she is working with Dean of Academic Programs George Levesque and Schirmeister to develop a summer advising plan, which they hope to finalize in the next few weeks.
“A team within the YCDO has been working on designing enhancements to advising, to be implemented as early as this summer,” Sodi wrote to the News. “A range of options is under consideration, with a focus on providing summer advising to incoming first-year students, transfer students, and Eli Whitney students, and better aligning advising with our online registration system. We hope to be able to announce some new initiatives soon.”
Sodi also acknowledged the continued role of the dean of Yale College in addressing undergraduate advising through various responsibilities. The dean is in charge of convening the Teaching, Learning and Advising Committee as well as maintaining regular contact with heads of college, directors of undergraduate studies, department chairs and the Office of Undergraduate Education. The policy agenda of the next dean will likely influence the future of undergraduate advising, she said.
Yale College Dean Marvin Chun concludes his term on June 30, 2022. His successor has not yet been announced.