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How holistic advising helps students find balance

December 7, 2017

“Our students are one flat tire from dropping out.”

I’ll never forget how accurate—and alarming—those words were in describing the population I had committed to serving.

For the past eight years, I worked first as a counselor, and later, in a leadership role in a student access and success program for low-income adult students at Northern Virginia Community College. The job demanded a high level of skill, flexibility, and—most importantly—a big heart. Over 55% of our students spoke another language natively, 70% worked while attending college, and 60% were raising children. Students came from war-torn countries, GED programs, military service, and our local community-based organizations.

The students I served were fascinating and worthy of more investigation: When I began my doctoral work, they inspired me to explore the relationship between holistic advising and persistence. What separated the success stories from the rest? Using data from interviews with students, I learned the students who persisted believed holistic advising kept them on track in four key ways: balancing priorities, managing curricular complexity, focusing on professional skills and career development, and fostering connection to the college and peers.

Life doesn’t happen on schedule

Community college students, and especially adult learners, rarely identify exclusively as students. They also see themselves as employees, parents, family providers, and sometimes a combination of all of those roles. Fulfilling the responsibilities required by each of these roles demands continuous prioritization and re-prioritization, which can make lasting balance feel unachievable. One of the students in my research, who had been working on her degree intermittently for nearly 25 years, explained,

“Life, it doesn’t happen on schedule. Your kids get sick or you’re in the ER…. That’s, I think, what has prevented me from finishing my degree: Things that would happen in life and not having…people who would work to keep you on track.”

This struggle to maintain balance can often appear to college advisors and administrators as a lack of commitment on the part of the student. In the program I managed, we repeatedly emphasized the importance of communication being a two-way street. We called, emailed, and texted students and encouraged them to engage in the same communication with us. One student told me this proactive, persistent outreach made it feel like the holistic advisors were “in it with you.” This sense that she had an ally at the college who understood the delicate balance of personal, academic, and professional demands led her to be more communicative when it appeared non-curricular issues might impact her studies.

Manage the “constant balancing act” at scale

Many of my study participants emphasized the importance of individualized attention. We all know how impactful personal coaching can be, but so often colleges don’t have enough advisors to match students’ needs. Navigate helps colleges scale advising and provide more holistic and targeted support to the students who need it the most, in part by allowing students to provide information about what is important to them.

For example, take a process as “simple” as course scheduling, which can be surprisingly difficult for the busy college student. One of my participants described how, after planning for work and her kids’ activities, she found it frustrating to navigate her college’s academic schedule, stating

“Have class options easier to figure out…Even for kids just out of high school, it’s so hard to put your schedule together. It’s such a puzzle. For adults, it’s even more difficult.”

A schedule that reflects a student’s personal and professional obligations allows them to assess, balance, and re-balance priorities in advance. Navigate allows students to indicate when they are unavailable to take classes, such as when they have caretaking or work shifts scheduled, and they will only see course options that reflect their availability. This kind of personalization allows students to commit to a schedule that fits their lives, not the other way around.

At EAB, we often say technology is not a silver bullet, and this is true of Navigate as well. The rollout of a new technology demands strong leadership and an enduring commitment to change management. However, when I recall the students I served at NOVA, I am encouraged about the difference technology can make. Community college students will inevitably encounter the figurative or literal flat tire, but a platform such as Navigate can reduce the likelihood such setbacks will force them off the road to success.

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