A Diagnosis for Academic Advising: 3 Missed Opportunities

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Through a series of surveys and interviews with advising directors across North America, Academic Impressions has identified a number of frequently missed opportunities that prevent institutions from maximizing the effectiveness of academic advising to improve student retention and academic success. The following are among the most significant:

  • As academic advisors find themselves overwhelmed with high student traffic and high student/advisor ratios, too often advising remains focused on course schedules — rather than taking a developmental and proactive focus on helping students problem-solve to reach academic and career goals.
  • At many institutions, interventions with students who may be academically at risk are still occurring too late.
  • Although the majority of institutions rely heavily on faculty advisors, few have a system in place for assessing and improving faculty advising.

Developmental Advising: Empowering the Student

In developmental advising, the student is given the resources to self-audit progress toward the degree, or is sent a degree audit by the advisor prior to meeting. Then, the student’s time with the advisor is spent defining academic and career goals and problem-solving to address obstacles that are likely to arise on the way to meet those goals — rather than going over the course catalog.

The strength of developmental advising is that it empowers the student to take ownership of their own goals and progress, and partners them with a professional who can help them plan ahead proactively.

Read our member exclusive report on early alert programs to review recommendations for empowering your students to self-audit their progress and, if appropriate, self-identify when they are academically at risk. For this article, we interviewed two of the architects of Arkansas State University’s forward-thinking approach to early alert: Jill Simons, executive director of Arkansas State’s University College, and Darla Fletcher, director of technology services and support.

Yet developmental advising is not yet the norm in higher education. Susan Ohrablo, a doctoral enrollment counselor with the Abraham S. Fischler School of Education at Nova Southeastern University, suggests that the issue is primarily one of how advisors are trained — and what expectations are set.

Ohrablo suggests that advising directors:

  • Address directly the misconception that a developmental approach will add time to an already over-full workload; by having one comprehensive discussion of the student’s academic goals and path toward them, an advisor often eliminates the need to have five interactions over time with a student who lacks a “big picture” look at their academic path and keeps returning with specific questions.
  • Coach advisors to rethink their role; ask them to define the value they will bring to advising sessions and how, specifically, they will invite students to share responsibility for problem-solving and decision-making.

For examples, read our article “Ensuring Your Developmental Advising is Effective.”

Early Intervention and “Intrusive Advising”

Early alert programs have been emerging on college campus over the past decade, but too often rely on input and data from faculty at one checkpoint early in the term. Joe Murray, the director of academic advising and retention services at Miami University Hamilton Campus, recommends taking a more “intrusive” approach to advising for at-risk students. Based on the research of Robert Glennen, “intrusive advising” focuses on early outreach and mandatory advising for at-risk students.

“By the time a student realizes they’re in trouble and asks an academic advisor for help, it’s usually too late for anything other than a conversation about dropping. The more you can front-load outreach into pre-term or start-of-term communications, the more options the advising office has to offer students.”
Joe Murray, Miami University

For example, identify critical points on the academic calendar at which an at-risk student is likely to run into roadblocks:

  • Registration deadlines
  • Financial aid deadlines
  • Drop/withdrawal deadlines
  • Deadlines unique to specific academic programs

Then require a mandatory advising session for at-risk students prior to those deadlines. For example, in the case of students on academic probation, the institution can place a registration hold, so that these students have to meet with an advisor prior to registering. “This allows us to solve many problems prior to the registration process,” Murray remarks.

Improving Faculty Advising

Surveying academic deans, department chairs, and directors of advising in 2012, Academic Impressions found that:

  • Over three quarters of institutions surveyed rely heavily on faculty advisors (even if they also employ some professional advising staff).
  • Less than one fifth of institutions surveyed devote “sufficient resources” toward improving faculty advising — even though one half of those surveyed cite improving faculty advising as a critical priority this year.

An earlier survey (October 2011) found that at that time, less than one fourth of academic deans and advising directors used data from assessment of academic advising to inform training and development of faculty advisors.

As faculty advisors provide most of the advising services at colleges and universities in the US, establishing rigor in faculty advising, systematic assessment of faculty advising, and ongoing training for faculty advisors is a critical but often neglected step toward improving student retention and supporting students’ academic success.

Tom Grites, past president of NACADA and assistant to the provost at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, offers four steps toward improving faculty advising:

  • Establish a set of shared goals for academic advising.
  • Develop a system for ongoing and systematic assessment of advising effectiveness.
  • Provide the necessary development and peer-to-peer training for faculty advisors.
  • Partner with each academic department to write an “advising syllabus” to outline specific expectations and guide the work of faculty advisors.

For a closer look at these four recommendations, review our member exclusive report “Improving Faculty Advising.”