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Why Virtual Advising is Here to Stay

Episode 30

October 13, 2020 31 minutes


EAB’s Dr. Ed Venit and Dr. Christina Hubbard examine the virtues of virtual advising and explore several important advantages the practice offers over face-to-face advising.

Ed and Christina trace the evolution of virtual advising from phone calls to Zoom sessions. They also discuss lessons learned from the 2020 spring semester that suggest both students and advisors prefer the flexibility and efficiency they gain by abandoning traditional nine-to-five office hours and office-based appointments.

Finally, they touch on the move toward more holistic, student-centered advising approaches and how virtual sessions fit that new paradigm.


00:11 Matt Pellish: For EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours. When the Covid-19 pandemic took hold of our professional, our personal lives back in March, a few unpredictable behaviors came to light. Everyone rushed stores to stock up on paper products, and my parents learned how to use Zoom. They weren’t Luddites, but they never had to use video or new communication tools to connect with me or my siblings or their grandchildren, and it opened up a whole new world, access that had always been there but hadn’t been utilized. It wasn’t used to its potential.

00:42 MP: Similarly, virtual advising had been in existence on college campuses, but it was relatively underutilized. Exploring this topic today, we welcome back Ed Venit and Christina Hubbard to talk us through the advantages of virtual advising over face-to-face, and how it evolved from phone calls to Zoom sessions. Think academia’s version of telemedicine. They’ll discuss what was learned from the spring of 2020, and how institutions are moving now towards a more holistic, student-centered advising approach that abandons the traditional nine to five office hours and office-based appointments. Thanks for listening, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:20 Ed Venit: Hi, everyone. Welcome again to EAB’s Office Hours podcast. Once again, I’m here with you. My name is Ed Venit. I lead Student Success research here at EAB, and I’m delighted today to be joined by my colleague, Christina Hubbard, who also works with me on Student Success here at EAB, especially focused on advising in the two-year sector. So, Christina?

01:42 Christina Hubbard: Hi, great to be here.

01:44 EV: So we wanted to follow up this week on the podcast we did last week, where we talked about a lot of the changes that are coming because of the pandemic or have happened because of the pandemic, that we actually kinda like, things that seem to be improvements that we’ll probably wanna hang on to, going forward. They may become permanent structures. And certainly, one of those biggest things that we’ve seen in our work, Christina, has been the embracing of virtual advising or virtual student support, writ large, and it’s been out of necessity in a lot of cases, but it’s also been a trend that has been occurring across the course of… What would you say, 10 or 20 years… Where we’ve had to reach out to students who don’t fit the normal nine to five mold and advise them anyway. So we’ve seen an expansion of a lot of these tactics, and you’ve actually had a lot of experience with that in your pre-EAB work life, and I’m gonna wanna get to that in a moment. This is why I’m glad to have you here today.

02:43 EV: But I thought we might start off a little bit by talking about how virtualization has changed our lives, just to open this up a little bit, and I have had a great experience. Never done this before: Telemedicine. So you think about the traditional model by which people would have to go to the doctor, sit in the waiting room, then sit and wait for the doctor, and then you have a five minute conversation and then it’s all over with, but it actually takes about two hours’ round trip to do all that, being replaced by a simple in-person virtual telemedicine appointment, and I think it’s lovely. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to… Aside from when I actually have to be physically there for some reason… Go back to the same old way we used to do medicine. And I don’t know if you’ve had any similar experiences in your non-higher ed part of your life, where virtualization has been a welcome change.

03:39 CH: Well, I actually think that’s actually a fantastic example because it’s the same experience for our students. We know that only about 15% of students are traditional aged, living on campus, where 100% of their focus is on being successful in school. So I think that telemedicine is a great example, but when we compare that with virtual advising, which provides this opportunity for students to connect with their advisors, again, people that are really helpful for their academic health, they’re able to do that in a much more fluid way, and it doesn’t cost an entire day of trying to travel to campus to meet with them.

04:12 EV: So it’s somewhat analogous, don’t you think? It’s caring for someone through a computer in a more accessible way. And we’ll get into a lot of detail about that across the course of our conversation today, but before we get started, we have some newish data from the National Student Clearing House on how our enrollments are faring this fall. Lots of listeners are going to want to know about this, and I encourage everybody to go to the National Student Clearing House website to see this for themselves. Looks like they’re gonna be updating it at about once a month, so I think the next update might be on October 15, according to their website. But the data they have from September, which is about 20% of schools reporting, so to speak… Using some election language there, but it is the season… But they have about 20% of schools that have responded on where their enrollment changes have happened.

05:00 EV: And I think it was really interesting to call up these data, particularly ’cause I have you here today because of the impact on two-year schools, so let’s actually start with that. The Clearing House is just looking at total changes in overall enrollment, so that is inclusive of incoming and retained students, and across the board, they found that we’re down about two and a half percentage points. What’s interesting here in looking at the data is that public four-year institutions are barely down at all. They’re down about half a percentage point. Private, non-profit, four-year institutions are down almost four percentage points, so quite a bit more, but in the non-profit sector, the group that’s most impacted are the public two-year schools, which are about seven and a half percentage points down, and I know you’ve had a lot of conversations with folks in your orbit about this and what it might mean for the two-year sector. I’m just wondering if you might share a little bit about what they’re saying or what you’re feeling with the reactions have been.

05:55 CH: Absolutely, I think that one of the most important things right now for two-year institutions is to really demonstrate our agility and be responsive to what the data is telling us. I will admit that this data surprised me. I didn’t think that two-year would have fallen off quite so far during the fall term. There are a lot of things that can make the two-year institutions a preferred option when we’re talking about the value and connections to our local workforces. Four-year students who didn’t want to pay for a university education while they’re studying remotely. I think there were a lot of factors that caused me to be very surprised by how far off the data has been for the two-year sector, but I also think that there is a window of opportunity here for two-year institutions to use their agility in order to close some of these enrollment gaps, so whether that’s using your mini-masters in order to… To recruit students to enter later, emphasizing some of the support services that we offer to our students. And of course, highlighting those connections to our workforce. So hopefully not all is lost in fall of 2020, and I’m looking forward to seeing the data coming out next week.

07:05 EV: Yeah, and what this is reminding me of is that every recession or every economic downturn is its own unique beast. Of course, when we went through this a good 10 years ago, plus two years, we were one of the big beneficiaries in the long run for enrollment gains during the Great Recession. Now, it did take a little bit of time for those gains to kick in, but it was a different kind of job loss that happened, it was far more gradual, and it was a little bit more cosmopolitan about who lost their job and might wanna go back to school and up-train. Here, of course, we’re seeing job loss that’s far more segmented between blue-collar and white-collar, between hourly work and salaried work, and so I wonder if that might be happening here as well, is that you have a lot of unemployed folks who are actually more worried about their finances, or this is just shocking the system in some way. So it could turn around over the course of the next year, we don’t know, but it remains to be seen on this. But I agree, I was surprised to see these numbers be this low, I would have expected them to be just a little bit higher perhaps as some folks began to look at other opportunities for how they might use their time right now.

08:18 EV: Okay, so that being said, let’s turn our attention now to the topic of the day, which is the virtualization of advising and student support. I should define some terms for us right here. Everybody uses the word “advising” in different ways, it seems like. When you and I use it, and I think when EAB uses the word more generally, most often we’re talking about a far more inclusive, holistic support of students than merely either mentoring or selection of courses and majors. It’s about caring for the entire, whole student, and we’ll get to that in the moment, but I was hoping you could tell the listeners a little bit about your own background and why you are particularly well-suited to be interviewed on this topic, given your past professional experiences. So maybe give us a little rundown of your pre-EAB CV on this, if you will.

09:08 CH: Sure, absolutely. So I’ve actually been working in the field of higher ed now for over 20 years, and across that entire time I have served adult learners, so as you can imagine, virtual advising was a really important component of that, just because of accessibility. It’s not easy for an adult learner to go spend additional time traveling to campus in order to meet with an advisor. In my capacity at Northern Virginia Community College, I also worked with our AVP for Enrollment, as well as another colleague, to stand up year-round virtual advising at the college. This was intended to meet that need of students who couldn’t necessarily spend a lot of time on campus, so it actually started off with a small window of time from twelve to two in the middle of the day, and then six to eight in the evening, again really trying to serve some of our busy, busy community college students. But I don’t want to be too limiting in this definition of virtual advising, so virtual advising can actually be far more robust.

10:08 CH: So certainly, like I just described, we had these opportunities to chat with students. One of the things that was really cool about that was a trained advisor could normally handle three, four chats at a time while they were conversing with students because we only had it available a couple hours a day. We didn’t deal with quite as much strain from spending so much time on the computer. But during the pandemic, we’ve actually seen a major shift to video advising, so that you actually still get the non-verbal cues that are coming from your students so that you can better understand some of the nuance that you wouldn’t necessarily get through an online chat. So I think that’s really important when we start to think about being more holistic. There’s a shift away from some of these very transactional types of advising. We’re not talking bots or text or things like that, it’s an opportunity to really get to know the student one-on-one through this virtual medium. So I think for most of our conversation today, we’re probably gonna be focused on that type of advising where it’s still one-on-one, it’s just that we’ve shifted from an in-office experience to a virtual online medium.

11:09 EV: Yeah, and I think that’s a really important distinction to draw. Obviously this has gotten complex and complicated. I’ve got some thoughts on that, hopefully to share by the end. I was struck, though, a little bit by the history and evolution of what we might call virtual advising right now. And you hinted on it right there because you said that the actual video interface is really an active ingredient here, it’s a key component, maybe an enabler. But when you started off, you didn’t have Zoom, you didn’t have any kind of video conferencing. And in fact, you were quick to tell me, oh no, what I was doing was remote advising, and it was being done through the phone, [chuckle] so… Tell us a little bit, just give us a little bit of the history of the last, say, 10 years or so of this and a couple of the key changes that have happened.

11:54 CH: Yeah, absolutely. So I think that when we look back at when my career started, when we had dinosaurs walking the streets and things of that nature, many times advising was actually done by faculty members. It was just a side-of-desk opportunity to mentor, really, to mentor your students and help them to make those connections to their field. Probably about a decade ago, we started to see a major influx of professional advisors, so individuals that were hired with this specific area of expertise. But too often that actually focused on academic planning. It really emphasized which courses you needed to take next, making sure that students were on track for an on-time graduation and things of that nature. There wasn’t really as much inquiry and support for the other factors that impede or support student success. And in the last few years, we’ve actually started to see more migration toward holistic advising, and this has really been accelerated since the pandemic began, where we realized that student success is comprised of so many other factors, not just academic planning and helping students to keep choosing courses that are going to help them to graduate on time, but we really need to look at things like financial well-being.

13:04 CH: Their career integration, making sure that they are seeing the relevance of what they’re doing in the classroom and in our offices as advisors on their long-term plans for where they’re trying to go. This acceleration happened quite a bit during the pandemic, where we had no choice but to be holistic. It gave us this insight into the real world of our students. Many times the advisors were sitting there and seeing students sitting at a dining room table with the kids in the background, running around, or you might hear a parent throwing insights or suggestions into that advising conversation because clearly they had joined this advising session as well, so it really caused us to be more holistic. Health right now is top of mind. We’re all asking about how your family is doing, what’s the financial situation look like, because we saw such a massive and accelerated job loss experience during the spring term. So I think that we’re forced to be more holistic and understanding about the circumstances that our students face.

14:03 CH: The last piece that I would say about that though, is that we’re actually in a wonderful time right now, where we also had funding to support some of these holistic efforts. What I heard from a number of institutions in the past when I’ve talked about holistic advising is sort of a reluctance because they didn’t necessarily feel like there was much they could do about it. They didn’t feel like a student who came to them with financial concerns, there was no secret piggy bank sitting on campus where they could try to help students, but with the CARES Act funding, there was actually funding available to students, so there was an encouragement for advisors to be more holistic, ask those difficult questions, and really try to understand the student’s circumstances because the campus or the community might be in a better position to support that student.

14:45 EV: Yeah, very much so. It occurred to me while you were speaking there, you made the dinosaur joke early on, and some folks may know I’m a paleontologist by training. One of the stories that happens in evolution over and over again is that a tree or an organism or something along those lines, which is kind of meeching on the side, may after a big change, suddenly become the dominant form. Little furry mouse-like thing suddenly becomes, post-dinosaurs, all of us mammals. And you were already doing this sort of stuff 10 years ago, but it was on the fringes, and you had to have those conversations that are holistic. Now, everybody has to have these conversations, and everybody became a holistic advisor. For those of you who can’t see me, which is everybody on the podcast, I’m doing air quotes right now. Everybody became one, everybody from the actual professional advisors, faculty, athletics coaches, library staff, peer advisors, other students, you name it, anybody that we could get on the phone talking to a student or reaching out, making them feel cared for and connected to the campus, in some way, shape or form became a holistic advisor this past spring, and it was very, very well received for the most part.

16:00 EV: And I’m wondering if we can switch a little bit and talk about some of the data we have out of these experiences. And before I get into that even, maybe you could describe a little bit more about some of the changes that have happened here, because a lot of these meetings are, you used the phrase “shorter and more frequent, often with me.” Talk to me a little bit about the implications of that, and then we’ll get into some of the data that shows that there’s been really strong attachment, both from students and staff, to this new paradigm.

16:31 CH: Yeah, absolutely. So I think when we look at what advising has been historically, many times advisors only have the opportunity to meet with their students maybe once per term, so that means that during that one session that you have with the student, you’d better hit them with all the information that they might need across that entire term. So in the two-year space, you might be talking about transfer, you might be talking about plans for work or co-ops or internships, things of that nature. All of that gets combined into this one very, very powerful session, but we all know that hitting somebody with a fire hose is not necessarily the best way to share information with somebody, so what I’ve been encouraging a lot of folks to do is to take a step back and actually shorten their advising appointments during this virtual environment.

17:16 CH: We don’t need to make the most out of these appointments. The students are not going extensively out of their way in order to meet with us, so let’s make those appointments shorter and focus more on one to two topics, so that we can really delve into those with students. Give them a task that they need to go complete on their own, so if they’re planning for transfer or if the plan is for them to get connected to an internship or something like that, leave them to go do that. Empower the student to go take action on the conversation that you just had with them, but have a follow-up conversation scheduled for a couple of weeks down the road. Again, if we’re not trying to meet with the students for such a long duration of time, we have more capacity to meet with them more frequently. So I think that this can be really empowering for students in making sure that they feel like they have agency in their success at your institution.

18:06 EV: So early on in the pandemic, last spring, you did a couple of sessions with our partner institutions that had actually tracked data on exactly what you just described. And for those who aren’t familiar, Christina and I both work on EAB’s Navigate product. That’s the advising and administrator student success and student support technology. It’s multifaceted but collects a lot of data, and some schools have configured it in such a way that they actually can collect information on individual appointments, and maybe you can share a little bit about those anecdotal experiences you had chatting with a few schools and back in the spring about what their experiences were.

18:47 CH: Sure, absolutely. So one of the things that I found really fascinating here was that we actually saw the no-show rate for students drop pretty significantly. We were talking with Pueblo Community College, this was back in March timeframe, and their no-show rate went from 15% down to 5%. And I actually had a follow-up conversation with them recently, and among those students who had the… Who didn’t show up to their appointments, their advisors were actually still able to advise them. So just based on the notes that they had in the system about what the student needed, they actually went ahead and addressed their concerns. So if they came in for transfer planning or course suggestions or something like that, the advisor intuited what the student needed, sent them a response and said, “I believe this is what we were going to meet about. If not, let me know, and we’ll go ahead and schedule some additional time.” But again, how is that for making that experience really, really student-centric?

19:40 CH: So while that is the case for one particular institution, across the collaborative, we actually saw major increases in engagement with students. So across the entire Student Success Collaborative, we saw a 35% increase in proactive advising campaigns. So again, this is an opportunity for the advisor to reach out to students, checking in, find out what’s going on with them. This was so incredibly important during that March and April timeframe. Now, mind you, this is term over term data. So this is just what happened during the spring term. We saw a 40% increase in text message activity. And so again, trying to reach students where they happen to be, they’re going to be on their phones. And so as long as we’re not abusing that access to students, that’s a really great way for connecting with them. In our system alone, we saw 2 million text messages that were sent out during the spring term. So again, that really shows how we were able to help institutions to connect with their students.

20:38 CH: And then the last piece here, we saw about a 25% increase in students accepting appointment requests. So the advisor would conduct outreach to the student, let them know that they wanted to meet and 25% more students were actually following up and accepting those. So again, trying to build those connections with the institution during this incredibly crazy remote period, I think is a really, really powerful testament. The last piece that I wanted to add here was that we actually saw these appointment times go down pretty significantly. So at one institution, we actually saw the time that the advisors were meeting with students go down by 13 minutes. So again, when you build that in, I mean, that could be a second advising appointment, really, which would give the advisor an opportunity to meet with more of their students during such a critical and challenging time.

21:25 EV: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s fascinating stuff. You know, a couple of things struck me about what you just said. First of all, it wasn’t even the entirety of the spring term in that term over term, it was really just from the middle of March until the end of the year. And that’s when a lot of advising activity happens normally, but you didn’t even see that boost across the course of the first half of this spring term here. Second is that that 2 million two million text messages stats is actually probably an undercount because some of those, we only really count the outgoing, some of those are our group texts, and actually could have reached many students depending on what they sent. So it was actually probably quite a bit more. And it occurs to me that we’ve become so fluid, not just our students, but also us as well, in having text-based communication, we do it all the time, that it is a way to further both extend the relationship that an advisor and a student have, breaking that model of if I only get one chance to talk to you this term, I can actually have an ongoing conversation with you if I choose, and if you need so, using a medium that we all have access to, or the vast majority of us do.

22:37 EV: I want to turn a little bit now, we talked a lot about the benefits to students and it’s pretty clear that they’ve engaged with us across this time. I don’t know that we’ll see these numbers be as extreme when people aren’t freaking out about a pandemic, but I would expect them to stay elevated and we’ll of course track that, it’s too early to tell those sorts of things, but early indications indicate that this will remain elevated. So it seems to be good for students. Let’s turn it around and talk a little bit about how the staff feel about this. And just in general, some of the benefits that have been realized here, many of them, perhaps unexpected, or, you know, kind of surprising in some way. So let’s churn it through because there are some advantages to doing this model here. So why don’t you tell us about a few of them?

23:25 CH: Absolutely. So I think one of the things that really stands out to me is that when I think about the virtual advisors that were on my team when I was still at NOVA, what I heard a lot of the time was that it provided them so much flexibility. I think quite a bit about the person that helped me to stand up for this program, and she had three girls who were avid dancers, and it gave her that flexibility to be able to be there when the girls were getting off the bus, that she was able to go and take them off to their dance recital and then hop on to virtual advising and provide support to students in that way. Again, obviously, that was a pre-pandemic world. But I think that the message is that our staff members have very complex lives just like our students do. And many times, those periods of time when a student might be able to log in also coincide with when an advisor might be available to serve them. I also think that we have been under-utilizing resources like email. So if a student poses a question via email, you know, why don’t we do more of that advising during a virtual format like that?

24:31 CH: So I think again, there’s a lot of flexibility that can be incorporated for our staff as well as our students when we start to think about some of the benefits of virtual advising, nevermind the elimination of a commute and being able to do this from your home office instead of having to go to campus and take care of it there.

24:50 EV: We got some chats with folks that have expressed to us, these are our advising directors, ADP type folks, even some provosts that I’ve talked to, that have expressed some surprise and also kind of… I think this was sort of an unexpected outcome that their staff have actually come to them repeatedly and said, you know, “We don’t actually want to go back to the old model, a lot of us would prefer to keep working from home and at these odd hours, because they’re not that odd to us.” And, of course, students have questions all the time, not just between the hours of 9:00 to 5:00. So better for students, better for staff, maybe higher staff satisfaction. I’ve heard a couple kind of chuckle stories where folks have said, “We’ve actually had to make sure that at least one person’s present in the office at all times, because there’s a chance no one would be there, when in the past, we would have had 20 people in here.” Some of that of course is related to people’s concern over COVID, but others is just they like the environment.

25:50 CH: Yeah, absolutely. I actually heard something similar when I was doing my dissertation research. One of the students that I talked to referenced the fact that before when he had to meet with an advisor, he had to take an entire day off work, and make sure that he had scheduled some time to meet with the advisor. He’d go to campus, many times he was stuck waiting in line to even have the opportunity to talk, and then he felt rushed. He was constantly having to retell this story, provide context about why he was taking classes in the order that he was taking them, why he wasn’t a full-time student. So again, I think that when we invite this virtual advising environment, there’s less pressure and stress put on the students, and the ability to build that rapport with our students is actually much greater. I can tell you that if you are an advisor meeting with a student multiple times across the term, you’re not going to have to hear that story over and over and over again, because you’ll remember from the last time that you met with that student, it’s still fresh and it feels like a continuation of the conversation, rather than being a brand new discussion.

26:48 EV: That’s so interesting to hear you describe it that way, because I’ve had plenty of conversations with our colleague, Meacie Fairfax, about how virtual advising might actually be a more equitable way to go about advising. Why? You’ve already mentioned a couple of the things. We’re simply more accessible. If a student can’t meet with us 9:00 to 5:00, they can only meet in the evenings, or they can’t meet with you for half an hour, they can only meet with you for 10 minutes, or only over a text message, or only over a quick video chat while they’re driving between job A and job B or whatever it might be, then we have greater ability to actually engage with these students who otherwise would have been shut out of the experience.

27:26 EV: We’ve also heard anecdotally that a lot more… That is some students are a lot more comfortable with this medium rather than a face-to-face, and I think that’s a personal preference. Not everybody’s an extrovert, and not everybody feels comfortable going in and sitting down with a scary administrator to sit there and talk about their concerns and problems, as you were mentioning that. Perhaps this is actually just a more welcoming environment as well, and I think there’s gonna be a lot more findings along these lines into the future, but it is encouraging to hear that perhaps we’re drawing more students into support than ever before, both by being more accessible and making it more comfortable.

28:02 EV: So we should probably wrap this up here, I have an observation in hearing you chat about this, and also thinking about the changes that have happened here, and this strikes me… And I wonder if you might wanna react to this… It feels like we never really, really understood how constrained and limited we were by a 9:00 to 5:00, 30-minute advising appointment, in person, once a semester with an actual human being sitting across from me, that is a professional advisor, but that is the dominant model for how support has been offered to students. I mean, we fought for years to just simply get that in place, to actually have that ability even to do that.

28:45 EV: The pandemic’s coming through and just completely shattered that, because now we have… It doesn’t need to be in person. It can be virtual. It doesn’t need to be 30 minutes, it can be 10 minutes, it could be an hour if you need it. It doesn’t have to be once a semester, it can be multiple times. And it doesn’t even actually need… And we didn’t really touch on this much… But it doesn’t actually really need to be with your tip top expert here. A lot of these questions, could they get answered by a mobile app or by a peer-calling center, or whatever it needs? Might be along those lines. So it really strikes me that what we’ve done here is to simply blow up what was already a fairly constrained model in really useful and productive ways that could actually make for a far better infrastructure for both students and staff going forward. I don’t know what your reactions to that might be, but I find that to be very encouraging.

29:36 CH: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, I think that one of the things that I’ve observed in virtual advising is the fact that it tends to be much more student centric. It provides us the opportunity to engage with students wherever they happen to be, whenever they’re actually able to meet with us, and I think that the power of those appointments is something that should be replicated across institutions. We know that we have been having a lot of trouble graduating some of our more under-represented students on campus, and so when we provide these opportunities to better support students and engage with them, hopefully many of those barriers that impede success are getting broken down.

30:12 EV: Yeah. And that’s a really great place to bring this to a close for today. Thank you so much for joining us here on this podcast. I had a delightful conversation with you here and yeah, I hope to speak to everybody soon, and, Christina, we hope to have you back on the podcast very soon as well.

30:29 CH: Thank you, it was such a pleasure.

30:37 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us again next week for the latest installment of our Leadership Voices series, when EAB’s Thomas Fringer chats with Denison University president, Adam Weinberg. They’re gonna discuss liberal arts colleges in an age of increased specialization, and alternative providers like Google Career Certificates. Until then, I’m Matt Pellish for Office Hours with EAB.

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