Monday, August 12, 2013


How to Count?

This may sound crass, but it’s actually an essential exercise.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you have only enough money to pay for one of the following positions:

a. a librarian
b. a professional tutor
c. a academic advisor

Further, for the sake of argument, let’s say that future funding is contingent, in part, on improved student retention and graduation rates.  

And just to make things interesting, let’s say that you’re actually trying to be fair, and there isn’t a sufficiently obvious imbalance in staffing among the areas to make the decision a no-brainer.  It’s actually a tough call.  So ideally, you’d like to make the decision based on some sort of evidence-based idea of which would make the most difference for students.

How would you decide?  I’m not asking which one you would pick.  I’m asking what would count as criteria.  How, exactly, would you quantify the marginal impact on retention and graduation rates of one more librarian, tutor, or advisor?

(To keep things realistic, let’s rule out the “controlled experiment” approach, since it would require a time machine.  I’m hoping to find a method that could work in the real world.)

Has anyone out there seen, used, or figured out a reasonably accurate way to measure the marginal impact of positions like these against each other?

I found this on the internet:

It is statistical formulae. Without doing these calculations, I would go with a hunch that a academic adviser who stayed in touch with his/her students every semester would have an effect because he/she would be advising the student well and the student could see s/he was completing something which would keep the student's hope of graduation up.

Yet each of these could be good depending on the personality of the person and his/her willingness to work closely with students. A kind interested person with whom the student has a trusting relationship is always helpful to a student.
Let's assume for the moment that each has evidence of some benefit. The practical reality is that what matters is not the generic benefit of any librarian, any tutor, or any advisor, but the very specific benefits of the next librarian you would hire, the next tutor, or the next advisor. And that's very different -- unless you have a very specific program with evidence, you're hiring people whose attitudes and approach to working with students will matter in reality as much as what the generic abstract benefit might be.

So I'd recommend that the relevant evidence is obtained from a job search -- or, rather, three job searches, and you pick the one candidate from any of the searches who clearly understands the mission of your institution and is committed to doing whatever is necessary to help students persist and graduate.

This is the academic equivalent of drafting the best player, not for position need. There are reasons to be careful with such an arrangement, but if you make clear that you *might* hire more than one person but definitely will *not* hire just to fill a position, that might add some seriousness to the search committees.
First, I'd use my time machine to go back to yesterday (a Monday a few weeks before classes start) and develop a plan to start collecting the data needed to assess the educational outcomes desired for each type of professional staff position this fall, just as you presumably do for the work of your teaching staff. That would prepare you to make your next decision.

Lacking data, you can only decide based on subjective factors specific to your institution.

Data at my college support a possible FOURTH choice: We made the decision to allocate the equivalent of a permanent full-time staff position to pay for student tutors who operate in all three of the areas you mention. (It is cost effective, provides economic support and additional learning opportunities for good students, and encourages students to use all 3 of those resources.) But this makes sense for us because we have some study centers, one co-located in the library for writing courses, which you might not have.

This assumes, of course, that none of the areas have a glaring shortage. If they all have a glaring shortage, then you need a plan to hire one in each area over the next 3 to 5 years and take the "best available" approach Prof Dorn suggests to fill them.

Regarding the subjective criteria, I'll assume a CC environment. Our advisors have such a high work load that they cannot follow up every student as was suggested above, even if we had twice as many, so they do not have regular contact with students. If you have the resources to do regular intrusive advising (maybe you have the staff and system in place to identify and personally contact potential failures in the first few weeks of the semeter), then the suggestion from the first commenter would be best. The tutor and librarian can't drag a student in and force them to get help.
I agree with Sherman Dorn about the "best available player" equivalent. Leaving aside the fact that those three positions are often in three different divisions of a college or university, Dean Dad says that there is only enough money for one. Therefore, even if they're all in the same division/unit, unless you craft the job description to solicit librarians, advisors and tutors to apply to the same job, the search committee is never going to compare the candidates directly (either on paper or in person).

Looking at those three job titles, I would pick the one that has the most contact with students in relation to their overall academic career. I would say that students generally approach librarians about research topics/information for one particular project or class (though certainly this is not all that librarians do). Tutors help individual students (admittedly quite a lot of them) in specific subjects, so an argument could be made for a tutor in Math, if students are dropping out because of Math requirements.

However, in my opinion, the advisor theoretically is there to assist ALL students with their course exploration, divisional requirements, course selection, major declaration, graduation auditing, etc. In addition, depending on the nature of the position (and the individual in it, as Anonymous 8:21 notes), the academic advisor is in position to refer students to tutoring, librarians, counselors and other resources available to the student for academic success, retention and graduation purposes.

All that said, I recognize my own bias: I was an academic advisor for many years..

I also like Sherman's suggestion.

The problem with trying to find research-based answers is that the effect of an additional person in any position is likely to be different from the average impact of the people in existing positions. (This is the difference between what economists call "average product" and "marginal product.") It's possible that job category A has a high average impact on retention or graduation, but that an additional person in that category would have little impact. And most statistical analyses do not distinguish well between average impact and marginal impact.
I like Sherman Dorn's practical solution. It did not occur to me to take that approach at all. Kudos to him.

Personally, I read the question a bit differently. If you're asking which position is best-suited for improving retention/graduation rates, then I think a current survey/analysis would serve you well. I'll assume here that all 3 types of positions listed currently are represented on your campus.

I would investigate which positions are most in demand by students most likely to drop out and least likely to graduate (Throwing money after students who would graduate anyway wouldn't help improve retention or graduation rates). If your college uses exit surveys, look at the results from those with minimum GPA's and drop-outs, though drop-outs may not fill out surveys. See which services these students used most often, and which least often. Also survey the current librarians, tutors and advisors to see how many students they meet with on a semester basis (if they can't give you an estimate, it'll be telling), what their students' most common issues encountered are, and what follow-up information they can provide about success rates. That may give you a college-specific answer to your question.
This didn't seem to post the first time so apologies for duplication if this is a repeat. The repost also gave me time to reflect further on the question...and I come back to the idea, shared by others, that the position you fill should reflect the specific needs of your institution and your retention audience but also to the argument that integration with the instructional side of the house is crucial. This should be an important function of the position you fill. And now I'd argue that a writing services coordinator position would trump all on your list. :)

As a librarian at a research university, I was taken aback to see a librarian position considered in this category, but I do get the CC context. Retention and persistence of individual students depends on so many variables; career aspirations, program match, financial situation, family circumstances, romantic circumstances , before we even get to academic ability. As other posters have noted, best to know the salient reason(s) at your institution. Maybe you need a dating co-ordinator/agony aunt position. :) To be serious, as a senior manager of library, writing, learning, EAL/ESL services, I would strongly recommend analyzing these positions not in terms of their individual student contact or front line service delivery but rather for what larger scale systems or programs they could develop and coordinate. For example, teams of (lower)paid or volunteer student tutors can be very effective but not if they aren't selected, mentored and monitored by a professional with expertise in subject matter and service delivery. The professional position is still key. Bottom line, use your professional positions at their highest level and for broadest impact. And then since I am a librarian, I would also argue that connection with faculty as well as students is very important in designing/delivering programs and librarians can have an advantage over other positions in this regard for all the stereotypical yet iconic reasons. "Fort Book" is still a powerful metaphor for faculty and students alike and library engagement a strong predictor of student success. For example, see (And whether institutions are tracking too much information would be another good discussion...)

Does the job description for the advisor mention experience with intrusive advising, as I understand the term?
Sherman has the right idea as far as getting the best person. Just don't waste time with three distinct job searches- combine them to one "Wanted: academic support professional who will improve retention rates and increase graduation rates. Relevant experience includes work as a librarian, tutor or academic advisor. Bonus points for cross trainers"

That's a cop-out though. Let's say you've GOT 3 equally stellar people (in terms of their job responsibilities), but you can only keep one.
In this case, I would select bubble "Not enough data to answer the question".
IF the chief barrier to retention/graduation for your students is passing intro math, keep the tutor.
IF the chief barrier to retention/graduation is personal issues (like finding affordable childcare, not having reliable transportation, depression, ect.), keep the academic advisor (who, because ze is stellar, is great at matching problems with resources in the institution and community to help students succeed).
IF the chief barrier to retention/graduation is not being able to use a computer, or being able to conduct research, hire the librarian (because stellar librarians do these kind of things).

However, if you have no clue what the chief barrier for YOUR students is, hire the librarian. Because ze is best equipped to help you find that information. Or any other information you need.
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