Sunday, April 13, 2014


Who Should Advise?

Jeff Selingo asked in the New York Times this weekend whether it’s better to have faculty to academic advising, as opposed to full-time advisers.  I was disappointed in what the discussion left out.

Quick quiz: what’s the single greatest argument in favor of professional advisers?

Anyone?  Bueller?  Anyone?


In the context of a community college, we don’t wrap up Fall enrollments by May.  We wrap them up in late August.  Prospective students stream in through May, June, July, and August, and they need help putting plans together.  Returning students are the same way.  It would be lovely if they all finished their plans in April, and many do.  But their lives are complicated enough that planning six months ahead is often unrealistic.  

In practice, we divide advising among full-time professional advisers, adjunct faculty on hourly contracts for advising, and full-time faculty.  When the system works right, the full-time professional advisers focus on new students, with a goal of handing them off to faculty in their desired major after the first semester.  Last year we even separated faculty advising from student registration, so the faculty-student interactions could focus more on long-term academic and career goals and less on finding an open seat at 10:00.  The jury is still out on that one, but I’m confident that it will work.

If we were to get rid of our professional advisers, we’d be left with some pretty unappealing options.  One would be to just dump all those students on faculty, which in practice would mean requiring full-time faculty to come in regularly during the summer.

Good luck with that.

Another would be to abandon advising altogether as a requirement.  We could just default to catch-as-catch-can advice, with students making their own course selections.

From what we’ve seen both locally and nationally, that would tend to work as a sorting mechanism.  The students who come in with the greatest social and educational capital would be fine; the ones who show up already intimidated or confused would fall away.  Given the mission of the community college, this direction would be counterproductive.

Or we could automate it.  Austin Peay State University made some waves over the last year by building a recommendation engine into its student portal.  I’m told it works sort of like Amazon or Netflix; it makes recommendations for future courses based on success in previous courses, just like Netflix predicts movies by noticing what you’ve watched before.  (A few years ago, based upon hundreds of ratings, Netflix’ top recommendation for me was...Caddyshack.  You may draw whatever conclusion you wish.)  

I’ll admit being intrigued by the concept of the recommendation engine, but it strikes me as more of a useful supplement than a replacement.  For a student already a couple of years in, it may make sense.  But for someone whose attachment to college hasn’t really been formed yet, and who doesn’t yet have a college course track record by which to judge, I just don’t see it.  The human touch matters at that point, which involves paying humans to be there and to have enough time to engage in actual conversation.  That costs money.

And that’s where the discussion gets real.  How much is it worth to us to keep a community college student enrolled?  And why, exactly, is that student worth so much less -- judging by per-student allocations -- than a student in a wealthier and whiter environ?  

I’m a fan of efficiency, when it’s in the service of doing what we do better.  But when it’s a way to try to make structural inequalities seem like they’re rooted in individual merit, I have to call foul.  A discussion of advising that doesn’t even acknowledge summers reflects an assumption about the kind of college being discussed.  Community colleges need to be discussed, too.

Just thinking out loud here, but Big Data ought to be able to include HS transcripts and results for past students to predict what raw freshmen might need or like. We don't even see those HS grades or classes, and wouldn't know what they really meant if we did. In contrast, success data would tell the computer if HS X had better math or composition classes than HS M if those were schools we drew a lot of students from.

The faculty at my CC wish we had more full-time advisors because some of the greatest demand is at the very end of the semester when we have little free time to advise, and some requirements change faster than we have time to keep up. That doesn't even count the times when we are not on contract. (The reason we don't want to come in during late July and early August is that even full-time faculty are not being paid during that time.)
We have two types of advisers; one for first year students the other for students after they have chosen a course of study.

The first group's aim is to deal with new students; trying to match strengths with interests and choose a promising academic program. The second group is made up of faculty from each academic department. They work with the students for the remainder of their time at the school.

In the context of your discussion, the first group of advisers could be non-specialized and work year-round to deal with incoming students as they arrive. The second might have more established students for whom summer advising might not be so essential.

Our institution uses the split model of advising with professional advisors guiding students through their first 30 hours and then faculty advisors take over. Unless the student is on probation. Students in academic trouble, returning after an absence of 2 or more semesters, or changing majors are referred back to the professional advisors. This can get confusing for students.

As a professional advisor I value the contributions and guidance faculty advisors provide. I would love to work with them so that they can assist some of the student populations that are referred back to me so that the student experiences continuity. Of course we would also need to look at the 9 month contracts that many of our faculty advisors have as well.

Neither population advises "better" and both have a lot to offer students.
At my current mostly online PubU, we have professional advisors. It works well for our student body that is all over the country.

At my alma mater, SLAC, they have started pre-building schedules prior to freshman orientation, so that during the "advising time" of pre-reg it's all about actual advising with faculty not picking a time slot. Of course, the schedule can be changed but it takes some of the burden off the students to pick the right classes from the start. It's working well so far. It also helps to determine how many sections of developmentals you'll need.
Two examples about the extremes of advising (both public R1's but with applicability to other types of higher ed):

1) incoming admits are handed their schedules, with little option for change, after naming a probable major. This level of bossiness makes a certain percentage of admits decide to go elsewhere. But it probably helps the students negotiate the first semester with less stress. It certainly helps the institution allocate its resources more easily!

2) another public R1, where advising is simultaneously done by professional advisers to help the students cover all the required Gen Eds and distribution requirements plus a different thread of advising by faculty in the major to make sure they get all the prereqs and required-for-the-major courses. Very inefficient, and students will sometimes think that one or the other knows enough to advise on both sets of requirements, which is a big mistake.

My experience with professional advisors and transfer advisors is that while they work well for humanities and social science majors they often give poor guidance when advising in the hard sciences and engineering - most often because they have people start soft (just take a semester of GE when you start) and that sets students back a full year when they are in the sciences because of interlocking sequences of prereqs.

Science departments that have their own professional advisor for majors for the first 60 units (usually an adjunct with a course release) get their students through faster than those who rely on the GE and professional advisors. Our faculty then help students plan and get through the last 2-4 years of their degree.

There is no discussion here of student advisors whom I have found to be extremely helpful - they give a boots on the ground view of things to other students and can help them avoid common pitfalls. They can also give advice as a peer that would be ignored coming from a faculty member.
We have some front-line advising by staff and more detailed advising by faculty (like me). But faculty are on 12-month contracts in Canada. And Waterloo is co-op, so one teaches for 2 of the 3 terms, including "Spring" term.
The system Jeanette describes sounds like a remarkably sensible way of taking the best of both worlds.

You pay professional advisors for their work in the summer, I bet.

I wonder if you offered to pay faculty folks for doing summer advising, would you get people willing to come in and advise? (My school has both, but does pay some faculty in different areas to do summer orientation advising, too.)
+1 for plam's comment about science advisors and the need to get STEM students taking math and science sequences right off the bat. I've had students take 3-4 years to finish CC because they got put into "bio for non-majors" or "math 101" their freshman year, forcing them to repeat bio and math classes at the advanced level the following year. There may be a few students who benefit from the more drawn out path, but most lose interest if they are in the dummy classes, which often just repeat their high school work, and they drop out. Our retention rates (for students who do not qualify for remedial work) is actually higher when they are placed into the higher-level track than the lower. Counter-intuitive, but I think the added depth adds interest and keeps motivation higher.
Musing this possibility. Adjunct faculty is at an all-time high, as we know. What if the adjunct faculty took on these administrative roles, like advising, and that created what is a full-time job? The faculty member is likely going to be more attune to the needs of the student upfront. And something like tenure could even be arranged for adjuncts (just dreaming now) who teach and advise and follow a different track from the full-time tenured professor. It would allow experienced teachers to continue with a college or university. It would allow adjuncts to develop relationships with their particular schools, which is sorely lacking now, as adjuncts can't even rely on employment through more than three or four months at a time, and it would bridge the gap of summer months, which can be financially stressful for an adjunct. Obviously, financial changes would have to occur to make this happen. Everyone would have to admit creating these low paying teaching jobs is harming the entire enterprise. But, it's an idea. I'm floating it out there.

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