Last year, the Center for Community College Student Engagement released a national report, “Show Me the Way: The Power of Advising in Community Colleges.” Since then, we’ve presented and spoken about the report and the topic of advising more than 50 times. Interestingly, audience members at our presentations ask us the same five questions over and over.
No. 1: What is the best name for someone who provides academic advising to students? Whether advisers are called counselors, navigators, mentors, coaches, advisers or something else, their role is no longer simply to enroll students in classes. It includes understanding how to incorporate a relational element in advising with deeper conversations on careers, transfer opportunities, nonacademic commitments, financial issues and much more. As a result, advisers, or whatever title they are given, will need revised job descriptions and to understand the new responsibilities and expectations of the position. And institutions will need to create professional development programs so that such individuals can be trained to meet those expectations.
The payoff for this transition from a transactional to a relational type of advising is monumental. Transactional advising focuses more on process and procedures of academic advising such as using a ticket system for students to meet with any available adviser to register or drop courses. Relational advising goes beyond transactional advising. It is intentionally designed to build trust, ongoing communication and a sense of belonging between a student and adviser. The National Academic Advising Association, or NACADA, describes it as advisers facilitating interactions where students can be acknowledged, listened to and valued.
A student whose college had redesigned advising identified her adviser as the one person who pushed her to be the most successful student she could be: “She’s guided me the whole way. I’m not lying when I say I have 1,000 questions. She’s gone out of her way to do so much for me. When something happened with the transcript, she went and talked to the board. She was like, ‘I’m going to get the answer for you,’ and she did, and she emailed me, and everything came out clear. Now I’m ready to graduate, and she’s telling me, ‘Congrats, you’re going to be successful,’ and I said, ‘Because of you.’”
No. 2: What is the best adviser-to-student ratio? NACADA’s 2011 National Survey of Academic Advising found that full-time professional academic advisers at two-year institutions had a median case load of 441 advisees. But according to Rich Robbins, associate dean of the college of arts and sciences at Bucknell University, “Meaningful case load comparisons remain elusive because too many factors affect advising delivery.” He cites the primary five complicating factors as:
- adviser responsibilities
- advising delivery
- advising approaches
- student needs
- the advising time line
Perhaps the real question is: How do colleges build capacity to ensure that every student’s needs are met with advising? Do students need to be seen in a one-on-one advising session? Or can advising take place during class time? In the 2017 Community College Survey of Student Engagement, of the students who responded that they had seen an adviser, 23 percent said that an adviser had come to one of their classes to speak about academic goals and planning. And students who experienced group advising were more engaged than students who did not experience it.
Another way that colleges can build capacity for advising is through the use of technology. Does your college use technology such as Skype, Zoom, texting or other methods of communication to meet the needs of students? An adviser in one of our focus groups said, “I’ve talked to students either in groups or individually via Skype. I’ve texted them through Google text … because a lot of times, they’re like, I’m working. They can sit at their work desk and just text me and get their answers right there, too.”
No. 3: Should faculty be advisers? Faculty members are already advising students, whether formally or informally. They spend more time with students than anyone else on a campus. Among full-time faculty, 77 percent of those who indicate advising is not part of their formal role report that they spend at least one hour in a typical week advising students, compared to 98 percent of full-time faculty who indicated that advising is part of their role. Similarly, 73 percent of part-time faculty who indicate that advising is not part of their role report that they spend at least one hour in a typical week advising students, compared to 97 percent of part-time faculty who report advising is a part of their role.
We know faculty members discuss topics with students such as the courses they need to take, careers, internships and more. We also know advisers discuss some of the same things. What isn’t clear, however, is who covers what information. As colleges redesign for guided pathways, they should map out what topics advisers cover, what topics faculty cover and, more important, how to ensure that students receive consistent messages. With two-thirds of faculty members in colleges and universities being part-time, it’s important to include part-time faculty in the advising discussion.
No. 4: Should advising be mandatory? The real question is how can you continue with optional advising and expect better results? No one dares to ask that in a large group setting or during a plenary. But during a small working group, or in a one-on-one conversation, it’s usually phrased as, “How does a college make advising mandatory?”
It was not so long ago that college leaders were having this same conversation about ending late registration. Few colleges have it today, but many now have late-start classes, eight-week classes and other innovative ways of meeting the needs of students for whom the traditional 16-week class schedule doesn’t work. Is it time for your institution to consider this type of transformative change in advising?
No. 5: What else should my college be thinking about when redesigning advising? A deeper question is, “Have we included the student perspective in the advising redesign?” Frequently, college administrators and faculty members meet to design or redesign the student experience, including advising. But students are rarely invited to the conversation to share their personal experiences. When students are included, college leaders have an opportunity to understand what matters most to them.
For example, during a focus group, community college administrators asked students to give them on piece of advice about the institution. Several students shared that they would like to be assigned to advisers who specialized in their major.
- “I think it would be best if we had advisers who were in our fields and knew exactly what we should be taking, when we should take it, when the institution is offering it and what benefits we get from these particular classes, based off their knowledge and their experiences in the field.”
- “I think the advisers should be specialized in the degree program that you’re in so that they can advise you better. They would be more knowledgeable. I know that I feel like I’ve just lucked out that my adviser is more knowledgeable because of her personal experiences, but not everyone has that same experience.”
- “As much as I do believe more advisers, of course, is always a good thing, I really wish this college would organize our advisers differently. Right now, I don’t quite understand how they’re organized, but it does feel very much, as you come in, you’re just assigned to one. I always feel like it would be better if it was program specific -- as soon as you declare a meta-major that you are transferred to an adviser who knows all about that meta-major … That way, the advisers would have more knowledge, and I think it would break it down more so they wouldn’t have so many students at one time.”
Who knows firsthand what is working well and what needs improvement? Students! So, ask them.
We constantly learn from colleges as we travel across the country, and the one consistent takeaway is that there’s no silver bullet. Colleges are approaching the redesign of advising in many different ways. For example:
- Jackson College in Michigan has students fill out an intake form, as you might do when you go to a doctor’s office, but the form asks them about their lives.
- Alamo Colleges created Alamo Advise, a defined plan for advisers to reach out to students before their arrival at one of the five campuses. Advisers continue to connect with students at specific milestones; for instance, students are required to meet with an adviser after having earned 15, 30 and 45 credit hours. If a student does not meet with an adviser, then a hold is placed on their account until the student receives a pin from the adviser that’s required for registering for classes.
- St. Petersburg College in Florida completely redesigned the student advising experience, moving it from a transactional one to a relational one. Their advisers had to complete 120 hours in career training as part of the redesign.
- Skyline College in California developed SparkPoint, “a financial education and coaching center to improve college connection and completion by mitigating economic disparities.”
All four of these examples approached the redesign of advising in a distinct way, and all four have seen positive results from the changes they have made.
This is not easy work. It is not stand-alone work, either, but part of the guided pathways redesign effort. In doing that work, it’s vital to ask, “What problem is the college trying to solve?” before you begin the conversation.