Guiding Those Who Guide Students

New book dives deep into the profession of academic advising, offering direction on how advisers can best counsel students.

January 4, 2017
 

Imagine you’re a college adviser, and a student comes to you for help. She’s an English major in the second semester of her senior year … and she tells you that she “just found out” she needs a math course to graduate. She wants you to let her out of the math requirement. But you suspect that she intentionally avoided the class.

What would you do?

This is one of the scenarios in the book Beyond Foundations: Developing as a Master Academic Advisor (Wiley/Jossey-Bass), edited by Thomas Grites, assistant provost at Stockton University; Marsha Miller, assistant director of resources and services at the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA); and Julie Givans Vollar, research and planning strategist at Maricopa Community Colleges.

Beyond Foundations is the latest book from NACADA. The editors describe the first two books in the series as Advising 101 and Advising 201 -- they laid out the broad roles and responsibilities of academic advising and offered strategies to teaching and connecting with students.

The new book goes beyond the basics, addressing challenges advisers will face in the future and offering strategies to help advisers learn and grow through their careers, among other topics. It also outlines multiple scenarios such as the one above and guides readers through solutions. In the example about the English major who wanted to opt out of math, there’s no perfect solution, the book states. An adviser must consider several factors, including supporting the institution’s educational philosophy and checking the student’s precollege academic history in math -- it’s all about context.

Inside Higher Ed recently asked Grites about the book. His emailed responses follow below.

Q: What exactly does it mean to be a master adviser?

A: In preparing for the Beyond Foundations book, we wanted to appeal to those academic advisers and academic advising administrators who have been in the field for some time (at least three to five years), for two primary reasons. First, much of the literature in academic advising had historically been targeted for practitioners. Academic advising, again historically, is relatively new on the higher education radar as an accepted means of providing a well-planned, well-coordinated, successful means for achieving desirable student learning outcomes and institutional programmatic outcomes. This process is one of holistic engagement of the college student in order to maximize the complete college experience -- classroom, out of class, community, first year, transfer, etc.

Second, many practitioners have now become familiar with the basic components of the advising process -- informational, relational and conceptual -- and some of the recent major academic advising and related publications seemed a bit redundant to this ever-growing population of “master advisers.”

The editors wanted to reach beyond what many practitioners already knew, especially regarding the conceptual component. We concluded that the informational and relational components were adequately addressed in the previously published Guidebook and Approaches books, so a deeper, broader publication was needed -- one that addressed the conceptual component more directly.

Q: Do students benefit more from professional advisers or professors trained to be advisers?

A: That question is akin to determining student success -- it depends on who is defining “benefit” (or “student success”). What I mean by that is that students determine whether they benefited from the advising experience -- some get more from primary-role advisers, while others get more from faculty advisers, and some succeed from both. I have always believed that a good academic advising program must include both. Primary-role advisers provide more availability and accessibility, broader knowledge of the full curriculum, campus resources, etc.; faculty advisers provide more direct advice from the perspective of their academic disciplines and the student’s major, graduate school expectations, etc. Depending where students are in their degree programs, one type of adviser might be more beneficial than the other. In both cases, however, I would argue that the holistic approach I mentioned needs to be in place, and that this approach must be taught -- to the students and to all the advisers, primary role and faculty.

An aside to this response must also be recognized -- you use the word “trained” (faculty) advisers. Most faculty advisers receive very little training, other than how to read a degree audit, the basics of the curriculum and other informational material. I have always found it ironic that many faculty advisers don’t recognize the academic advising process as an excellent opportunity to teach -- about the purpose and value of higher education, about the rationale for the curricular requirements they view on the degree audit, about the relationship of their major to a broad spectrum of the workplace and how to enhance their students’ opportunities in it, etc. Faculty development (training) efforts can provide this awareness and the skills to practice it. And, of course, many faculty serve as academic advisers in an add-on role -- that is, there is often no selection to assume this role, little training is provided, as I mentioned, limited evaluation occurs, and often no compensation or recognition is provided for doing this task well.

Q: First-generation, low-income, underrepresented students have lower graduation rates than other students. The book describes ways in which advisers can apply theory to communicating with and helping vulnerable students, but what changes can be made on the institutional level?

A: I think any good academic advising program and academic adviser is aware of all potential resources for such students. These include: registrar, career center, financial aid, tutoring centers, study abroad, FYE, orientation, admissions, retention, counseling, wellness, residence life, TRIO offices, etc. This is not say that academic advisers need to be experts in the policies and procedures of each of these areas, but they should have established contacts with each one as ready resources for themselves and their advisees as needed. Advising units might have to initiate these relationships, and I feel it is incumbent upon them to have these contacts available for referrals. Also, a strong relationship with academic deans’ offices and faculty development programs can only strengthen the overall advising program across the campus.

Q: President Obama announced his “completion agenda” in 2009, that by 2020, the U.S. would have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. But according to the book, graduation is only one way to define student success. What do other forms of student success look like? How can academic advisers contend with the pressure to help colleges and universities up graduation rates, while still encouraging students to achieve different forms of success that may not be measurable with numbers and data?

A: You have described the reality that my colleague Marc Lowenstein and I have identified as a critical ethical dilemma that can face many academic advisers, depending on the institution’s approach to meeting the completion agenda (Obama’s and [the Lumina Foundation’s]). I hinted at this dilemma earlier when describing the benefit question. In a recent workshop on this topic, we had a participant indicate that her performance evaluation would be based (partially) on the retention rate of her students. We are concerned that this could become a common criterion for the future, as it has become in the public school sector with teacher evaluations, the Common Core and standardized test scores. Moreover, graduation rates are indicators of institutional success at best, but not necessarily the only (or even the best) indicator of student success.

My position has always been that institutions should measure student success by whether or not the students meet the goals that they set upon entry. This is especially appropriate in community colleges, where a large number of students do not have a degree purpose in mind; many are there to gain specific skills, meet the minimal criteria to transfer, earn a workplace training certificate, etc. However, if they don’t earn a degree, the institution (not the student) is considered a failure in those cases when graduation is the only student success criterion. Even in four-year institutions, each year a small number of students openly admit that they do not intend to graduate. Yet we adhere to this outdated metric to determine student success, which only includes cohorts of first-time, full-time students at their original institution.

Q: In the last chapter of the book, you write, “We predict that by 2025, academic advisers will garner respect from all institutional leaders and faculty members.” Please expand on what you mean by that, and how did you determine the year 2025 as a benchmark?

A: 2025 was somewhat arbitrary, but not totally. For example, the Lumina “big goal” is based on that year; 10 years is about the shelf life for the content of most books we (NACADA) have published with Jossey-Bass; and many changes will certainly occur on the higher ed landscape in that time frame. For example, we foresee new technologies, new federal and state legislation, new modes of instruction, new ways to earn credit, new curricula, new research results, etc., that will affect the practice of academic advising. Further, most institutional success plans designate academic advising as the primary effort that will facilitate these successes. Thus, the longer-range aspiration for the book is that these already seasoned professionals -- and those to be developed between now and then -- will be supported with the tools and continue their motivation to advance the academic advising profession to new heights, recognition and respect.

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