Parking Garage Advising: How Florida Atlantic is Test Driving a New Approach to Advising Commuter Students

Advising Commuter Students - Signage at Florida Atlantic University

by Lisa Cook, Academic Impressions

Why We’re Taking a Close Look at FAU

Florida Atlantic University has piloted several innovative strategies for providing students more timely advising and support. In fall 2014, FAU’s University Advising Services office started a resident hall outreach but struggled to come up with a plan to reach out to commuter students, who frequently attend part-time and only in the evening due to work and family commitments. Historically, all university offices closed at 5, which posed an additional challenge to reaching out to students with full-time jobs.

The reality is that commuter students, who are often part-time, take longer to graduate, making outreach to that population especially critical. We talked with Joe Murray, director of University Advising Services, to learn more about the initiative.

Taking Advising to the Parking Garage

The idea to reach out to commuter students was the brainchild of Florida Atlantic University academic coach and advisor Jennifer Coisson, who herself had once been a commuter student and knew that commuter students often miss out on campus support services. Yet outreach to these students is difficult because FAU doesn’t have commuter lounges or any one spot on campus where commuter students congregate.

Except the parking garages.

“The only place they are is in their cars and that’s where we should be finding them,” she told colleagues at a brainstorming session.

Joe Murray, the director of University Advising Services, brought the idea up to campus leadership at a holiday party at the university president’s house. Murray suggested they roll out the outreach for the Fall 2015 semester, but the provost liked the idea so much that he said, “Let’s do it now.”

That gave Murray three weeks to get everything in place.

Get Wise: Advising on the Go

Get Wise
All photos in this article are the property of Florida Atlantic University and are used with permission.

Get Wise: Advising on the Go was ready by the first day of the Spring 2015 semester. Advisors met students in the parking garage as they arrived on campus in the morning and again from 5-7 pm as evening students arrived. Advisors set up a table out front with bottled water, food, and giveaways like stress balls.

FAU Parking Garage Advising

The garage’s security booths, located between the entrance and exit, serve as small offices for advisors and students. The booths have computer access, are air-conditioned and are even equipped with small bathrooms.
FAU Parking Garage Advising

The parking garage initiative is modeled after the advising office’s existing residential hall outreach, also rolled out this year, which includes support services placed in Glade Park Tower (GPT) and assignment of an academic advisor to every first-year residence hall floor. An after-hours program, known as Get Wise @GPT, combines student support services in a designated space, providing tutoring, academic and career counseling, and writing services to residents of the Glade Park Tower. Advisors are also assigned to a floor and have partnered with the resident assistants on those floors to reach out and establish relationships with students.

University Advising is playing a similar role in the parking garage project. Murray says the parking garage offices are not intended for intensive one-to-one advising, but triage: allowing advisors to reach out to commuter students to build relationships and let students know advising is available. They can also answer questions, schedule an appointment with the main office for students who need a more in-depth advising session, and make referrals to the major specific advising offices. Pamphlets from other student support offices (such as health services and financial aid) are available, and advisors can also schedule student appointments in other offices such as Counseling and Psychological Services and Tutoring.

Get Wise 2

3 Examples of this Approach in Action

Murray offers three examples of issues that Advising on the Go has addressed.

Issue 1: Commuter students who have transferred in with an associate degree but are having trouble finding and utilizing resources:

A student who transferred to FAU this spring found answers to her questions about required courses and registration in the Advising on the Go office. The commuter student had participated in a virtual transfer orientation, met with her faculty advisor, and received a list of required courses, but faced with registration on her own, forgot the instructions (which were different from her registration process at her previous college) and found she needed further support. As an evening student with a busy 8-5 life, she was also having trouble finding an available time to leave work to meet with her faculty advisor.

At the parking garage office, the advisor was able to walk her through the list of required courses, show her how to register for classes, and schedule a formal meeting to choose the next semester’s classes in March when classes are all released. A student like this “needs a little more handholding from time to time,” advisor Roy Kaplan explains.

Issue 2: Students who are interested in transferring in but who haven’t been able to obtain enough detailed information about academic programs:

Another student who was interested in transferring to FAU stopped by the office to ask about pre-med programs. She felt as though she had received pieces of information but remained unable to assemble them into a big picture. The advisor explained FAU’s neuroscience degree and why it would benefit her on the MCAT, and provided links to other departments. He also offered to liaison a meeting to discuss career counseling with the career services center, and the student is now strongly leaning toward enrolling at FAU.

Issue 3: Students who dropped out of college but are thinking about returning:

Advising on the Go addressed the needs of a student who had stopped attending classes a few years ago to focus on his landscaping business. “Originally he was only going to leave school for a semester but when considering re-enrolling, found it near impossible to meet with an advisor, financial aid counselor and admissions expert based on his daily 8-5 schedule,” Kaplan notes. The student prefers in-person meetings. Kaplan told the student how to reapply, verified the student’s eligibility to enroll in the business program, and supplied information regarding financial aid and a contact in that office. The student told Kaplan that he would have reenrolled years ago had the process been as direct and simple as it now is.

The Practical Considerations

The Get Wise: Advising on the Go program is one step in Murray’s effort to bring the appreciative advising model to FAU. Both of FAU’s Get Wise programs (Get Wise: Advising on the Go in the parking garages and Get Wise: @GPT in the residence hall) foster two steps in the process of building rapport and creating the safe, welcoming space that students need at times that are responsive to student schedules.

In the residence hall model, students can come to the designated GPT space where multiple services are available from 4-9. With Advising on the Go in the garages, a dedicated advisor will work from 5 to 7 pm one night per week in each of the campus’ two parking garages.

This outreach has allowed students to voice their need for services beyond the 8-5 schedule, and the university community is responding. The Student Services building has expanded its hours from 8 am until 6 pm to extend evening support to students. That impacts the office of admissions, financial aid, career services, academic advising, visibility services, parking, the registrar, and the controller’s office. Murray also hopes that students wiill take advantage of the GPT space in sufficient number to justify opening similar outreach centers in the other residence halls.

The cost of the program has been minimal, Murray explains, and the biggest practical challenge has been finding staff willing to work at night. The original plan had been to change hours from 8-5 to 9-6, but traffic patterns quickly quashed that idea. Instead, staff will stagger their hours, keeping costs minimal. For example, staff who work evening hours can leave early on Friday afternoon with their supervisor’s approval. The commuter services office provided snacks for the tables early in the semester and will do so again during midterm and probably finals week.

The unusual move to this just-in-time model has also sparked some concerns and criticism. Some (not at FAU) have called the move a desperate effort, but Murray counters that the move is not desperate but is instead about “engaging commuter students and involving them where they’re at.” Physical location should not determine the value of what advising offers, he explains.

Campuses in colder states may find advising in the parking garage untenable, but there are also other places to find commuter students: the academic library, the student union building, etc. Each institution needs to examine their own students’ advising needs and patterns of using advising services, and be willing to think outside the box to find timely ways to serve commuter students.

The response from students has been overwhelmingly positive. “It has struck a chord that there is a need and students are coming up and having conversations,” Murray notes.

This is a new pilot, and at Academic Impressions we are excited to watch this initiative grow and see what impact it has on students’ academic success and completion rates.