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It took me years to get past my first impression of academic advising. At Williams, students were assigned faculty advisers apparently without regard to what they wanted to study. I was entrusted to a physics professor. He was a nice enough guy, but pretty much the entire conversation went like this:

Him: So, want to study physics?

Me: No. I’m thinking about poli sci, or maybe history.

Him: Well, those are good, too.

I wouldn’t call it value-added. Graduate school advising is something else altogether, probably best described through fiction. At DeVry, “advising” consisted mostly of telling students which courses were required for their major. As far as advice goes, there wasn’t much. So for years, I didn’t put much stock in advising.

It wasn’t until I joined the community college world that I started to get it. I met students who didn’t know what they wanted or how to get there and who just wanted someone to tell them what to do. Not all students were (or are) like that, of course; some know exactly what they want, and that’s great. But many don’t. Or if they do, they aren’t sure how to make it happen, usually due to complicated life circumstances. It’s one thing to check a transcript against a list of requirements; it’s something else altogether to help a student who’s also balancing shifting part-time hours and a precarious home situation figure out what to do.

In that spirit, Lebanon Valley College’s idea of canceling classes for a day and devoting the day instead to advising and a job fair registered differently than it would have 20 years ago. Back then, I would have considered it a waste of valuable class time. Now, I get the appeal.

(They even offer free head shots for students! If you had suggested that to me when I was a student, I probably would have started by asking what a head shot was. Then I would have explained that I wasn’t an actor. The world has changed.)

The tricky part about canceling classes for a day, other than scheduling, is getting students to come to campus. Many will interpret it as a day off and use it for other purposes. If only a few students bother, the “waste of time” argument becomes more credible. It may take some trial and error to find the right incentives, but that’s OK. In the meantime, positive word of mouth can spread, too.

At the Williamses of the world, it’s probably still mostly safe to assume that students have sufficient social capital to navigate college pretty much on their own. But that’s not typical. And the research shows clearly that students who take courses beyond what counts for the degree are less likely to finish and more likely to be discouraged. Helping those students figure out the right path at the right time makes a meaningful difference.

So, kudos to Lebanon Valley College. I may steal this idea myself.

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