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This weekend we hosted some friends from Massachusetts. It was a glorious time: the kids picked up right where they left off, the weather cooperated, and the parents got along great. Other than a nasty sore throat on Sunday, I couldn’t have asked for it to go better.

The friends are college graduates, but not professional academics. I mention that because at one point the grownups’ conversation turned to memories of college. (The kids’ conversations were largely about Minecraft.) All four of us had tales to tell of favorite classes and least-favorite classes, of professors we liked and those we didn’t.  

I was struck, though, by how quickly the others’ tales turned to advising. In each case, the tale was the same: advisors offered too little, too late, to be helpful. The student in each case wanted clear direction, but was instead presented with a long menu of options and given little to no help in navigating it. My own story was a little different: my advisor was a physics professor, whose entire advice consisted of “you should take more physics.” I thanked him for his input and returned to navigating the catalog myself.

Although each of the four of us came to college from a different angle, and all four graduated, we shared a sense of disappointment in advising. In our different ways, we each had hoped for some useful information, and none of us got it. We got through without it, but decades later, we could each recall wanting more.

The common denominator to each story was remarkably consistent with what we’ve been hearing about best practices in advising. Everyone wanted information that was useful, rather than either comprehensive (the long list) or self-serving (take my course!). We wanted to know what we needed to take before making choices, and we probably would have benefited from return visits over time.  

I’ve heard those things for years from folks who study student success, but it’s somehow different hearing the same things from friends who wouldn’t know the Lumina foundation if it bit them. They haven’t been following the student success debates, and I didn’t bring up the subject.  Their commentary was spontaneous, specific, and unanimous.

It’s easy to object to relatively directive advising as handholding, or as reductive. And it can be. But some level of clarity is actually empowering. It levels the playing field with students who have enough cultural capital that they can navigate a bureaucracy on their own. And it prevents students from taking courses they won’t need, or that don’t make sense for what they’re trying to do. (One friend mentioned that she unknowingly signed up for the pre-med version of Intro to Biology, even though she was a journalism major. It made life much more difficult than it needed to be.) That’s not at all the same thing as lowering standards. It’s applying standards to the right things.

Knowing the goal, and knowing how to achieve the goal, are two different things. With limited budgets, most community colleges can’t just hire their way out of the problem. Getting to a better system will take some redeployment of existing resources, some rethinking of workflows and protocols, and probably some technology. It’s not the sort of thing that can be done overnight.

But it’s heartening to hear, from disinterested parties, that we’re getting the question right. Advising matters, and it matters the most to the students who have the least. I hope that twenty years from now, today’s students will all be graduates, too.  

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