By Tim Leeds
Student advising at Montana State University-Northern leaped to a new level today.
A new student Advising Center opened today in Cowan Hall, with two full-time staffers to help students design their academic program at the university.
"It's a win-win situation," said Shad Huston, admissions specialist at the center.
Huston said the center will make it much easier for students to plan their class schedule, enter into social life at the university and learn how to apply for financial aid and register for college courses online. The university will hopefully have better recruitment and retention rates as a result, he said.
Chancellor Alex Capdeville and Vice Chancellor Chuck Jensen were instrumental in getting the center started, Huston said.
"They were coming in with the idea that this institution works well, but we can do much better," he said.
Huston said Northern's faculty supported creating the center, which is a little unusual. Faculty often opposes advising centers, he said.
Montana State University-Billings opened an advising center about six years ago, with the university's faculty opposing it, Huston said. But after five years the faculty is starting to recognize the center as a valuable tool, he added.
Billings and Northern are the only universities in the state with advising centers, he said.
Huston said Northern has been able to see what mistakes were made in Billings and learn from that, he said.
Curt Kochner, director of the Billings advising center, said the center has "worked great. The best thing that it has added for our campus is accessibility to academic advising for our incoming students."
Some faculty and staff weren't sure about the center at first, Kochner said, as is typical with any new idea. But that changed quickly.
"It did not take us long and we found we had great working relationships," he said.
The center will replace the traditional advising program at Northern, where students were assigned a faculty member to do the advising, and were responsible for collecting any signatures necessary to take the classes they needed. A problem with that, Huston said, is many entering students can't come to Northern until the summer, when many faculty members aren't available and the ones who are available are only on campus to teach summer classes.
"It's getting to the point that when new students come in they literally have to run around campus and get things signed," he said.
The center will allow students to make an appointment with Huston or Shauna Albrecht, the other admissions specialist at the center. The students will receive orientation in groups of four with Albrecht or Huston and a student representative, take placement tests, receive advising on what classes are appropriate for their major or interests, or what general education classes would be appropriate to take until they choose a major.
Huston said the center staff will do all of the running around, collecting any signatures needed and making sure the classes the students want are available.
Later in their career at the university, students will work with faculty advisers in selecting upper-division class work.
The center will work with each student as much as necessary, Huston said.
"Some students, all you have to do is point them in the right direction and they'll go with it. Others need help at all times," he said.
The work at Northern's center will go beyond just advising. It also will be actively involved in recruiting new students, and will survey students to find out why they chose Northern and what they like and don't like about the university.
Albrecht is working to make sure Northern has "articulation" agreements to make it easier for students to transfer to Northern.
The university already has agreements with many institutions in the state and out of the state to make sure classes will transfer. Albrecht said the new emphasis is to create "two plus two" articulations with all tribal and community colleges in the state. Students receiving a two-year degree from those colleges would be able to come to Northern and receive a four-year degree in the same area in two years.
National surveys show most students decide in the first five weeks of attending a university whether they will stay or transfer, Huston said. The center will work to find out how the students feel they are being treated, how their classes are going, how they liked the advising and orientation process and how they like student life. Using that data should help the university retain students, he said.
Huston said another advantage the center will give is consistency. Different faculty members, even from the same program, might advise very different schedules for students. Having the same staff giving initial advising to all students will increase consistency in recommendations.
The center will help centralize more of the programs at Northern. It is in the same building as student support services, the admissions office, the registrar's office and the financial aid office.
The office of the director of student life, Bill Lanier, is moving from the Student Union Building to the Advising Center too.
"The big part of all this is, hopefully, improved service to the students," Lanier said. " If we can make things a little bit easier, hopefully some of those things come back in the long run and improve retention."