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Behind the scenes: Office for Academic and Pre-Professional Advising

Ken Baron

Ken Baron, Director Academic and Pre-Professional Advising, has made the process of advising and registration more efficient through development of the online Advising Center.

Every large company has an IT department to facilitate business. But since most IT work is completed behind the scenes, there is a common perception that those departments don’t understand the actual business of the company. At UMBC, DoIT is doing everything they can to challenge this perception. They believe that by understanding the university, they can use their technology to make things better. “IT’s goal should be the mission of the university,” explains Arnold Foelster, Assistant Director of Student Administration at UMBC. “Otherwise, our technology is useless.”

In order to better serve the university, DoIT implemented the Student Administration module of PeopleSoft in 2009. SA supports many departments on campus such as Recruitment, Admissions, Registration, Student Billing, and Financial Aid. Ken Baron, the Director of Academic and Pre-Professional Advising, also heavily relies on SA. Through a sub-module of SA called the Advising Center, Baron and his office have been able to completely transform both the process of registration and the quality of advising that UMBC students receive.

Previous to using the online Advising Center, advisors would have to go into different places in the system to find information about specific students. During the advising appointment itself, there wasn’t an efficient way to record notes or see a student’s progress in his or her major. In order to remedy these problems, DoIT stepped in. “You know the technology is an impediment to someone being advised when it takes away from the advising process,” Foelster explains. With the goal of diminishing focus on the technology used to facilitate advising, DoIT created the online Advising Center and many of its familiar features such as Degree Audit and Advising Notes. This new system put all of the relevant information in front of advisors and allowed them to focus on the students during advising instead of navigating the system.

The online Advising Center has been a great asset to Baron and his office, where orientation is the primary activity each year. “Orientation may only take place over fifteen days during the summer, but it covers registration for the entire entering freshman and transfer class,” Baron points out. On average, the number of new UMBC students each year is between 2,300 and 2,400. Due to the high volume of new students, there’s a lot of preliminary work that needs to be done before orientation to make sure everything runs smoothly. In addition to regular staff members from the Office for Academic and Pre-Professional Advising, Baron assembles a team of about 100 other advisors from across campus. These advisors come from all departments and range from department chairs and advising coordinators to graduate students.

Leading up to orientation, the advisors are given in-depth training in order to familiarize them with the online Advising Center and ensure that the advising process remains efficient and standardized throughout each orientation session. On the actual day of each orientation, Baron and his team take over the 7th floor of the library. Each advisor is stationed at a computer, and students come through according to rotating groups. There isn’t always an advisor present from every academic department on campus, but students are matched with advisors as close to their major as possible.

Before this set-up, registration was completed in the Library basement. “The spirit was there, and we were doing the best we could,” Baron explains. Advisors had an electronic check sheet of general education requirements to guide the process. Now, more advanced tools are available to advisors to make advising more efficient. Degree Audit allows both the advisor and students to see how well their previous coursework and new schedule fits into their major. Baron says that one of the most helpful new features is the advising notes. The notes format was originally designed by Nancy Miller, Associate Director of Academic and Pre-Professional Advising, on a piece of notebook paper. The notes have a similar look in the actual system, and easily allow advisors to write a student’s reason for taking a certain class or even just general notes from the meeting. “Our goal is to stay on top of notes now, that way they’ll be there for review in later years as a student progresses,” Baron says. Even if a student changes majors, the notes are available in the system for any advisor to review.

Overall, the student response to orientation and registration has been very positive for the past few years. After students register with an advisor at orientation, they are asked to fill out a survey and rate their experience. According to last year’s data, the majority of students rated their satisfaction with the advising process and final schedules as 4.5 or 5 out of 5. Even if students are unhappy with their final schedules, Baron has found that they sometimes write in a comment saying that their advisor was still very helpful throughout the process. Many students also comment on the limited course availability. “Course availability is a hard issue for us to tackle because at the time of orientation, the rest of the university has already registered,” Baron explains. In order to manage the expectations of new students before they register, Baron relies on the Orientation Peer Advisors to give students a piece of bittersweet wisdom: Registration will be the most limiting today, but in following semesters you’ll have more and more access to the classes you want. In the meantime, advisors do their best to find general education classes that will count towards graduation requirements.

Baron also hopes that students will gain a sense of accountability from the new system. There are never any surprises since students are able to look at the degree audit at any point throughout the semester to see how their classes fit with their academic plan. In this way, Baron believes that students are empowered because they can see where they stand in their program and are capable of making changes accordingly. Essentially, the application of the online Advising Center has allowed students to help make the process more efficient. “It’s remarkable to pull up student records now and see how feasible second or even third majors are,” Baron says. “It’s great for advisors because they can talk about pros and cons of different programs and options instead of just trying to figure out what the student needs to graduate.”

One of the keys to the success of the online Advising Center and orientation has been the large amount of training and advocacy. Baron generally meets with a DoIT staff member every month or so to talk about changes to the system or any issues that have come up. Baron also holds many meetings with his staff and advising team throughout the year, which are not so much about using the advising technology but bringing people up to speed with changes and getting feedback from different departments.

The feedback that Baron has received has led to helpful changes such as allowing registration clearance to happen earlier. Current students must be cleared by an advisor before they register, and this process can sometimes be delayed if a student has a hold on his or her account. “Early advising means we’re figuring out those problems earlier and have more time to fix them,” Baron explains. The short amount of time between when the class schedule is released and when the first wave of students register can also be a problem since everyone is trying to make an appointment with their advisor. Clearing early leads to smaller lines, especially in Baron’s office where all undecided and allied health students must go to meet with an advisor.

Baron has also found that it isn’t necessary to have the class schedule when advising since there are many other important things to discussing during the appointment. He likes to promote the idea that advising is not the same as registration, which only happens twice per year. Instead, Baron says that advising can actually take place year round: “Advising covers more than just scheduling classes. It’s good for things like developing relationships with professors and talking about employment or research opportunities.” Baron hopes that the tools of the new online Advising Center will liberate advisors from the clerical dimension of what they used to think about advising and registration. It is, of course, a long process, but Baron believes that DoIT is helping to change the climate.

In addition to advising and orientation, Baron oversees the suspension and dismissal process at UMBC. With the help of DoIT and SA, his office has been able to maintain a “three strikes and you’re out” rule. Any student who receives a GPA below 2.0 for three consecutive semesters is eligible for suspension. Ken and his staff members are able to identify these students through reports from PeopleSoft that generate lists of at risk students. Students are warned about their status and provided with helpful resources, and all correspondence is tracked within the system. If a student continues to receive a low GPA, a committee is able to look at transcripts, as well as any information recorded in the system, to determine his or her eligibility. This year, the number of suspensions was down to about 80. Baron is encouraged by this low number. “Our job is to make students successful,” he explains. “If we don’t do that, we fail.”

With technology changing so quickly, everyone is at least a little bit tech savvy. Foelster believes that this knowledge makes an active IT department even more crucial. “Whatever the university does moving forward really requires a partnership with IT,” he explains. Whereas before people used to reach out to technology to enhance their processes, now the technology is embedded in those processes and everyone works together. With partnerships like the one between DoIT and the Office for Academic and Pre-Professional Advising, UMBC is sure to remain an efficient and successful university.

–Article and photo by Laura Lefavor ’13, Summer 2012