Evelyn N. Waiwaiole: “A Little Bit More Initiative”: How Community Colleges Can Improve Advising

Sixty-eight percent of students indicate that academic advising and planning are very important services, according to the 2017 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) data. And over half (59%) of respondents have used advising services two or more times in the current year.

The question is, What about those students who have never used it or only used it once? What is their experience with advising?

At the Center for Community College Student Engagement (the Center), we administer annual surveys to help colleges systematically collect data. We also conduct focus groups to help colleges understand the why behind the numbers.  During focus groups, we asked students what they want in advising. Here is what they have said:

MORE COUNSELORS / ADVISORS: “I think having more counselors. We have one for the whole campus if you wanna talk to somebody. I know I’ve e-mailed the last one—apparently, she quit—with no response, so that’s definitely discouraging.”

 SPECIFIC ADVISORS: “I think if you could have one advisor and not just shuffle to whoever has time, I think if they could take the time to spread out not just this semester, but, ‘Oh, you want your associate of science,’ or, ‘Oh, you think you want this. Let’s look at the next year and a half and see if this is feasible.’ I feel like if someone would’ve told me, ‘You’re gonna be here for three years if you go at this rate, maybe—even if I would’ve put off going, at least I would know a little more.”

 “Yeah. I feel like if there was a better way to keep students with the same advisor or limit the amount of advisors they saw, it would make them feel a little bit more comfortable, and then also the advisor might have a little bit of background knowledge on them. Also, if there could be a database where all the advisor has to do is type in their S number and then you get the student’s goals, this is the path they’ve had, this was a big challenge that the student had, and then they could have just a little bit of information so that the student just doesn’t have to re-explain everything right away.”

 CAREER PLANNING:I definitely have some ideas. I think if the college [should] take a little bit more initiative to do some career planning with their students.”

As community colleges across the country redesign the student experience for guided pathways, many institutions are rethinking the role advisors play in helping students find success and reach completion. As a partner in the national guided pathways project, led by the American Association of Community Colleges and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center has seen colleges redesign advising, including these three examples.

Alamo Community College District (San Antonio, Texas): Leaders and practitioners hired 138 new advisors, provided over 60 hours of training to certify the advisors and created Alamo ADVISE. As part of this model, academic and career advising is considered a series of ongoing and intentional conversations among students, faculty, and staff in an effort to establish a pathway to the realization of educational, career, and life goals. With Alamo ADVISE, there is an intentional plan for advisors to have touchpoints at 15, 30, and 45 hours. A degree plan is required by the 15th hour.  At each interval, advisors have an outline of what type of interaction is expected with a student, so the right conversations are happening at the right times.

St. Petersburg College (St. Petersburg, Florida): The college completely redesigned advising both to professionalize the role of the advisor and also to unite career and academic services. In the old model, it was clear that students did not receive the level of support they needed. In addition, the career and academic services were separate, which meant advisors focused on scheduling without tying it to career planning. As new expectations for advisors were outlined, college leadership elevated the position and created a new job description, in addition to implementing mandatory training for advisors. The new model is more holistic and has provided wrap around student support – bringing together academic support and careers.

Jackson College (Jackson, Michigan): 18 new advisors, called Student Success Navigators, have been hired. The Navigators work with a caseload of students and begin to reach out to their students at three separate strategic points in the semester. In addition, students complete a New Student Profile about themselves that their Navigator can access.  The New Student Profile is similar to an intake form one completes when visiting a new doctor; students share their interests, academic goals (including if they plan to transfer), and place of residence. At the end of the survey, it lists the pathways that Jackson College offers hierarchically based on the student’s responses. The New Student Profile also provides the Navigator with the results from a shortened Big 5 Personality assessment. The responses to this intake form provide Navigators with valuable information about their students, leading to productive first conversations, better advising, and stronger connections overall that support student success.

Interestingly, colleges across America are approaching the advising redesign with unique strategies to support the complex lives of students. Advisors are being asked to reach out prior to students being enrolled. They are being asked to inquire early and frequently about the students goals for attending college and mapping out the plan to achieve those goals. They are being asked to have intimate conversations about competing demands–finances, child care, level of college preparation and much more.

What is key, however, is that colleges are recognizing how important the advisor’s role is. Colleges must equip advisors for the work that has been outlined for them and ensure that they have the necessary supports available to help students be successful and complete.

Dr. Evelyn N. Waiwaiole is the Executive Director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. In February 2018, CCSSE will release a report on academic advising.  This report unpacks student/advisor interactions and offers guiding questions for colleges rethinking advising.

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