Overcoming Advising Barriers to Retain STEM Majors

The lack of STEM graduates needed to fill the coming jobs requiring science and engineering skills has been well-documented (PCAST 2012). Higher education institutions have implemented an array of interventions to retain students as STEM majors, not only to address this need but also with an eye to adding diversity to the STEM workforce. The University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), a small land-grant HBCU with campuses on two islands separated by forty miles of water, has had success with not only graduating STEM majors but also preparing many students to go on to earn graduate and professional degrees (Sanchez 2018). To achieve this goal, UVI’s College of Science and Mathematics (CSM) has instituted interventions aimed at retaining students and strengthening their skills. These include peer-led team learning in foundational mathematics courses, original research projects in classes in multiple disciplines, flipped classrooms and other active engagement strategies, proactive advising, and the very successful Emerging Caribbean Scientists program, an umbrella for the numerous grants and opportunities for students (seminars, scholarships, research support for students and faculty, and more).

Student persistence as STEM majors and time to degree completion continue to be challenges, particularly persistence after the second year. Research has repeatedly cited advising as a critical component of any retention strategy (Darling 2015; White 2015), yet data from several surveys at UVI (National Survey of Student Engagement 2015; Mills and Bellew 2016) indicate student dissatisfaction with advising. Faculty have also expressed frustration with the process. In an internal study, Kimarie Engerman (2013) surveyed both faculty and students on the St. Thomas campus in all schools and colleges about their attitudes toward advising, characterization of the advising experience, suggestions for improvement, and best practices at peer institutions. The data indicated specific points of dissatisfaction such as advisor availability, unprepared students, and policies occasionally circumvented (prerequisites waived without advisor knowledge, personal identification numbers needed for registration given to students without advisor consent, etc.).

As a result of Engerman’s study, the university formed an advising committee comprised of faculty representatives from each of the university’s schools and colleges and staff members from UVI’s Center for Student Success (CSS). They were charged with developing an advising plan, and the university also invested in AdvisorTrac software, which was used to manage advising. The plan, based on the findings from Engerman’s study, was completed in April 2015 and sent to the provost; it was then distributed to the deans to be implemented in the schools and colleges. The plan was partially successful, as some elements were implemented, particularly in the CSS, where they have worked diligently to advise new first-year and sophomore students, reach out to students needing more support, and answer questions promptly regarding the current advising software. Paradigms (or plans of study) for all majors are posted on UVI’s website, although not all have been updated; administrative assistants have begun assigning advisors to new students prior to registration; faculty are present at new student registration; and faculty and CSS staff are gradually working together more. Problems still exist, as the plan was not implemented evenly across the university. Key interventions, such as consistent training for advisors, early contact with new students, and the development of backup advisement plans, were not done consistently. Also, the AdvisorTrac software had technical issues and few users.

Recognizing the importance of advising, the current president implemented a different advising software and overall approach, joining the Student Success Collaborative (www.eab.com) and using data analytics software to examine all aspects of student life to aid in retention. This software, referred to as BucsConnect at UVI, serves as a connector to different resources involved in advising and student success, including CSS, Access and Enrollment Services, financial aid, faculty (as advisors and as course instructors), and students. A new advising task force convened in January 2018 and, using the previous advising plan as a foundation, updated and adapted the previous advising plan to create the new advising plan. The plan was distributed to stakeholders for feedback, suggestions were incorporated and vetted, and the plan was approved by the full faculty in April 2018.

The current challenge is fully implementing the plan in each school and college, including the CSM, which faces some unique challenges. Unlike the other schools and colleges, only the computer science and applied math degrees can be completed on both campuses, necessitating the physical relocation of many students who begin on St. Croix to the St. Thomas campus to complete degrees in other STEM majors. It is not uncommon for students from the St. Croix campus to transfer to an institution on the United States mainland instead—or to change their major to avoid relocating to St. Thomas.

This issue—and potentially others—was not explored in Engerman’s original 2013 study, which was conducted only on the St. Thomas campus. The author’s 2018 study, which built on the one conducted by Engerman, focused on CSM across both campuses to identify potential barriers to successfully implementing the new advising plan. The goal was to use the data gathered in Engerman’s 2013 study as a baseline of the CSM landscape prior to developing the college-specific advising elements and fully implementing the new advising plan; the same data will be collected after implementation to assess its impact.

As noted in Kezar, Gehrke, and Elrod’s study (2015), attempts to implement STEM interventions at scale often fail due to implicit theories of change held by individuals they called “change agents” that are not accurate or do not reflect the reality of what is needed for a change to be institutionalized. Kezar, Gehrke, and Elrod also identified implicit theories of change—both generally and specifically for STEM—that were detrimental to achieving the desired change. To successfully implement the advising plan, this study was designed to address some of these implicit theories of change. One common implicit theory of change noted by Kezar, Gehrke, and Elrod (2015) is “the challenge of change agents believing they can jump directly to a strategy or intervention without much exploration of the problem or issue.” This was a driving force for the 2018 study described here: If there are underlying issues not dealt with by the new advising plan, its full implementation will not achieve the benefits the university seeks. Kezar, Gehrke, and Elrod (2015) also indicated that campus politics play a role in the change process: “Change agents assumed if they were armed with data about why students were not succeeding, then others on campus would be persuaded. They did not anticipate or prepare for politics.” Finally, they found that the successful implementation and scaling of this work requires “both bottom-up and top-down leadership often epitomized by shared or distributed models of leadership.” However, they found that unsuccessful change agents tended toward only one or the other.


STEM majors and CSM faculty were surveyed on both campuses to gain a more complete and up-to-date view of barriers to successfully implementing the advising plan in CSM. The Engerman survey, with small modifications specific to CSM and STEM majors, was administered electronically to both students and faculty; it assessed attitudes and perceptions toward advising and also asked for recommendations for improvements of the academic advising process. The anonymous, voluntary survey included a mix of closed and open-ended questions. Open-ended responses were coded to identify broad themes and issues (mirroring Engerman’s study) to detect changes that might affect implementation of the advising plan and identify any modifications that may be needed as we finalize the college-specific portion of the plan. The survey responses will guide the implementation strategy for the advising plan, as they potentially allowed us to avoid the detrimental results of erroneous implicit theories of change.


While almost half (48.5 percent) of CSM faculty completed the survey, only 11.8 percent of CSM majors responded. Of student respondents, similar numbers of first-year, sophomore, and junior students responded, with a larger number of seniors participating. Biology, marine biology, computer science, and applied mathematics were well-represented among the respondents; smaller numbers of students from physics, chemistry, and mathematics participated (one to three students each, though this mirrors the proportion of these majors in CSM). Of the faculty respondents, six were from biological sciences, six were from chemical and physical sciences, four were from mathematics, and one was from computer sciences. Not all indicated years of service; the range of those who did was three to twenty-two years.

Despite differences in the populations surveyed (the 2013 survey included all majors at only one campus, while the 2018 survey included only STEM majors at both campuses), overall attitudes toward advising remained very similar; more faculty than students found advising pleasing and rewarding. Overall ratings of academic advising services were similar between faculty and students in 2018, with 75 percent or better of both groups rating advising as moderately or highly effective. This is higher than 2013 (45 percent or better rated advising moderately or highly effective), but whether that is due to changes in academic advising that were already underway or to the current survey’s focus on a single college is not clear.

Faculty and students characterized many aspects of the academic advising experience differently. While both groups ranked giving/receiving advice and answers on curricular requirements highly, many faculty (81 percent) felt that their role giving advice and guidance on careers and options after graduation was also an important aspect of advising. However, only approximately 30 percent of students characterized those aspects as part of the advising experience. These differing characterizations were reflected in what each group said was the most rewarding aspect of advising. Students’ comments most often mentioned help in selecting classes and developing a graduation plan—the courses and their sequence needed to graduate—followed by a smaller portion responding to advice in their field and career. When asked about the most rewarding aspect of advising, the theme that faculty mentioned most was assisting students in reaching their dreams or goals (i.e., seeing them succeed). That was followed by personal interaction or encouraging students.

The open-ended questions also asked for the most frustrating or dissatisfying aspects of academic advising. The most common theme for both faculty and student responses ultimately revolves around time: not being able to contact or fit into the advisor’s schedule, students not making appointments, not enough time with the advisor or student, not enough advisors, or advisors keeping track of too many advisees. Faculty expressed frustration that students only wanted their PIN (i.e., just want to be able to register online) and had a lack of understanding of the importance of academic advising; this would also include students registering for classes against what they were advised. Students, on the other hand, were frustrated with recommended classes not being offered and little help to find a solution. Another concern raised more than once was that advisors don’t take into consideration what students say. However, an equal number noted that their advisors listen to their interests, perhaps indicating differences in the advisors’ approach or training.

There was also substantial overlap between student and faculty suggestions for improvement for the advising process. Both students and faculty recognized the need to make advising and/or advisors more accessible: suggestions included “more hands on deck”; adding “super advisors” for each department with release time from teaching; staggered registration or a shorter, specific block of time for advising prior to registration; identifying a neutral space to meet; and implementing an earlier start in the fall for the spring registration process. Faculty recommended that students meet with their assigned advisors, whereas students indicated the desire to choose or change advisors—or even have multiple advisors. A few comments from both faculty and students cited the need for an assigned faculty advisor from the very start (i.e., orientation), as well as multiple and even mandatory meetings. Both wanted more information in a timely manner, although the type of information requested by each group varied. Evaluation of advisors and training were also brought up in comments by both students and faculty.


All the open-ended responses generally mapped to those in the 2013 Engerman study, and more importantly, were either addressed by the university-wide advising plan or will be addressed as the elements of the CSM-specific portion of the plan are developed. One issue raised in the survey that is not currently addressed in the advising plan is the transition of students who start on St. Croix and transfer to the St. Thomas campus to complete their degrees. Several former St. Croix students expressed a great deal of dissatisfaction with the advising transition, with several noting that they still worked with their initial St. Croix advisor. Discovering this and determining how to facilitate the transition of CSM majors from one campus to the other might have been missed without the survey.

This survey forms part of a collaborative approach to finalizing and implementing an advising plan that works. To broaden participation in STEM nationally, we need to broaden participation internally, ensuring all groups and stakeholders who are affected by a change have true input and ownership. In line with Bolman and Gallos’s frames of leadership (2011), both the political and the human resource frames speak to this development process: respect for and navigation among the stakeholders, as well as fostering the collaboration needed for the success of the new advising plan. Once the college-specific elements are developed and the full plan is put into practice, the survey will be administered again to help assess the effectiveness of CSM’s advising plan. The results will be used to address remaining issues, drawing on the structural frame of leadership. Our overarching goal is for every student to have a strong relationship with his/her advisor. Outcomes include more students meeting with their advisors, reduced time to degree, and more seamless transitions for students transferring between campuses. Most importantly, we anticipate far greater retention and graduation of students at UVI as STEM majors.



Bolman, Lee G., and Joan V. Gallos. 2011. Reframing Academic Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Darling, Ruth. 2015. “The Academic Adviser.” The Journal of General Education 64 (2): 90–98.

Engerman, Kimarie. 2013. “Action Learning Project: Evaluation of Academic Advising Services.” Unpublished internal study conducted at the University of the Virgin Islands.

Kezar, Adrianna, Sean Gehrke, and Susan Elrod. 2015. “Implicit Theories of Change as a Barrier to Change on College Campuses: An Examination of STEM Reform.” The Review of Higher Education 38 (4): 479–506.

Mills, Frank, and Ayishih Bellew. 2016. “Graduating Senior Exit Survey 2014 & 2015 Satisfaction with the UVI Experience.” Unpublished internal study conducted at the University of the Virgin Islands.

National Survey of Student Engagement. 2015. “National Survey of Student Engagement 2015 Snapshot: University of the Virgin Islands.”

PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.) 2012. Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduate with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-engage-to-excel-final_2-25-12.pdf.

Sanchez, Aimee. 2018. Personal Communication. University of the Virgin Islands College of Science and Mathematics Data.

White, Eric R. 2015. “Academic Advising in Higher Education: A Place at the Core.” The Journal of General Education 64 (4): 263.

Michelle D. Peterson, Associate Professor of Biology, University of the Virgin Islands

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