Proactive outreach has been a cornerstone of the pandemic response for most schools, and indeed, we have known for years that proactive advising is a student success best practice. As the dust begins to settle, colleges and universities are turning their attention to preparing their student success and advising strategies for the fall. Given the highly uncertain environment, we anticipate that the need for proactive virtual communication will continue well into the next academic year and perhaps beyond. So how can schools staff these efforts in a way that is effective and cost-efficient?
A peer-advising team may be the answer
In recent years, some schools have hired undergraduates as “peer advisors” who supplement the student support efforts of professional advisors. Peer advisors are a highly effective and relatively inexpensive means of meeting basic advising needs. They also serve a critically important role: helping students feel more comfortable engaging with support and bridging the gap when the background and lived experiences of your advisors differ from those of their advisees.
Since March, we’ve seen several schools make good use of peer advisors in their pandemic outreach efforts, and we think that most schools will benefit from adding their own team to help manage the uncertain fall term and beyond. Here, we explain how peer advising works and provide guidance on how to build your own peer-advising team over the summer or during the first weeks of the fall term.
Peer advising at the University of the District of Columbia
The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) is an urban-serving HBCU enrolling roughly 4,000 undergrads. Like students across the country, many UDC students lead complex lives, balancing work, family, and school. Many live on tight budgets and attend school part-time. These students understandably need institutional support to navigate their college journeys, and thus UDC student success leaders have spent several years building out their capacity for proactive professional advising.
-Tim Hatchett, Assistant Vice President of Student Success, University of the District of Columbia
As part of this process, UDC realized that their professional advisors could be far more effective at handling complex student challenges if they had more support handling basic, everyday questions. In spring 2019, they hired ten undergraduates to form a peer-advising team that could provide an initial layer of basic student support at an affordable cost. Each student works 20 hours per week at $10/hour, funded by a Title III grant. In this role, some of their responsibilities include staffing the front desk, answering basic questions for walk-ins, promoting student support events, and creating videos and other resources to help navigate policies, procedures, and technologies that often confuse students.
Perhaps their most important responsibility is to supplement proactive advising. Peer advisors make up to 2,000 phone calls per term to remind students of important deadlines, assist them with basic registration issues, and direct them to appropriate resources as needed. These outreach efforts are having a measurable impact on student success at UDC.
For example, late in the fall 2019 semester, UDC found that they had more than 300 students who would soon be dropped from their spring classes as a result of nonpayment. Most of these students were having issues securing financial aid, completing paperwork, and navigating the logistics of making payments—issues that in the past would have prevented them from being allowed to start the semester. Peer advisors reached out to guide these students to both individuals and offices that could offer immediate assistance. Their efforts resulting in 210 reinstatements, preserved more than $700,000 in net tuition revenue, and made an estimated 5% impact on overall fall-to-spring persistence.
7 tips for building your own peer-advising team
We asked UDC and other institutions with peer-advising teams to provide guidance for developing your own program. Most felt that a team could be assembled quickly, estimating that two weeks of focused effort would be enough to get you started. Here are seven of their most important tips:
- Provide pre-written scripting for common issues
Don’t let inexperienced peer advisors “freelance” on these phone calls. Provide them with scripts for conversations about common issues, including guidance on when an issue needs to be escalated to a professional advisor or another support office.
- Train peer advisors on FERPA compliance
UDC requires peer advisors to complete FERPA training to ensure they are responsible and discrete with sensitive student information. They use a 30–45-minute training module provided by the Department of Education.
- Employ accountability and data-gathering mechanisms
UDC configured Navigate to let peer advisors log on and enter basic notes about their outreach campaigns without exposing them to sensitive student information that they should not see. This allows team managers to track progress and provides professional advisors with a more complete picture of the student.
- Pair peer advisors with professional advisors
As part of their pandemic response, UDC reorganized their peer advisors so that each was paired with a professional advisor to form an outreach team. The peer advisor did initial outreach, assisted with scheduling, and handled basic questions. Complex issues were escalated to the professional advisor partner, who was ready to take the hand-off from live phone calls.
- Hold candidates to high standards
Advising directors at UDC look for candidates who have high critical-thinking and problem-solving skills but who are also motivated and have a customer service ethic. To ensure a continuity of quality of care, the same case scenarios used to interview professional advisors are used when interviewing peer advisors.
- Ensure peer advisors represent a diversity of academic programs
UDC recommends intentionally hiring peer advisors from a variety of academic areas in order to maximize breadth of expertise and avoid staffing issues brought on by midterm exams or major projects.
- Frame this as a career development opportunity
UDC intentionally exposed their peer advisors to experiences that translate well to the postgraduate job market. Peer advisors work on team projects, serve as a focus group for university decisions, conduct surveys and analyze the data, and regularly get opportunities to interact with senior leaders in order to build their professional confidence.
-Latosha Baldwin, Assistant Director of Student Success, University of the District of Columbia
It has never been more important to be in touch with your students. Peer-advising teams are an cost-effective way to greatly expand the reach of your student support efforts and ensure you can be nimble in a highly fluid environment. They also create empowering on-campus student employment opportunities that have real community impact and career applicability. This best practice is worth the investment as leaders continue to shape their ongoing COVID-19 strategy.
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