The recent Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse Student Voice survey of two- and four-year college students about academic life revealed gaps in core advising functions. Just 55 percent of students say they’ve received guidance on required courses and course sequences needed for graduation, for instance, and just 52 percent say they’ve gotten help reviewing their degree progress to make sure they’re on track to graduate.
This doesn’t mean students don’t benefit from advising, however. To the contrary—existing research positively links increased engagement with advisers to student success metrics such as retention. The Student Voice data also suggest that students benefit from more face time with advisers. Students who report that they are required to meet periodically with their advisers (n=613, or about 20 percent of the sample) are more likely than the group over all to say they’ve received guidance on required coursework (69 percent) or reviewing their degree progress (64 percent).
Even students who report being required to meet just once with their adviser (519 of the 3,004 total respondents) appear to benefit: 68 percent say they’ve received guidance on required coursework, and 60 percent say they’ve reviewed their progress to degree with an adviser.
That said, many institutions don’t mandate meetings with advisers. (Just one in five Student Voice survey respondents says they’re required to meet periodically with advisers, though the number is closer to three in 10 for students at private institutions and just 14 percent for community college students.) Why not? Advisers face caseloads in the hundreds, adviser turnover is a problem that COVID-19 only exacerbated and institutions don’t always prioritize advising for resource distribution. Some colleges and universities also refrain from mandating advising because of concerns about enforcement—that is, students who don’t meet with advisers as required may face administrative holds on their accounts, and such holds can backfire.
So if students benefit from meeting with their advisers and institutions can’t always mandate such meetings, what can be done to encourage students to engage with advising? Experts offer the following eight actions:
1. Build Relationships
Jennifer Bloom, professor of educational leadership and research methodology at Florida Atlantic University, recommends connecting with students via appreciative advising, a framework she co-founded 20 years ago that’s now widely practiced.
Bloom defines appreciative advising as the “intentional, collaborative practice of asking generative, open-ended questions that help students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals and potentials.” There are six stages to appreciative advising: disarm, discover, dream, design, deliver and don’t settle.
Amanda Propst Cuevas, director of the Office of Appreciative Education at Florida Atlantic, says that while appreciative advising is rooted in appreciative inquiry, an organizational development framework, “it really is a relationship-building framework. We build relationships primarily with our students, but also it’s a framework that we use to build relationships with one another.”
Cuevas sees both student engagement and advising-team morale as relatively low post-pandemic. But she says “we can’t wait for a windfall of mega dollars to hit our campuses, and we can’t wait until we have a full staff. We’ve got to start making a difference where we are, and it’s within our control and power to be able to do that.”
2. Be Inclusive
Melinda Anderson, executive director of NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising, says that her group has noticed “differences in who seeks support based on race.” Student Voice findings indicate the same—nearly two in three white students have received guidance on required courses and course sequences needed for graduation, compared to about half of Asian, Black and Hispanic students.
Anderson attributes differing levels of engagement and supports received, in part, to students “knowing where support is located and feeling comfortable with the support available. Many campuses are working on creating campus environments that create a strong sense of belonging for students of color, adult learners and students who identify as LGBTQIA.” This includes advising spaces.
3. Reach Out (but Don’t Overwhelm)
Advisers can practice proactive advising by using student success platforms and predictive analytics to do outreach, says Tom Nguyen, director of advising and career operations at Palm Beach State College. “Each adviser can pull reports on their students in their caseload, and then they can send an email, send a text message or simply just call the student.” Advisers can send general wellness messages (“Hey, how are you doing? Hang in there, keep going”), Nguyen says, or target specific groups, such as students nearing graduation or those with grade point averages below a certain threshold.
Nguyen encourages advisers to directly call each student once per semester, versus messaging via email or text, to “implement a more personal touch.” Yet there is a balance to strike with outreach, in that students may feel “spammed” by too many messages, putting the adviser at risk of being blocked, he says. “We do outreach almost weekly but not more than once a week.”
Regarding outreach and other written advising communications, language matters. One recent study on email micromessaging linked the use of growth mind-set-oriented language and appreciative advising-oriented language to better student outcomes than mere informational messages. The effects were biggest for underrepresented student groups.
4. Design Around the Student
Monica Parrish Trent, vice president of network engagement at Achieving the Dream, advocates not just holistic advising but holistic student support in general. This involves using qualitative and quantitative data to understand students and their needs and then designing services around them.
“You can have the services, you can have an advising office, you can have student coaches, you can have interventions, tutoring centers, et cetera. But if they’re not delivered in a way that the students find inviting and inclusive, they’re not necessarily going to access them,” Parrish says. “And then you miss the connection students really need to feel like this is the place that they belong, in order to get the help that they need.”
Parrish praises leaders at Coahoma Community College, a historically Black college in rural Mississippi, as having worked to understand the students they serve and then redesigning services accordingly. Some examples: Parrish says Coahoma added a mandatory student success course to familiarize students with campus supports and connect their student experiences with career goals. Administrators also rethought the advising model to better accommodate working students, including by extending hours.
In a similar vein, Florida Atlantic added limited virtual advising hours in the evening.
5. Embrace Technology (and Acknowledge Its Limits)
No technology can replace expert advising and the relationships foundational to it. But many advising and student success teams now use virtual platforms such as EAB’s Navigate or Salesforce Education Cloud to manage caseloads, to coordinate student support among faculty and staff members, and to help students schedule appointments.
Steve Estes, director of academic advising at Northern Illinois University’s College of Liberal Arts, which uses Navigate, praises the platform’s appointment campaign feature for proactive outreach and advising.
“We find those tremendously successful in terms of nudging students ahead of registration periods,” he says. “Registration starts in a month, and our advisers are putting campaigns out for their students to be able to just click on a link and schedule an appointment with their assigned adviser.” Of course, Estes cautions, “it’s great for getting students here.” Then the question becomes whether they understand their degree requirements and more—and “you can never do too well in that department.” Estes says the next step for Northern Illinois is creating customized degree plans within the Navigate platform.
Southern New Hampshire University has revamped its advising model to now support students for all four years with both a professional and faculty adviser—a big investment in human capital, explains Scott Barker, vice president of student advisement. At the same time, SNHU is investing in technology to bolster advising supports. One example? A texting chat bot named Penny, which Barker says “allows us to identify students who may be at risk of failing or dropping out and triggers the adviser to reach out to the student. We view it as a tool and never something that would replace an adviser.”
Kathe Pelletier, director of teaching and learning at Educause, notes that the group recently expanded its technology solutions market dashboard within the analytics services portal to include advising-related technologies in the following categories: education plan creation and tracking, credit transfer and articulation, advising case management, and early alert. The dashboard allows institutions to view technology solutions used by other institutions and find peer and aspirational institutions.
6. Educate Students and Set Expectations
Managing the advisee-adviser relationship is the student’s job, in part (not just the adviser’s). But students generally need to be taught what advising is, why it matters and how it works. Many institutions address advising during orientation, and some cover it in mandatory student success courses. Even prospective students can be taught about advising, says Patti B. Harris, director of Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) in North Carolina, part of a federally funded college access initiative. Advisers can partner with on-the-ground admissions officers to make sure this is happening, she adds.
“There is a literacy aspect to this and an awareness of the college setting,” Harris says. “We [at GEAR UP] are doing our best to support students at the high school level to get them acclimated to much more of terminology around what it means to register for classes and deciding when to meet with your academic adviser. That you have to schedule those things, and you may not always be given a day and time, and no one’s coming to knock on your door.”
Some institutions also set clear expectations for what students should contribute to the adviser-advisee relationship. High Point University, for example, tells students they should communicate their goals and values, contact and schedule regular appointments with advisers, and prepare for advising sessions, among other responsibilities.
7. Supplement Advising Structures
Numerous institutions now employ student success coaches to help first-year students, students from certain demographic groups or students generally in ways that overlap with traditional academic advising.
Ohio State University started doing something a bit different just prior to and throughout COVID-19: using federal CARES Act money to hire “substitute” advisers into two-year, remote positions do some traditional advising and the outreach that full-time advisers don’t have enough time to do.
Amy Treboni, senior director of academic advising at Ohio State, says that these six advisers (and an incoming seventh) have allowed the university to offer 6,000 additional advising time slots to students. Substitute advisers (now called “TAG” advisers, because they’re tied to the Office of Transition and Academic Growth) have run various outreach campaigns, as well, including a “kudos” campaign to students who improved their grade point averages by 0.5. The kudos campaign, in particular, saw unusually high email-open rates from students—about 70 percent.
“How often does your university send you something saying, ‘You did awesome’?” Treboni asks. “They might have gone from a 2.0 to a 2.5. GPA, so they’re not going to be on the dean’s list. But they’ve made a huge change, right? We want to be able to acknowledge that and help them build and keep confidence in their academic endeavors.”
8. Consider Group Appointments
When students do seek out advisers, getting an appointment may be difficult at peak times, such as during registration. To meet demand, some colleges offer group advising appointments. Among them: Tallahassee Community College, where students can sign up for one of two daily small-group Zoom advising sessions. The goal of this particular event is to get students fully registered.
Small-group advising as a concept isn’t limited to registration, though. Rachel Moody, director of international academic partnerships and international academic advising at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York (who clarified she was speaking as an advising scholar and not on behalf of her institution), says she prefers mandatory one-on-one advising, even if it’s just over email. But in situations “where advisers have very high caseloads and one-on-one meetings are 15 to 20 minutes long,” she says, “small-group advising sessions with students with similar academic or career interests can work very well,” especially when students know they’re welcome to follow up with a one-on-one meeting.
Small-group meetings work particularly well “when students know what to expect and how to prepare,” Moody adds, and when peer advisers join.
Ultimately, Moody says, “the absence of strong, positive advising relationships that foster a sense of belonging will always yield dissatisfied students. Academic advising needs to be part of the culture—a good part. If advisers are only seen when it is time to schedule courses for the next semester, that is a sign of a transactional relationship versus a transformational one.”
Does your institution do something not noted in this article to encourage student engagement with the academic advising process or with advisers? Tell us about it.