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Quick, what’s the most vexing aspect of academic advising at a community college?

a. turnover of students and adjunct faculty
b. the range of preferences that different transfer-destination schools have for electives
c. the confusion of advising with scheduling
d. shifting and/or inchoate student preferences
e. all of the above

Yup, it’s e. And it makes a conceptually-simple process maddeningly difficult.

In a perfect world, students who had clear ambitions would have sustained, focused conversations with professors who would help them understand how to get there from here.  And that actually happens to a remarkable extent.

But circumstances conspire to make things complicated.

Sheer numbers are a major issue.  Good advising is relatively personalized, but it’s hard to do that with a fifteen-credit teaching load and near-record enrollments.  State finances being what they are, our adjunct percentage is higher than I’d like, and there’s always some churn in the ranks.  That churn makes it harder for students to latch on to a particular professor.  Some adjuncts stick around for years, of course, and become go-to people for particular programs, but with the pay being what it is, any stability we get there is really a bonus.  

Students bring issues of their own, of course.  Every time a student changes majors, a new round of advising is necessary, and sometimes a new advisor.  Given the number of students who show up with no clear idea of what they want to study, some churn is built into the system.  Since it takes time to build rapport and trust with an advisor, each switch carries a cost.  That’s pretty much a cost of doing business, of course, but it does make it harder to provide continuity and a comfort level for the student.

The one that bugs me the most is the surprising variation of preferences among transfer-destination schools.  This branch of the state college system wants its social work majors to take these two history courses, but that branch of the same system wants them to take two different ones.  Multiply that by many more colleges and many more programs, and just keeping track of it all is a challenge.  (Then add the times that the destination schools change their minds -- usually as the result of a key personnel change -- and don’t bother to tell us.  Even good people get stabby when that happens.)  A perfectly well-meaning advisor could inadvertently steer a student towards a course that won’t transfer, just because some new department chair at compass direction state has a different preference.  

We try to work around that with articulation agreements, with varying degrees of success.  But there’s a limit to the predictability you can build into a system with so many moving parts, each with its own imperatives.  That’s especially true with private colleges, since they can pretty much do what they want.  And even articulation agreements need regular maintenance as curricula evolve.

The tough nut to crack on campus is the conflation of advising with scheduling. It’s an easy trap to fall into. “History of Etruscan Snoods would suit you.” “But that’s full!” “Okay, let’s see what else there is...” Before long, you’re spending much more time looking for open seats than actually discussing substance. That’s especially true later in the registration periods, when the most popular timeslots and classes are already taken.

I really don’t know how to solve this one. With finite seats, it seems like a fact of life. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that this is when some of the regrettable decisions get made.  

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those at community colleges -- have you found or seen a reasonably elegant, sustainable, affordable way to do academic advisement well, given all of these moving parts?

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