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With little warning, colleges and universities had to move from classroom to online instruction this spring. No doubt, it will take quite some time to determine the impact of this type of instruction on student learning. This pandemic will, however, force institutions of higher education to examine just what is most crucial to achieve their missions.

The questions abound: Are there advantages to online instruction? Are there disadvantages? Does this new approach alter the modes of future instruction? What is essential for a student to learn? What is essential for the “collegiate” experience? What is value added to the collegiate experience beyond the classroom experience? Can all these questions be systemically researched, or will they remain in the realm of speculation and personal opinion?

These questions and many more have been posed and will be posed by those who study higher education. There are many critics of higher education, including those who are dismayed by the cost and those who question just how much learning is actually occurring. With most instruction recently being conducted online rather than in residence, and the vast majority of students missing out on all the typical co-curricular activities of college, close observers of higher education can rightly ask, just what is essential to the education of students beyond formal instruction, whether delivered online or in person?

An initial examination of this massive, unintended experiment with online instruction has led David Deming, director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, to write in The New York Times that “important aspects of education are best done by teachers in more intimate settings. Educators will increasingly be tutors, mentors and role models, and economics also tells us that these features of a great education will not scale up.” Further, he noted, “the personal services provided by educators including tutoring, individualized feedback and mentoring, and numerous studies, as well as countless individual experiences, show that such services are essential for learning.”

Speculation about what the future of higher education will look like is omnipresent. Part of this speculation is what academic departments will survive and what programs and services beyond the classroom will be deemed “essential.” One important area that will require attention is academic advising, where it may very well not be business as usual post-pandemic. Now should be time to contemplate an alternative model for academic advising that takes in some of the assumed realities that higher education will confront.

A Re-Examination of Higher Ed Paradigms

The challenge for academic advising is to clearly define its role within academe, especially in light of some of the speculation that this pandemic will fundamentally change higher education. It is, of course, risky to make any predictions as to what the future holds. It is plausible that once the pandemic is over, short memories will prevail and much will go on as before.

But far more likely, the pandemic could require a thorough re-examination of the current higher education paradigms. Institutions are faced with declining enrollments, students’ rebellion against paying the same tuition for online instruction as for residential classes and a loss of other funding streams from either endowments or state allotments. As a result, balancing the budget will often require curtailing travel, instituting hiring freezes, reducing operational costs, consolidating departments, offering early retirements and, ultimately, eliminating staff and faculty positions.

There are all sorts of approaches to how budgets can be cut, and they all have their detractors and supporters. One approach, where everyone “feels the pain,” is to ask all academic departments and other units to cede back centrally a percentage of their budget. Implementing such an approach requires every affected unit to examine where cuts can be made. Units may look to such strategies as hiring freezes or minimal or no raises for a designated length of time.

No doubt more threatening but nonetheless another recommended approach is to analyze all departments, both academic and nonacademic, as to their “value” to the institution. For example: Does a particular academic department have a sufficient number of students in its major? Does it offer sufficiently enrolled general education courses? Do the faculty members bring in outside money? And how much? How important is the department to the mission of the institution?

The same questions can be asked of nonacademic units: How many students use the service? How much staff is required to provide a service? Can this service be procured elsewhere? How much of this service supports the overall mission of the institution?

No matter how an institution chooses to face its fiscal situation, most likely this moment will occur before the pandemic can be declared “over.” Colleges will have to make decisions about how to cut back when revenue slows down. And the role that academic advising plays during this pandemic and how it positions itself for higher education’s uncertain future is crucial.

As instruction moved online, so did academic advising. While the challenge to go online was formidable, academic advising was one of the first higher education endeavors to embrace technology as a way to supplement its work. Once academic advisers realized that they were not going to be replaced by the new technologies, they readily embraced all those technologies had to offer -- especially when they relieved them of the more clerical chores often associated with their work. As academic advisers came to recognize other ways to communicate with students beyond face-to-face interviews, and as both students and advisers became more adept at such interchanges, the use of technology became second nature to many people.

For those academic advising programs that assured each student was assigned a primary adviser, being ready to pivot to more online communication was readily accomplished. Thus, the advising relationship was maintained during a period of potential disorientation and isolation for the student. It quickly became evident that students needed to be in contact with their advisers more than ever. Questions relating to whether or not to drop courses, how to handle new grading systems, whether or not to maintain enrollment for the current semester and when to return had to be dealt with. This, in fact, is part of what academic advisers can do and were available to do. While some students needed to contact mental health services or wanted to maintain their relationship with clubs and other co-curricular groups, they all had to be in touch with their advisers as they dealt with the myriad issues confronting them.

Addressing the New Realities

It is at crucial times such as these that students question the very value of their education. Is it worth it? Is online education equivalent to residential education? Should I pay the same for both modes of instruction? What am I missing when I cannot be in residence at my campus? Will online education adequately prepare me for my chosen future, be it a first job or graduate education? All such questions must be sorted out. This is the work of the academic advising community.

So how should academic advising be reconsidered to best address some of the new realities that most likely lie ahead? A proposal: rather than multiply the number of people on campuses who are part of the student success initiative, higher education should consolidate the work of mentors, academic coaches and career counselors under one academic advising umbrella. Colleges and universities are typically structured around a specialist paradigm, but it is time to recognize that the distinction between mentors, academic coaches and career counselors is perhaps more to preserve professional boundaries and professional identities. In an era of fiscal constraint, this paradigm is counterproductive.

Pushback from other fields such as career counseling may occur, but the reality is that career advising has already surfaced as a role for academic advisers. The decision one makes about what to major in and what one chooses as a career may have to be more carefully examined in the future as students are faced with new economic realities. While it has been an accepted notion that one can major in many fields and ultimately work in many fields, and that choice of major does not dictate (in most cases) an occupational choice, we also know that choosing a career first does not mean that a student is academically or even temperamentally up to being successful in that major. While divisions of labor may have been an acceptable paradigm for staffing a university, post-pandemic times call for a re-examination of this redundant approach.

Hiring academic advisers who can also teach in a classroom should be considered, as well. Such an approach is already occurring but could become the standard, and it has many benefits. While adjunct faculties provide all sorts of savings for colleges and universities, these same institutions have been severely criticized for the proliferation of adjuncts on their payrolls. Adding a classroom teaching component to the academic adviser role could eliminate a category of employees that have been branded as underpaid, underinsured, underprotected and most vulnerable to finding themselves unemployed when circumstances dictate.

There will always be a need for academic advisers in the pandemic era and afterward. More than ever, students will need the expertise of well-prepared academic advisers to make sense of the academic and career choices that they have to make. Academic advisers will be necessary to help students maneuver through the additional polices that have surfaced during the pandemic and will most likely be around afterward.

Questioning the relationship between tuition, loan debt and subsequent abilities to earn a living will be on many students’ minds. How each course plays a part in a student’s education -- beyond simply being told that it is required -- will force a re-examination of the curriculum. Just as the viability of each major and its place in the catalog will be assessed, each course will have to “prove” to the student its worth.

This entire dialogue calls for a vibrant academic advising program. An examination of the total curriculum, deciding how many credits are needed to graduate, the structure of general education and the extent to which courses in majors dominate the transcript -- these issues are all part of that dialogue. It is academic advisers who know what students are thinking.

In fact, a survey of academic advisers will tell us what is on students’ minds. Are they eager to return to resident education? Do they find online education an acceptable alternative? Do they need the face-to-face contact with their fellow students and instructors? Do they need to be involved in a club, philanthropy or student government to feel part of higher education? How important is that football or wrestling team to them when traded against cost?

And from an institutional perspective: What happens when the people who find value in a residential experience are those who can afford it, while those who need to opt for online instruction are those without the resources in a post-pandemic world?

The value of an institution having a vibrant academic advising program, able to pivot quickly when the circumstances demand, cannot be underestimated. Being able to connect each student with a primary academic adviser should be the goal for all institutions. But more important, it is now time for the academic advising community, along with others at higher education institutions, to envision how the field will function in the future, who should be doing this work and how the outcomes of the academic advising can best be realized in what will no doubt be an altered environment for higher education.

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