Improving the Student-Faculty Advisor Matching Process for Incoming College Freshmen
The Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) team at Stanford University approached Wisr with a common challenge, but a unique spin. Matching students and advisors, coordinating their meetings, and ensuring there is fit is a known problem, and typically a very manual process. The challenge Stanford presented was unique because their team was trying to optimize a student match with a faculty advisor who shares academic interests, shares affinity, and is agnostic to major. We leveraged a combination of our matching system and email communication tools to automate the import, match, and notification process for Stanford. Not only was there a major reduction of staff overhead required to manage the program, but a repeatable process was created to free thousands of staff hours going forward. The focus can now be placed back on the student.
Interview with Alice Petty
Director of Pre-Major Advising at Stanford University
What are Stanford Newcomer Guides?
AP: The Stanford Newcomer Guides (“Guides”) are faculty and staff volunteers who mentor our incoming students. Each Guide is matched with a small cohort of two-to-eight students, and they meet with their students during New Student Orientation and then once per quarter until the student declares a major. Our program focuses on whole-student mentoring, where the Guides get to know their students well enough to connect them with people, courses, support resources, and opportunities that correspond to their interests and goals.
Before working with Wisr, what was the Stanford Newcomer Guides matching process? How long did major portions of the project take to get students matched and handed off to the right Guide?
AP: For years, our match was done manually. Our academic advisors would use a profile form to gather information about each of the Guides. They would then read and distill hundreds of student files and, using a spreadsheet (or in some cases, piles of folders on their office floor) assign each of their students to a Guide.
On the one hand, it was a highly personalized process that helped our academic advisors get to know our incoming students. On the other, that highly personalized process took a tremendous amount of time—anywhere from three-to-five days—right before our New Student Orientation was set to begin. Moreover, our students are assigned to academic advisors based on where they live on campus; as we matched students with Guides, housing switches were still being made. This led to a lot of churn and horse-trading the closer we got to New Student Orientation, as academic advisors tried to ensure that the last student / Guide matches were as strong as the first ones.
Matches are communicated to Guides and our incoming students via email. The message to our Guides includes the name and contact info for each of their students; the time/date/location of their initial meeting during New Student Orientation; and a link to where they can view their students’ profiles online. The mailing to our students is considerably more complicated, and includes that same information as well as a letter of welcome from their Guide. In the past few years, we’d taken to calling this email the “Beast Mailing” because it was a complex mail merge with six custom fields sent to approximately seventeen hundred students. Ensuring that the spreadsheet for this mailing is correct and up-to-date, and that the mail merge comes off without a hitch is a full-time responsibility for a member of our admin staff for the better part of a week, during our busiest time of the year.
How did the process change working with Wisr?
AP: With Wisr, we used the forms our admitted students were already filling out, and we created a report that gave us a solid profile of the students’ academic and co-curricular interests. We then created a profile for the Guides that mirrored that information, and gave it to Wisr. Wisr ran our match through an algorithm, and the process that used to take a full work week happened while I drank my morning coffee.
We created a template of our roster mailing to the Guides as well as our assignment emails to students, and Wisr handled the mailing for us.
What process improvements have you seen? Can you quantify those improvements in time or value?
AP: Perhaps the most significant process improvement has been thinking of the criteria we use to match students with Guides. Using an algorithm required us to distill what makes a good match; we have taken a Byzantine system and simplified it considerably, with no apparent trade-off in terms of the quality of the match or of the mentoring relationships.
In addition to process improvements, were there any other tangential benefits through using the technology (i.e., better matches, etc.)?
AP: The matches Wisr was able to make for us are solid; no better and no worse than if we had done them by hand. The greatest benefit we experienced is that because the match was taken off our academic advisors’ plates, they were able to focus on the important work of advising our incoming students. This year, for the first time, each and every member of our incoming class had an individual, one-on-one phone or Skype meeting with their academic advisor prior to arriving on campus.
Because our administrative staff did not have to handle all the logistics of the mailings, their time was freed up to support our preparations for New Student Orientation—which eased the workload on that team as we headed into New Student Orientation.
What are the “bottom line” takeaways from the project, and what do you see as next steps to continue improving the process?
AP: Working with Wisr has freed us up to focus on what really matters to us—how to best serve our students.
Interested in talking to a Wisr team member about how your institution might benefit from customized student-faculty advisor matching?