As an undergraduate, I only visited my advisor if I absolutely needed to. As crazy as it sounds, one reason I avoided her office hours was because I didn’t fully understand exactly what kind of support she offered.
In some cases, I didn’t think she was the right person to answer my questions (how does this class relate to my career goals? What kind of jobs do graduates in my major go on to?) In others, I felt that asking for help meant that I had failed and needed someone to bail me out (I’m a junior registering for spring semester and there isn’t a single course offered in my major that I want to take—what should I do?). I thought these questions fell outside her purview, when actually they are exactly the kinds of questions she was there to advise me on.
Advisors an important part of student persistence
Students who develop a relationship with a campus advisor are more likely to persist and graduate from college than students who don’t. With some luck and a lot of guidance from my parents, I managed to graduate with limited help from my advisor, but many students—especially those without a support network to help them navigate college—are not as lucky.
Less than 20% of students from the lowest income bracket complete a bachelor’s degree in six years. For many of these students, academic advising can play a crucial role in bridging the completion gap. According to a recent study from the U.S. Department of Education, the institutions with the highest completion rates for Pell-eligible students are also institutions that have developed strong systems of student support.
Demand for advising creates new market for learning advocates
Over the last few years, the growing demand for holistic support has created a new niche market for higher education startups: Learning advocates. Start-ups like Prodigy and PeletonU provide supplemental third-party support designed to help students navigate post-secondary education.
These organizations draw heavily on the tenets of developmental advising, a theory that helps students develop self-reliance and decision-making skills while simultaneously connecting students with the information and resources they need to chart an academic path that aligns with their interests, skills, and long-term career goals.
Many four-year institutions are now asking their professional and faculty advisors to operate more like learning advocates. Most schools require that students have periodic interactions with their advisors, but often these conversations center on course registration and leave little time to provide holistic advice or teach self-direction.
Changing the nature of advising meetings may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are three relatively simple ideas to help provide students with better advice and ensure that they have a more meaningful experience:
1. Make digital advising resources accessible and student-friendly
Advising resources should be easy to find. If students have to wade through pages of irrelevant material or a confusing website to get what they need, they are likely to give up and may be less inclined to engage with advising in person.
Instead, institutions can leverage their website, student portals, apps, and social media to help students answer basic questions like:
- How can I get in touch with my advisor?
- What are the benefits of advising?
- What can I expect from my advisor?
- Who can I ask for information about additional support?
Framing these resources through the lens of developmental advising, with accessible and positive messaging, helps students feel more comfortable about seeking out and meeting with their advisors.
2. Connect advisors with tools to provide students with accurate, helpful information
In order for students to make the good decisions, they need accurate and timely information. According to the 2006 study Essential Functions of Academic Advising: What Students Want and Get, the three most important functions of an advisor are to:
- Provide students with accurate information about degree requirements
- Help students make course selections that align with their career goals
- Help students navigate the university’ systems, processes, and timelines
The study also found that while student listed these functions as “very important,” they were only ”somewhat satisfied” with their advisors’ ability to deliver this information.
Practices like meta-majors and major mapping offer a framework through which advisors can encourage students to explore academically. Meanwhile, advisor education programs like student services ”walkabouts” and just-in-time action prompts can help faculty advisors learn about available student resources and network with other support staff across campus.
3. Make students active participants in academic conversations—even the difficult ones
Often the most difficult part of the advisor’s role is communicating with students who may be in trouble and guiding them to the best action. Students feel most positive about advising sessions in which they receive clear advice or information from their advisor and play an active role in decision making. Advisors that engage students in dialogue, take the time to build relationships, and celebrate students’ achievements can more effectively support students as they navigate difficult decisions.
While no one person or office on campus can claim total responsibility for retention and completion outcomes, a student’s advisor is the first—and best—resource for information and support. We can help students make the most of their college experiences by encouraging students to connect with their advisors, and equipping advisors with the resources they need to create empowering student interactions.