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.