Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Academic Advising

Quick, what’s the most vexing aspect of academic advising at a community college?

a. turnover of students and adjunct faculty
b. the range of preferences that different transfer-destination schools have for electives
c. the confusion of advising with scheduling
d. shifting and/or inchoate student preferences
e. all of the above

Yup, it’s e. And it makes a conceptually-simple process maddeningly difficult.

In a perfect world, students who had clear ambitions would have sustained, focused conversations with professors who would help them understand how to get there from here. And that actually happens to a remarkable extent.

But circumstances conspire to make things complicated.

Sheer numbers are a major issue. Good advising is relatively personalized, but it’s hard to do that with a fifteen-credit teaching load and near-record enrollments. State finances being what they are, our adjunct percentage is higher than I’d like, and there’s always some churn in the ranks. That churn makes it harder for students to latch on to a particular professor. Some adjuncts stick around for years, of course, and become go-to people for particular programs, but with the pay being what it is, any stability we get there is really a bonus.

Students bring issues of their own, of course. Every time a student changes majors, a new round of advising is necessary, and sometimes a new advisor. Given the number of students who show up with no clear idea of what they want to study, some churn is built into the system. Since it takes time to build rapport and trust with an advisor, each switch carries a cost. That’s pretty much a cost of doing business, of course, but it does make it harder to provide continuity and a comfort level for the student.

The one that bugs me the most is the surprising variation of preferences among transfer-destination schools. This branch of the state college system wants its social work majors to take these two history courses, but that branch of the same system wants them to take two different ones. Multiply that by many more colleges and many more programs, and just keeping track of it all is a challenge. (Then add the times that the destination schools change their minds -- usually as the result of a key personnel change -- and don’t bother to tell us. Even good people get stabby when that happens.) A perfectly well-meaning advisor could inadvertently steer a student towards a course that won’t transfer, just because some new department chair at compass direction state has a different preference.

We try to work around that with articulation agreements, with varying degrees of success. But there’s a limit to the predictability you can build into a system with so many moving parts, each with its own imperatives. That’s especially true with private colleges, since they can pretty much do what they want. And even articulation agreements need regular maintenance as curricula evolve.

The tough nut to crack on campus is the conflation of advising with scheduling. It’s an easy trap to fall into. “History of Etruscan Snoods would suit you.” “But that’s full!” “Okay, let’s see what else there is...” Before long, you’re spending much more time looking for open seats than actually discussing substance. That’s especially true later in the registration periods, when the most popular timeslots and classes are already taken.

I really don’t know how to solve this one. With finite seats, it seems like a fact of life. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that this is when some of the regrettable decisions get made.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those at community colleges -- have you found or seen a reasonably elegant, sustainable, affordable way to do academic advisement well, given all of these moving parts?

You're missing the most vexing thing to me, personally, at my CC.

Our administration can't seem to match students who have declared majors with the appropriate faculty.

I am program coordinator for a fairly new, specialized science program, and for the life of me, I can't understand why the full time science faculty aren't automatically assigned these students. They wind up being misadvised every semester because they have advisors who don't respect the prerequisites we have listed for these courses, and then there is much angst and time spent trying to fix their schedules at the start of the new semester, when the classes they need are difficult to arrange.
On IHE there is a single sentence answer to the "wise and worldly readers" question:

"No. It would help if we had any freaking time, though."

It's a trite and boring response from the faculty, I know, but it has the added benefit of being true. Good advising takes time - lots of it. When it's rushed, and when I don't know the students I'm advising, I don't do a good job. When I have the time to get to know the student and have a understanding of where they want to get academically and professionally, I do a good job. It's pretty much that simple.

(Although - as the previous Anonymous says - it REALLY helps when a random liberal arts faculty who doesn't understand math curriculum hasn't advised the student walking in the door, and I have to undo all the damage done. Why, yes, I teach physics and chemistry. Why do you ask?)
On the problem of what transfers where, my state had that problem in a huge way until it agreed on a set of goals courses could meet to be in the transfer curriculum. For example, if a course meets the "mathematical and logical reasoning" goal, it transfers as that goal. Majors still may need particular courses, but an English major would have their math general ed requirement satisfied by any course that meets that goal. Look up MnSCU Transfer Curriculum...
I'll comment later on the issue of articulation. It is the real problem and it can only be solved cooperatively with computers and, perhaps, legal action.

Missing from your list:

The greatest demand appears when we are most busy with classes (midterms, projects, exams that have to be graded before the withdrawal deadline). Similarly, students are most attentive to the requirements of a particular course about two months after they start taking it, not two months before they enroll in it.

Correction to your list:

c': Students actually confuse academic advising with the job done by HS counselors, who they universally despise. They also have no idea that putting together a long-term plan is ultimately their own responsibility and that it has major (pun intended) consequences.

Someone with a PhD in English or History who can't read major requirements critically and accurately (e.g. provided by Anonymous and Anonymous Coward) and seems proud of this fact only compounds the problem, because students are conditioned to take that "advice" as authoritative. However, my alumni tell me to tell future transfer students to always get the name and e-mail of the professional adviser they talk to at Enormous State, because that advice is often wrong. The problem is bigger than us if professional employees of a university can't give accurate advice about their own programs!
I agree with Anon @3:18--I have no advice to offer film students, please stop sending them to me. I can give them very generic: "Here's what to look for in a school and questions to ask." But it's not my field. I can't tell you about jobs, about internships or about how you heard Johnny got a job with just an AA, so should that be good for you? Students that would fit for me get assigned to the film professor who just says "well we don't offer what you want, so just take the class you want at another school and we'll accept it here." Um WHAT? At a CC, should they really be told that?

And it does take time. I spend 2 hours with a student yesterday--understanding the transfer process, making a plan and I went with her to a transfer fair. It was great, but exhausting. With a load of 25 students, I couldn't do that for everyone.

One last thing, at my CC, there's zero incentive to see your advisor. I've contacted them, requesting meetings, making myself available. But they can register without meeting with me, without seeing anyone really. That shoudln't happen. If you don't need to see your advisor to register, you'll just go it alone. Because many of them are as busy as us.
Is there a reason why your school chooses not to employ professional Academic Advisors? It is the job of a full time advisor to keep current on the various articulation agreements/wishes of the schools your students are most likely to transfer to. F
Ok, this blog loves it some technological advancement, so:

Right now, doctors use expert systems to back up their diagnosis. Is there any possibility of using the same software to assist with academic advising?
Yes, the churn in the ranks of adjuncts is highly annoying. I wish their ranks would stop churning.
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