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Looking to the future of advising: 6 takeaways from the 2023 NACADA conference

November 17, 2023, By Brittni MacLeod, Director, Student Experience and Well-Being Research

The academic advising profession faces shrinking budgets, expanding student and administration expectations, and increasing turnover—all of which make it harder for institutions to think strategically about advising structure and staffing to support student success. EAB attended the 2023 NACADA conference this fall and listened as attendees explored these topics along with supporting specific student populations, AI applications in advising, and the future of advising. There are six themes that emerged.

1. Advisors can’t do it all

In conversations with advisors and advising administrators at NACADA, we heard that caseloads would be more manageable if students could take certain questions or issues to qualified staff in support units on campus or other members of an assigned student success team. Most attendees we spoke with understand the complexity of adding FTEs and are open to shifting some duties to other roles so they can spend advising appointment time on what matters most.

At NACADA, many institutions shared how they have built success teams with roles to supplement advisors’ work, with titles like retention manager, success coach, and student support specialist. They examine student persistence trends, have in-depth conversations with students about their college experiences and goals, and manage coordinated care processes. These types of roles aren’t new but have been growing as institutions increasingly recognize that one person can’t represent the whole experience or needs of a student.

During the conference, we heard from institutions like the University of West Georgia and the University of Cincinnati (UC) about their team approaches. Within UC’s decentralized model, the College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services & Information Technology (CECH) built a robust Student Services Center that provides guidance to students via a team of academic advisors, career development specialists, retention program managers, and a licensed counselor and social worker. Rather than asking advisors to take on the bulk of student guidance and support, UC has been intentional about drawing clear boundaries around roles and clarifying triage protocols so students and staff alike know who to turn to.

2. Advisors feel left out of decision-making processes

This contributes to poor job satisfaction and turnover across their campuses, and advisors wish administrators would foster more transparency around decision making, feedback, and follow-through.

Many advising leaders and frontline advisors at NACADA talked about being the last to know about changes to processes, policies, or technology—all while hearing from the cabinet that they are some of the most important people on campus. At the conference, we heard from institutions like Millersville University which have created advising councils with a clear process for liaising with the Dean’s Council and Office of the Provost.

3. Advisors are worried about the increasing numbers of students who don’t show up to appointments

Students who don’t respond to advisor outreach often end up enrolled in courses that don’t apply to their degree plan, missing critical financial aid deadlines, and missing out on recommendations for helpful resources or involvement opportunities.

Many advisors have been using program and demographic cohort data to craft outreach that feels relevant to students, and they’ve incorporated new channels like texting, but some students still ignore their advisors. Advisors we spoke with want to communicate the benefits of advising to students. But they feel like most students only view advising as somewhere to go if they’re struggling to make progress or to have a registration hold removed, not an ongoing conversation to help them get the most out of college.

4. Students won’t get consistent or accurate information unless advisors get consistent training

When students don’t get consistent information from one advisor to the next or have negative experiences with undertrained advisors, they can end up enduring the campus shuffle to track down answers to their questions and taking unnecessary courses—both of which have significant negative impacts on student experience and success.

Advisors we spoke with at NACADA shared that they want standardized training and job expectations across campus because it:

  • Ensures that students get high-quality advising regardless of the major they’re exploring
  • Helps advisors themselves prepare for a promotion or next career step

5. The math crisis is coming

During the NACADA Past Presidents’ Forum, we heard scholar-practitioners urge institutions to look 5-10 years into the future, knowing that students are showing up less and less prepared, most notably in math. By 2027, institutions will be working to support students who experienced significant learning disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We had an opportunity to sit in on a research paper session where researchers from Wayne State University highlighted how advisors are uniquely positioned to identify and dismantle barriers to student persistence in college math by referring students to tutoring, partnering with career services to speak with students about math-oriented careers, and discussing students’ options for peer-led supplemental instruction for high-DFW courses.

6. AI can support advising beyond chat bots

AI was one of NACADA’s hot topics this year, with multiple posters and sessions devoted to helping advisors understand its implications for their work with students and the profession as a whole. While some express worry that AI will replace advisor roles, experts in the field insist that AI cannot replace the human element of the advisor-advisee relationship. At NACADA, a small group of attendees decided we might as well go to the source: we asked ChatGPT itself if AI could replace academic advisors. It said no—advising requires a human touch and an understanding of students’ needs on a deeper level than AI can comprehend.

At NACADA, advisors were most curious about how AI can provide quick answers to students 24/7, provide course recommendations, build schedules, create degree audits, recommend resources on campus, and help with appointment scheduling. This was one of the topics most popular with cabinet-level attendees: one VP of student success mentioned that this information would help her pitch tools to lighten her advisors’ workload using new technologies.

In addition to advising chatbots like Ask Morgan at West Virginia University, institutions are beginning to look to self-report assessments to generate personalized recommendations for students. Third-party vendors like TruMotivate and are helping institutions like St. Mary’s University, the University of Manitoba, and the University of Tampa understand their students as individuals and meet their needs with a combination of suggested advising conversations and tailored recommendations for getting the most out of college.

A small group of attendees sat in a circle with the past NACADA presidents on the final day and nodded with agreement every time someone spoke.

As I listened to the discussion in the room, I realized that among all the conversations about AI, career ladders, strategic planning, and special populations, advisors and advising leaders are thinking the most about how to bring advising back to its core mission—guiding students toward their unique definition of success—and they’re worried about the distractions pulling them away from the work they signed up to do.

Brittni MacLeod

Brittni MacLeod

Director, Student Experience and Well-Being Research

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