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Jeff Selingo asked in the New York Times this weekend whether it’s better to have faculty to academic advising, as opposed to full-time advisers. I was disappointed in what the discussion left out.

Quick quiz: what’s the single greatest argument in favor of professional advisers?

Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?


In the context of a community college, we don’t wrap up Fall enrollments by May. We wrap them up in late August. Prospective students stream in through May, June, July, and August, and they need help putting plans together.  Returning students are the same way. It would be lovely if they all finished their plans in April, and many do.  But their lives are complicated enough that planning six months ahead is often unrealistic. 

In practice, we divide advising among full-time professional advisers, adjunct faculty on hourly contracts for advising, and full-time faculty.  When the system works right, the full-time professional advisers focus on new students, with a goal of handing them off to faculty in their desired major after the first semester.  Last year we even separated faculty advising from student registration, so the faculty-student interactions could focus more on long-term academic and career goals and less on finding an open seat at 10:00.  The jury is still out on that one, but I’m confident that it will work.

If we were to get rid of our professional advisers, we’d be left with some pretty unappealing options.  One would be to just dump all those students on faculty, which in practice would mean requiring full-time faculty to come in regularly during the summer.

Good luck with that.

Another would be to abandon advising altogether as a requirement.  We could just default to catch-as-catch-can advice, with students making their own course selections.

From what we’ve seen both locally and nationally, that would tend to work as a sorting mechanism.  The students who come in with the greatest social and educational capital would be fine; the ones who show up already intimidated or confused would fall away.  Given the mission of the community college, this direction would be counterproductive.

Or we could automate it.  Austin Peay State University made some waves over the last year by building a recommendation engine into its student portal.  I’m told it works sort of like Amazon or Netflix; it makes recommendations for future courses based on success in previous courses, just like Netflix predicts movies by noticing what you’ve watched before.  (A few years ago, based upon hundreds of ratings, Netflix’ top recommendation for me was...Caddyshack.  You may draw whatever conclusion you wish.) 

I’ll admit being intrigued by the concept of the recommendation engine, but it strikes me as more of a useful supplement than a replacement.  For a student already a couple of years in, it may make sense.  But for someone whose attachment to college hasn’t really been formed yet, and who doesn’t yet have a college course track record by which to judge, I just don’t see it.  The human touch matters at that point, which involves paying humans to be there and to have enough time to engage in actual conversation.  That costs money.

And that’s where the discussion gets real.  How much is it worth to us to keep a community college student enrolled?  And why, exactly, is that student worth so much less -- judging by per-student allocations -- than a student in a wealthier and whiter environ? 

I’m a fan of efficiency, when it’s in the service of doing what we do better. But when it’s a way to try to make structural inequalities seem like they’re rooted in individual merit, I have to call foul. A discussion of advising that doesn’t even acknowledge summers reflects an assumption about the kind of college being discussed.  Community colleges need to be discussed, too.

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