Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Advising, Thin and Thick

The headline to this article pretty much tells its story: “Student Advising Plays Key Role in College Success -- Just As It’s Being Cut.”  It goes on to detail the rollout of an automated advising program at Arizona State.

I smiled with recognition.  Advising has been a missing term in much of the discussion of, say, MOOCs.  It matters tremendously to students, but in budgetary terms, it’s “overhead.”  It brings in no independent revenue stream, outside of a few grant-funded programs.  Which means that it takes much more conscious effort to sustain at a high level when budgets get cut.

On my campus, we’ve had years of discussion about sustainable ways to improve advising.  It’s harder than you would think.

The first obstacle is defining the term.  What is “advising?”  

Different people have different operational definitions.  Some adhere to what I call the “thick” model of advising, in which the goal is to have a wide-ranging discussion with a student -- ideally such discussions over two years -- in which the advisor -- ideally a professor in the student’s field of interest -- peers into the student’s soul, divines interests the student didn’t know he had, and sets the student on the path to enlightenment, a good job, graduate school, and a long and happy life.

Which is wonderful, when it works.  But reality doesn’t always cooperate.

Others have adopted a “thin” model of advising, in which the advisor basically cross-references the courses the student has taken with the requirements for the major, and makes sure that next semester’s selections will count.  It’s not nearly as personal, but it’s easy to replicate at scale.  And it works well with busy schedules.

The boundary between advising and scheduling isn’t always obvious, either.  I’m told that many faculty appointments with advisees wind up becoming much more about finding an open section than about discussing life goals.  Some of that is probably inevitable, but it’s hardly a great use of anyone’s time.

The second obstacle is staffing.  Who should do advising, and how much?

We’ve adopted a hybrid model.  Full-time faculty have advisees as part of their contractual workloads.  But there aren’t nearly enough full-time faculty to handle all of the students.  So we also have adjuncts on advising contracts, paid a union-negotiated rate to advise students in their fields.  And we have full-time advisors on staff, who are able to be around when other people are teaching. (Deans and other administrators aren’t allowed to advise, due to union contract issues.)

As with any hybrid model, ensuring consistency is a challenge.  We’re adopting a new software system to make the cross-referencing of requirements easier, which should help.  But it’s tough when requirements change fairly quickly, and some folks are more up to date (or computer savvy) than others.

The next great experiment -- which I’m hopeful will help -- involves separating advising periods from scheduling.  The idea is to force some “thickness” into the “thin” model.  If advising sessions can’t become games of “find the open section,” then maybe, by default, the sessions might become a bit more reflective.  Which is really what students need anyway.

We can automate the reasonably routine stuff, like checklists of required courses.  But the really important questions -- why are you majoring in this, anyway? -- require a thoughtful human interlocutor.  We’ve had considerable early success with moving career advising into the first semester, to help students start to identify goals.  Students who know what they want tend to be much more persistent than those who aren’t quite sure.  The goals can shift -- and they do -- but they need to be emotionally real to the student.  That’s the value that a thoughtful human can add, and a checklist just can’t.

But finances are an issue.  

Classes have tuition and fees attached to them, so there’s a natural revenue source to pay for them.  But advising appointments are free, even as the faculty and staff who provide the advice have to be paid.  As operating subsidies get cut, this becomes a progressively greater challenge.  

Economic theory teaches us that part of the value of institutions is in reducing transaction costs.  If you define course selection as a transaction -- which, at a really basic level, it is -- then part of the institutional value of a college is in helping students choose the right courses.  Avoiding “wasted” credits is an economic issue for students, and avoiding wasted time does wonders for graduation rates.  But as subsidies get tighter, finding elegant ways to do that on a large scale is getting harder.

I’d hate to have to retreat to automated, thin advising across the board.  It would save money in the short run, but over time, it would corrode the college’s reason to exist.  If you aren’t going to reduce transaction costs, then the argument for the institution starts to fade.  This is value we can, and should, add.