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Matthew Hein:Academic advising: Students beware

Have you visited the Web site for counseling lately? I’m not suggesting anything here; it’s not that you’re walking around in obvious need of some kind of mental and emotional cleansing. To be perfectly honest, I was thinking of academic counseling.

Let’s say, just for kicks, that you’re an undergraduate transfer student. Ever since you were a little kid, you have wanted to attend Portland State University. After some time at one or two other institutions of higher education, you’ve received admission to PSU. One of the first things you might want to deal with is your academic standing.

Once you figure out your academic standing, you’ll be able to honestly answer those people who naively ask, “What year are you?” or “When do you expect to graduate?” (A word to the wise: Never, ever tell anyone when you expect to graduate until you get your final OK from the Office of Degree Requirements. Sometimes you can get away with responding to these queries by stating, “I plan to matriculate later this year.” Of course, if the people you’re talking to know that matriculate is just a fancy word for “attend classes,” you’ll be stuck right back behind the eight ball).

So you decide to get the proverbial ball rolling. Your first step, according to the Information and Academic Support Center page on PSU’s Web site, involves attendance at something called New Student Orientation. In return for spending a day with a gaggle of brightly dressed, sunshiny-pleasant tour guides, you get a free PSU Bulletin and a Schedule of Classes. So right there you’re talking about a $7 value, to say nothing of the potential free candy from campus clubs.

This orientation deal apparently includes some access to academic counselors, fully equipped and certified to give the entire lowdown on the necessary classes and general terms of engagement.

If, on the other hand, you’ve been a Viking for some time, and just now find yourself wondering what subtle requirements you might have missed along the way, you have a couple of people to get in touch with. Once you’ve declared your major, your work within that field – as it relates to your major – is the business of your department. Deal with a professor you like who knows her way around PSU and tends to remember your first name, if possible.

There remain, however, those general education requirements to be considered and conquered. The University Studies plan is really not that complex. The Undergraduate Advising Handbook available from IASC (that’s the informal name for that Information and Academic Support Center upstairs in Smith Center) presents UNST requirements pretty plainly.

Regardless of how plainly these requirements are displayed, the many transferring and returning students at this school may find themselves in the position of an asterisk: special cases requiring the assistance of a trained and paid professional.

University President Daniel O. Bernstine may have noticed that the audits they receive from the Office of Degree Requirements occasionally surprise PSU students. He probably just wants what’s best for everybody. I’m a big fan of his, and I assume that he has only the kindest intentions for his charges. When I noticed that he continues to believe that requiring academic advising will make student lives better, therefore, I was a little surprised.

I guess we should all be prepared to add another signed and stamped pieces of paper to those measles shots and old transcripts. Maybe, if we’re lucky, there won’t be an extra fee connected with those meetings (I can see it now – weekly advising mandatory. Cost: $5).

None of this would bother me if it weren’t for the fine print – actually, in this case, it’s printed in bold: “Remember: You are responsible for your academic decisions … Ultimately you must decide what is best for you.” This doesn’t exactly inspire the same amount of confidence as a five-year warranty. In fact, it suggests just the opposite.

If our administration, and President Bernstine’s Student Advising Initiative people in particular, are so sure that spending time with academic counselors will solve undergraduate scheduling problems, why include the caveat? I’m not trying to open the school up to a flood of frivolous lawsuits by disgruntled sixth-year seniors, but I do know that competence and confidence tend to go hand-in-hand.

I’ve never been a particularly big fan of the economic philosopher Adam Smith (he never invites me to his parties), but I see a little paradox in the supply-and-demand department concerning mandatory counseling. If undergraduates trust their advisers, they will visit them. If they don’t, they won’t. Suffice it to say that not every counselor has yet earned the kind of faith that would make mandatory counseling redundant and unnecessary.

Until such time as Adam Smith’s invisible hand sees fit to push students through counselors’ doors, I see no reason for the school to require its charges to listen to advice that they don’t trust. In the meantime, the best that anyone can hope to do is see which adviser has the longest line of students outside his or her door, and join the fray.