This piece comes to us courtesy of The Hechinger Report.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Devon Mills pulls out his smartphone at a Starbucks on the Arizona State University campus, and maps out how long it will take him to finish his undergraduate degree.
Just exactly the right amount of time, his phone tells him.
Despite double-majoring in political science and justice studies with a minor in sustainability, serving as president of the college council and vice president of the Residence Hall Association, working as a page in the state Senate, and cramming for the Law School Admission Test, Mills is on schedule to become one of the distinct minority of American college and university students who actually receive their four-year bachelor's degrees in four years.
"I can see the goal in sight," he says, serenely scrolling through an online color-coded plan that shows him the requirements he's finished and the ones he still needs to fulfill before graduating in 2014.
While academics are debating whether students can effectively learn online, the program Mills is using harnesses technology to provide something else that is surprisingly essential to success in college: advising that can help prevent an education from slipping off track.
"The research clearly shows that when a student is more engaged on a campus they are more likely to remain enrolled and persist to graduation," says Charlie Nutt, executive director of the National Academic Advising Association, or NACADA. "Academic advising is the key mechanism, and on many campuses the only mechanism, through which students have a person they're connected with."
But just when it seems to be needed most, face-to-face advising is getting harder for students to find as the number of advisors shrinks and case loads soar because of budget cuts and enrollment increases.
U.S. universities had, on average, one advisor for every 367 students last year, down from one for every 282 in 2003, according to a survey by NACADA and the college-admissions testing company ACT. Though more students than ever work to pay tuition and expenses, advisors are seldom available at night or on weekends. And waits for appointments during business hours can stretch for weeks.
As a result, many students flounder through college, changing majors, piling up and paying for credits they don't need, and taking more time than they planned to graduate.
On average, students rack up 136.5 credits toward bachelor's degrees that require only 120, the advocacy organization Complete College America reports. One of every three switches majors, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. And the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics says that fewer than one in four students at public universities, and around a third at private ones, graduate within four years.
"There's too much wandering around," says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "It makes sense that if you know where you're going, you're more likely to get there."
The picture is even worse at community colleges, whose students are particularly likely to struggle. Academic counselors at community colleges typically handle 1,000 students each, according to MDRC, a nonprofit research organization. In some cash-strapped California community colleges, the ratio is as high as one to 1,700.
Half of community-college students don't even know advising is available to them, says Davis Jenkins, a researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. The one third of them who finish their two-year programs within even three years take, on average, 80 credits toward associate degrees they could have gotten with just 60, according to Complete College America.
"We have a situation of almost completion by accident rather than completion by design," says Jenkins.
The problem has grown more urgent as the type of student changes. More students today are older than traditional age, or the first in their families to go to college, or they attend part time while working or raising children of their own.
That makes navigating the bureaucracy of higher education even harder than it already was. Arizona State, for instance, offers 250 majors, and 3,071 undergraduate courses--many with prerequisites that, in turn, have their own prerequisites.
Even 18-year-olds who come from college-going families are so overscheduled by helicopter parents in their earlier grades that they struggle when they're set free in college.
"They have to learn to manage time," says Nutt, who is also a professor of education at Kansas State University. "An advisor is essential to that."
In focus groups, students say they just want someone to tell them what to do, says Shanna Jaggars, also of the Community College Research Center.
Or if not someone, at least something.
Arizona State's eAdvisor, which was launched in 2008, puts the information students need online, night and day, and follows their progress as a live advisor would.
"We've waited too long to use technology in this way," says the university's president, Michael Crow.
Students start by entering their interests, search engine-style--"I like to work with people," for example, or, "I would like to do something with music"--and eAdvisor helps them pick a major. Each then gets a "major map," which charts a trail through the complicated combination of requirements. If a student wanders off the trail by failing to finish a required course or threatening to fall below a certain grade-point average, eAdvisor tells him so, in big red letters, and sends him off to see a face-to-face advisor.
The results have been dramatic. The proportion of freshmen who don't return for sophomore year has fallen from 24 percent to 16 percent, much lower than the national average, and 42 percent graduate in four years--up from less than 26 percent in 1997, and almost double the proportion at public universities nationwide.
"It's about looking at universities from the perspective of the students," says Elizabeth Phillips, the provost, who first introduced a form of eAdvisor when she worked at the University of Florida and brought it with her to Arizona State.
Human advisors are expensive, error prone, and soft, says Phillips, whose academic field is psychology. Part of advising, she says, is taking the hard line of "telling a kid they're not going to be what they thought they were going to be." There are still real-life advisors at Arizona State. But eAdvisor frees them from the drudgery of scheduling courses. "By the time you go in to see your face-to-face advisor, you can focus on strategy and life issues," Crow says.
The eAdvisor system helps in other ways, too. Since students are planning their courses in advance, it helps the university provide the right number of seats. Not being able to get into required courses is another reason students take so long to graduate at other universities. At Arizona State, administrators say and students confirm, it almost never happens.
The system tracks whether students do well in the kinds of subjects that are essential to careers they want. If they want to major in psychology, for instance, it makes them take statistics first--and if they don't do well, suggests that they consider other majors. If they're in danger of failing, it freezes their ability to continue until they meet with an in-person counselor.
There are other ways the university is using technology to track its students--and, for that matter, its advisors. Phillips gets a report if an advisor gives too many overrides, for example, waiving prerequisites or restrictions on class sizes. The system also captures information from the financial-aid and residence-hall offices, the campus police department, and judicial boards about financial or behavior problems students might be running into.
"Now we're a machine, to provide the kids exactly what they need," says Phillips.
There are some shortcomings. Meant to be simple to use, eAdvisor seems at first glance almost indecipherable.
"When I first looked through it, I was a little confused," says Steven Denke, a senior electrical-engineering major in the honors college who had to take five different technical electives, plus the university's core requirements, and transfer credits from advanced-placement and dual-enrollment courses that he passed in high school. "It was daunting at first, just looking at the major map."
Phillips says the university is working on making eAdvisor more user friendly. Adds Crow: "What we have is a very early precursor of where this is going to go."
Christina Arregoces, a junior majoring in English and creative writing, likes being able to monitor her progress at any time.
"I'm one of those people who double-checks everything," Arregoces says. "It's nice to have a map so you know what you're doing and what you need to do."
Not everyone is ready for technology to supplant advisors, however.
"Technology cannot replace one-to-one advising with a person," Nutt says. "It's enhancing that. It's a bad idea to depend only on the technology and not the interaction, but also a bad idea to depend only on the interaction and not on the technology."
Still, Phillips says she's inundated by requests for information about eAdvisor from her counterparts at other universities, which are struggling to provide advising.
"We're seeing universities and colleges becoming more focused on advising," Nutt says. "But the advising they end up with may not look at all what advising looked like five years ago."
Some schools are testing so-called group advising, in which an advisor meets with groups of students with identical academic and career goals.
"Instead of saying the same thing to, say, 40 nursing students 40 times a day, they meet as groups and say it once to 40 people in a room," Nutt says.
A few universities promote advising weeks. And Beloit College in Wisconsin cancels all of its classes one day each semester so students can meet with their advisors.
"A lot of students come in because of social expectations or because it's the next step toward a career, and not always with a clear sense of their own motivations for being there," says Natalie Gummer, Beloit's co-director of first- and second-year programs.
"We're trying to help them prepare to move from a liberal-arts education into the job market," Gummer says. "And it helps to keep them on track."
This story also appeared on NBCNews.com on November 13, 2012.