Thursday, December 21, 2006


Intrusive Advisement

I'm not a huge fan of 'intrusive advisement,' 'counseling,' 'mandatory advisement,' or any of the various number of 'for your own good' hoops that colleges increasingly make students jump through in the name of retention.

That's not because they always fail. They don't. In some cases, they can be surprisingly successful on their own terms. It's just that they grate against my sense of what college is supposed to be.

There's a story in IHE about colleges beefing up their counseling staffs to help students choose majors early, on the theory that students who know what they want are likelier to get it. Students who change majors multiple times, or who flop around aimlessly, are likelier to take longer to graduate, or to drop out. There's an obvious correlation/causation issue here – do students finish earlier because they know what they want, or are the types of students who can commit to a major also the types of students who can commit to finishing a program – but it's also true that students who change majors routinely set themselves back relative to graduation, since courses that counted in the first program might not count in the second. I've seen that directly, as students who started in, say, Nursing, are annoyed to find that some of the credits don't carry over to, say, Early Childhood Education. And it's certainly true that the right clue, given at the right moment, can save a student all manner of hassle.

One of the frustrations of administration is the constant reminder of the gap between what things are and what they could or should be. In my personal vision of college, students are responsible for their own academic decisions, including decisions about class attendance, course selection, scheduling, and majors. If a student chooses a class that doesn't count towards her major, that's a life lesson for her. (This position is predicated on the assumption that policies and requirements are written down, relatively consistent over time, and easily accessible. It's only fair to provide every student access to the college catalog, for example. Even drop-in advisement should be available, free of charge, for those students who choose on their own to avail themselves of it. Whether the student bothers to take advantage of these resources should be up to the student.)

The intrusive advisement model and its offshoots take the goal of college as graduation, and take a 'whatever works' approach to helping students achieve that goal. Sometimes, these methods actually do improve graduation rates. I just wonder what 'graduation' means when it requires so much help.

This is a cold-hearted position, in some ways, and anybody who wants to can find worthy counterexamples to show the value of handholding in specific cases. I don't advocate this position on campus, since there are other fish to fry and I don't want to get into a battle-of-poignant-stories. Compromises with reality are part of the cost of doing business, so I let this one slide and try to focus on areas in which real progress is likelier. I don't choose this battle. That said, I've never really been convinced that a student who got through only with tremendous help has achieved the same thing as a student who got through pretty much on her own.

(There are real financial arguments on both sides. The pro-intrusion side can cite, correctly, the taxpayer subsidy to tuition for students who hang around longer than they should, as well as the taxpayer subsidy to financial aid. The skeptics can cite, correctly, the cost to taxpayers of paying the salaries of the counselors and advisors. I've never seen a rigorous empirical cost-benefit study of this, to see which outweighs the other, and I honestly don't know what it would show.)

If it were up to me, given an infusion of money, I'd rather hire full-time faculty than full-time counselors. The counterargument might be that more counselors would lead to greater retention, and, over time, to more faculty. The higher ed employment trends of the last thirty years would suggest that the counterargument is mostly wrong, but it's tough to isolate variables like that. Did the explosion of student support services siphon off resources from faculty, thereby driving the trend towards adjuncts, or are the two disconnected? Hell, it may even be the case that, absent those services, the financial issues driving the adjunct trend would have been even worse. I just haven't seen a good study of that.

One of the life skills I'd like college to help impart – at least to traditional-aged students, since older students have usually picked this up already – is the ability to figure out what to do when nobody tells you directly. Since we don't measure that directly, students can graduate without really developing much of that. I'm concerned that the 'intrusive advisement' model makes it easier for students who are already weak in this area to stay weak. That's not to deny for a minute that they can pick up these skills elsewhere, and many do, but I can't help but think that college should play a role.

Dean Dad, could you please post the link to the IHE article? My search skills are failing me.

From where I sit the trend is with you, toward seeing advising more as teaching and less as hand holding.

Thanks and happy holidays.
I agree with you against the hand-holding model. Or at least, I see my role as an advisor to partly be getting my advisees to recognize situations where they could find out information on their own, pushing them towards doing that, and also reminding them that they bear the ultimate responsibility for gathering information and making decisions.

There is nothing more irritating to me than a student who comes in and has not even bothered to look up something simple and obvious in the course catalog (which is readily available online) and expects me to do the searching for them. So I usually hand them the book/computer and make them look it up themselves. I'm there to give them some advice that they might not have given their short experience with the college, not do their secretarial-level work for them.
While a student taking an extra year does cost the state more, I think that more may be outweighed by other benefits, especially benefits gained by students exploring or switching majors. Yes, some students switch majors casually and without much thought. But many students learn a great deal by exploring and changing majors. I think the benefits of that exploration (even in the most basic economically mundane sense of being better at whatever they eventually do, but also in the sense of being more engaged citizens and community members) may outweigh the costs.

You're right to question graduation as THE goal. Education is the goal.
I wonder too if the retention issue is less about advisement/finding someone to help navigate the system and more about making the system easier to navigate. For example - I changed my major five times as an undergrad - and I was still able to graduate in four years, part of that was because except for the first major they were all related majors but also because the gen ed requirements were broad and fit with almost any major. Sure there were a couple classes that I took as "requireds" that later became my electives that I would never have taken as electives (Advanced Accounting comes to mind!) but it all worked out in the end because the system was flexible - and I was able to plot out changes to the plan on my own with a course catalog and a notebook.
The fine line here is between telling a student what to do and telling a student what will happen if he does something. "Given your HS record, if you take 24 credits including Chemistry, Physics and Calculus, you might as well drop out now, but feel free". The other thing you need advising for is to show students the gears under the ground that really make college work. Unfortunately full time advisors often do neither.

We (faculty and admin) developed a really nice version of the "teaching" approach to advising: We had students assigned to us from Day One, so we could guide them from the HS approach (not surprising for the ones taking HS-level prep classes) to a Uni approach before they got the AA. Idea was to improve success after transfer by gradually getting them to take responsibility for their education. Seemed to be working.

Suddenly, the big Someone decided that the emphasis should be on throughput. All of the students making progress are gone, replaced by ones for whom "intrusive" is long overdue. (100 hours attempted, 40 earned, 1.7 gpa) Am I wrong to think, along with most faculty, that these kids are better served by our trained counselors?
cc. It is really hard, because first you have to figure out why they are 40/100/1.7. Some of them simply should not be at college.

With others it is a variety of things, full time job/family, not knowing how to study, or listen in class etc.

Worse, it is not clear who the right counselor for each person is. All we can do is try. The best way might be to use a team approach to provide the help that each student needs.
With two kids in a major state college, I have found the level of "advising" dismal. Quite often the advisors are grad students who express little interest that doing much more than pushing paper around. In a few cases they have majorly screwed up causing both my kids to take classes they didn't need or want instead of classes that applied to their majors. My daughter as a senior doesn't even go anymore because they have been so lackadaisical and my son went and asked for another advisor when the first one couldn't be bothered to make the appointment that required a rescheduling of work to attend. I think initially, students need a great deal more mentoring than many schools realize. These kids quite often aren't allowed to make their own decisions and when faced with so many choices, freeze rather than take action. As the student progresses and learns the ropes of enrollment, the advisor can be more of a sign off and paper pushing procedure. But schools have got to realize that forcing students to choose majors early will probably delay graduation. I know of very very few professionals, myself included, that didn't change majors at least once. How can you know what to major in if you don't know what is available?
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