College advisers: whom do they advise?

It sounded marvelous. Every incoming freshman at the gigantic University of California at Berkeley campus is offered the opportunity to be a in a compatible group with a single adviser.

The adviser is one of the professors the student has in a fall class, and the 12 or 13 other students in the group all attend the same classes.

The professor volunteers to be an adviser; every one of the students has volunteered to be in such a group. The purpose is to give each freshman a good start, to provide whatever counseling services are necessary to help with that dramatic transformation from a teacher- and home-directed high school student to an independent college man or woman.

The students are free to come talk with the adviser at scheduled times and also are invited to participate in at least one group social event.

Parents of these incoming freshmen, when told about this special service -- over and above the usual academic advising service -- are quick to say they want their youngster to take advantage of it. Some 1,200 entering students last year checked the appropriate box.

But then I talked with a professor who had offered to shepherd such a cluster. For the professor-adviser to be able to contact the students after they arrive in Berkeley, the students must fill out a prepaid postcard giving their address and telephone number.

Fewer than half do so.

Those who do must return the adviser's phone call. Fewer than half do so.

They must respond to an invitation to meet socially -- at the professor's expense -- with the rest of the cluster. Only a few do so.

At Arizona State University in Tempe, I had been given an appointment with the dean of the history department. And when I thanked him for talking with me on such short notice, he smiled and explained why he was so free.

It was sign-up day for the next term's classes, and all professors were to be in their offices and available for counseling. Shrugging his shoulders, he asserted, "You'll see, we'll not be interrupted."

We weren't, and we talked for more than an hour. But when I got out on the campus mall, card stables had been students were more than busy -- standing room only -- advising other students.

Why? Why don't the students at least find out what senior college staff would answer when they ask about courses and programs.* Why don't Berkeley freshmen want to know what advisers would advise?

The message was the same at all campuses: Students crave and prize their independence. And they really do come to believe that college is a "we-they" relationship, and that if students want the "right" scoop, or "straight" information, they must ask fellow students and not those the college administrators designate.

Evidence from several college visits indicates that colleges are concerned about this lack of trust; yet there seemed to be little urgency to solve the problem. Again and again the message, even from those carrying the title of "dean for student affairs," was that students come voluntarily to college and that they are there at their own risk.

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