Advising: Meeting Student Needs?

Academic advising: Image of an advisor and a student in conversation

Several months ago, the Chronicle featured an article on advising focused on the work of Dr. Ned Laff, who detailed the importance of broad-based advising and the gaps between what today’s students need and what they frequently receive. Drawing upon an advising career at multiple colleges, Laff focused his comments on the disconnect between advising and career services. I resonate with his analysis, and, with more than four decades of my own in higher education, I contend that the gaps reach even deeper. At the root of the problem is the failure of colleges to keep up with evolving market demands. Neither the fundamental concepts of college advising nor the associated reward system have been updated in decades, resulting in a disconnect between market demands and what the academy is delivering. We need to do a better job for today’s students. Why aren’t we delivering? It is my observation that we will not deliver what students need until we connect advising to faculty evaluation.

Multiple surveys over a decade or more indicate that today’s students and parents expect a college diploma to come packaged with a clear-cut career path—not just a major and a broad general education, but experiences that document workplace readiness with job-specific skills. Sadly, this data—and its potential impact on both retention and post-graduate success—has been largely ignored. The advising emphasis remains on academic choices and grades, while—as Dr. Laff points out—the identification of and preparation for career aspirations languish at the bottom of the advisors’ checklist.

I believe colleges could deliver more effective advising and, in the process, retain and graduate a higher percentage of students. However, strong and courageous leadership will be needed to put in place the following:

  • Changes in faculty workload calculation and the promotion/tenure models to incentivize a different model of advising;
  • Integration of career services/internships and advising;
  • Required advisor training, support, and accountability;
  • Investment in robust advising software, along with implementation support and user training;
  • Proactive use of software-generated feedback to monitor and guide advisor activity, track student progress and ensure accountability through such measures as monitoring software utilization, retention, and graduation rates.

As colleges continue to grapple with lower-than-desired retention rates, they frequently turn to technology as a mechanism for identifying, intervening with, and tracking students who are floundering. As a former president, I was part of evaluation teams that chose robust software to assist in improving student support and retention. I authorized the investments with high hopes of improved advising and retention. Although the software itself delivered as promised, advising continued to fall short of expectations. Upon reflection and experience at several colleges with different software, it has become evident that the software is only as good as the advisors’ implementation and follow-through.

Changing the expectations of faculty advisors, however, is likely to prove a daunting exercise. The doctoral programs that provided their discipline-specific expertise did little if anything to prepare them for authentic, broad-based advising that reaches beyond course selection and graduation requirements. This is where the system breaks down, unless colleges themselves are prepared to provide the necessary training in recognizing and addressing the challenges that today’s students bring with them to college: unprecedented anxiety, depression, and family baggage—some with responsibility for providing family members with financial and psychological support while at college. Unless we repair this broken system, colleges will be ill-prepared to provide the type of mentoring and advising needed to ensure student success.

For example, how is a faculty member to respond to faltering academics due to student abuse at home or by a peer? What can faculty do to address the epidemic of anxiety and depression interfering with academics? A quick referral to the counseling center has not been an effective model, although it frequently leaves the advisors with a sense of having addressed the problem. A recent Chronicle survey indicated that a majority (approximately 74 percent) of faculty are willing to reach out to students in distress, yet less than one-third “know what mental health services are available to them at their institution.” Students need wrap-around services coordinated by a mentor-advisor who can put the pieces together and walk them through the process of juggling their education and life circumstances.

Only 22% of colleges have the advising function staffed by professional advisors, while the remaining colleges continue the model of faculty advisors. With scarce training and a lack of incentives for faculty advisors to meet student advising needs, the capacity of software is grossly underutilized. Faculty must not only be trained; they must be incentivized to develop advising skills. Such incentives will have to become part of the tenure and promotion criteria and metrics developed to evaluate the effectiveness of the advising process.

At the majority of some 4,000 colleges and universities, a faculty workload and evaluation model that includes a research component makes little sense. I contend that, with the exception of research one (R1) universities, the “three-legged stool” of teaching, research, and service should be replaced with a model that focuses on teaching and advising. Today’s students need coaching and mentoring to cope with the basic issues of life, and those students derive little benefit from the research upon which faculty are promoted and tenured. Although the “research” definition of “creating new knowledge” fits only those employed at research universities, faculty often stretch the classic definition of research to meet that component of the evaluation model, leaving institutions to expand their definition of research rather than change the faculty evaluation model.

I suggest replacing the three-legged stool with a four-legged model that evaluates basic currency in the discipline in a way that aligns with Ernest Boyer’s definition of scholarship. A fourth leg of “student engagement,” which would be defined to include advising, would complete the model. Broadly engaging with students outside the classroom, coupled with the tracking software and monitoring reports that hold advisors accountable, would go a long way toward improving advising and retention.

It is too much to ask faculty to commit to comprehensive advising without continuous and significant training, the use of tracking software and feedback reports, and coordination with other campus services (including career services). By building faculty workload and evaluative components into the system, a more effective system could be developed. Without faculty accountability, software will continue to be under-utilized and will fall short of delivering desired student persistence results. If we are to serve today’s students and improve student persistence, the faculty-based model of advising must change, and effective advising must be measured and built into promotion and tenure processes. Our students deserve a better model, and it is in the best interest of colleges to improve retention and graduation rates. It is therefore time to close the gap between market demands and what we deliver.