Improving Advising: A Five-Step Plan

Professionals in a meeting

This is a time of great transition in higher education. A gradual decrease in undergraduate enrollments has prompted colleges to focus on increasing retention and graduation rates as a means for stabilizing revenue and marketing for recruitment. At four-year colleges, faculty advisement has historically been limited to course planning, although more recent trends—initiated first by community colleges—have used professional advisors to offer wider-ranging services aimed at improving student success. The establishment of retention centers has played a significant role in reducing attrition, while allowing faculty to continue in their traditional role of ensuring their advisees meet graduation requirements. 

Changing student demographics and perspectives about college bring with them new challenges. The current generation has struggled through COVID and battled the mental health difficulties that accompanied the pandemic as well as the world around them. Students and parents now have new expectations of colleges and their roles in preparing students for a career. Those expectations include helping students to identify a career path, support for academic preparation, and larger roles in assisting students to find placement post-graduation. Families and students assume that faculty will also assist students with stress and mental health issues (a good thing as according to national surveys, most four-year college students have significant issues with mental health.) 

So what to do to improve advising, especially if you’re not in a senior leadership position?  Below are five steps that could help to guide your efforts to refine advising to meet the current needs of students to achieve success.


STEP ONE: Gather Your Friends. 

To start with, gather a small group of like-minded colleagues who are committed to improving student success; select strategically for those positioned across the college, and include at least one faculty member. 
With this small group, develop a strategy to engage senior leaders. If they do not have advising as a challenge on their radar, create a plan to engage the key constituents (faculty and staff advisors, departments, deans, etc.) in support of making changes to the advising protocols/policies while also establishing accountability practices. Identify a few small changes that could be made to support students and produce a few small wins. 

Next, use the strategy to win the support of senior leaders—ideally the Provost, President, and Vice President of Student Services. If senior leaders are not instinctive supporters, or even champions, then a one-page benefits list might be helpful—include such suggestions as monetizing a 2% increase in retention, or demonstrating the impact of better statistics on new student recruitment, rankings and institutional morale.


STEP TWO: Get Started

If senior leaders are slow to engage, implement Plan B—offer to take the lead in establishing a task force to gather data, review best practices and make recommendations to enhance advising. Choose task force members strategically, including career services and athletics in addition to faculty and/or staff advisors. Make sure you include broad representation, well-respected individuals, and at least a couple of cynics. 

The charge to the task force should include data collection, a review of best practices, tiered recommendations, a timeline and metrics to validate results. Get agreement from senior leaders on charge and membership, and keep them in the loop as the work progresses. 

The data reports selected are an important consideration. You will want to add some reports not currently produced, e.g. retention/graduation by program, DWF percentages by course and discipline, and more.


STEP THREE: Recommendations

The Task Force should develop a strategy for making, releasing and “selling” recommendations.  The following are suggestions: 

  • Identify three to five items that are “low-hanging” fruit—easy to be accepted and implemented, and that will yield student success (e.g., a system of early alerts, and year-long scheduling and registration.) 
  • Release the above recommendations first, then adopt and measure promptly to gain credibility. 
  • Hold those recommendations that are likely to be more difficult to gain adoption a second or third release of recommendations.

STEP FOUR: Communication

This component of the work is critical. Frequent and effective messaging will bring stakeholders along with the group, so that the campus is far more likely to endorse the recommendations of the Task Force when the work is completed; otherwise, recommendations risk rejection just because no one has heard about them before. To assist in adopting and implementing recommendations: 

  • Announce the creation of the Task Force and its charge, preferably with the endorsement of the senior leaders and possibly a faculty leader. 
  • Distribute regular progress reports. 
  • Summarize and disperse data at appropriate intervals, as it would be too overwhelming to release all at once. 
  • Vary modes of communication, small groups, open forums, departments, deans, written, mixed groups. 
  • Focus on gaining support along the way, building up to adoption and implementation. 
  • Prepare various groups (including faculty departments, career services and staff) who will be called upon to endorse and implement recommendations when the time comes. 
  • Always keep senior leaders informed in advance. 

STEP FIVE: Adaptation, Implementations, Timeline & Metrics

Ideally, the Task Force will issue a few recommendations along the way, allowing implementation to begin and those critical early wins to be achieved. Once a progress report is released and it has garnered support over time, the Task Force can begin the task of achieving the broad adoption of recommendations.  A final report is necessary—presented first to senior leaders, and then to the community at large, and with opportunities for Q&A. Finally, you will need broad-based support for implementation on a timeline. 

So—go implement! Be bold. But don’t forget to (a) engage students so that they note and lend support for the changes, and (b) measure the effectiveness of change (or lack thereof). Keep the community informed. 
Ultimately, while there are no guarantees that following these five steps will ensure success, they nevertheless give your efforts the strong likelihood of improving advising quality and with it, student success.  Go for it!