Are these stale debates stalling advising reform at your school?

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Are these stale debates stalling advising reform at your school?

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Many college and university leaders have stressed the importance of using momentum generated by the pandemic to address challenges that had previously seemed unsolvable. One of the first areas that has demanded their attention is advising. Institutions want to take on the longstanding stalemates that have impeded innovation in academic advising. To prevent other schools from getting stuck in the same struggles, I want to share two questions that are likely holding back your advising reform—and how you should reframe them to make better, faster progress.

Centralized vs. decentralized advising: which is better for students?

When I started my latest research project, I anticipated that I would definitively answer the question of whether decentralized or centralized advising was the best solution for today’s students. What I soon discovered is that it can work effectively either way, and that the real focus must be on standardization of the advising experience.

Institutions today must provide holistic care to students to help them manage their personal, professional, and academic demands as they progress through college. As student needs have evolved, so too have the skills required to meet them. For too long, we have cobbled together support structures across our campuses that leave student services seeming more like the luck of the draw, dependent on which major a student pursues or whether they qualify for a particular support program. This means that students with the same level of need might have unequal access to the tools they require to address food insecurity, mental health, or financial challenges.

Students who have the same need and are advised in different parts of the institution should not have vastly different advising experiences. Yet, on campuses today, that is exactly what happens. Some students might receive holistic advising from a professional advisor; others might have a short check-in with a faculty member once per semester; and others might find that advising is on-demand. This leaves students with a very inconsistent level of support, which can have adverse effects on their outcomes.

Instead, we must look at what the advising experience should include and create an environment in which students in the same institution can receive a common advising experience with additional support for those who need it most. One way to do this is to have your team create a list of what advising should include at your institution. Pay close attention to emerging needs or common challenges that force students to leave your institution. For example, should advising include financial literacy, Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) remediation, or career preparation? Once you have a list of what structures all students at your institution should expect from advising, you can begin to identify the right individuals to provide it.

Faculty vs. professional staff: who should advise students?

Developing a list of student needs that advising should address will naturally lead to a question—who should advise students: faculty or professional staff? However, this is the wrong question. Advising today is far more than just course selection. Serving the whole student means mentoring, providing career guidance, responding to early alerts from teaching faculty, fostering belonging, and addressing personal issues.

To ask an individual faculty or professional staff member to address all advising needs is to ask them to work outside their areas of expertise. We want our experts working at the tops of their licenses—spending the most time on the activities they’re best qualified for—not in areas where they have little expertise. Faculty are trained in their discipline and are content experts. Professional advisors are typically trained as student support experts. Students need both. And access to this support shouldn’t be left to chance.

One way to do this is by using an approach used by Texas Wesleyan University. Historically, they used a centralized advising model with professional advisors serving students until they reached 24 credits. Students would then transition to faculty advisors. However, the university found that students’ need for holistic support didn’t end when they entered their sophomore year—students continued relying on their first-year advisors. Now, Texas Wesleyan uses a tandem advising model in which students are assigned both a professional advisor and a faculty advisor from the start. Students have access to professional advisors who manage a major portion of the students’ administrative and holistic care, while faculty advisors provide academic and career guidance. This approach resulted in a 4% increase in retention across a single year.

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Building an advising model for today's students

To meet the emerging needs of today’s students, we cannot limit support to faculty or professional advisors. No single advisor can effectively address all of these needs. Instead, we must clearly define the responsibilities of each role and provide students access to the team of experts ready to provide the guidance they need.

The pandemic accelerated innovation on campus—and institutional leaders are right to leverage that momentum to resolve longstanding challenges on campus. We cannot revert to student support as it existed before 2020. Let’s take advantage of this historic opportunity to establish a new model for advising that will benefit our students for years to come.

Ready to find out more?

Providing the same services to all students regardless of need is impossible for today’s resource-strapped schools. Watch this webinar to learn how population health management principles are inspiring a new approach at community colleges: proactive caseload advising.

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