Academic advising must go (way) beyond graduation requirements

An industry leader offers perspective on how COVID-19 has raised the stakes for meaningful advisor-student planning.

As with many aspects of higher education, academic advising was at a crossroads even before the pandemic forced institutions into online or hybrid environments. Nontraditional students, the proliferation of credits obtained prior to enrollment and lack of adequate time to understand students’ complex issues have all contributed to the challenges facing advisors.

Dale Peters, CollegeSource
Dale Peters, CollegeSource

Traditionally, academic advisors (whether faculty or dedicated advising staff) have caseloads so large that they can’t spend quality time with each student. According to the 2011 NACADA National Survey of Academic Advising, the median advisor-to-student ratio was nearly 300:1. This reality makes it logistically difficult to spend even a minimal amount of time with students over the course of the year, not to mention adequately help those who may be experiencing an academic crisis.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced even more challenges for academic advisors. Students may be seeking to transfer in or out and need to understand whether their credits will transfer with them. Or they may need to adjust their degree completion plans due to financial hardship or other pandemic-related factors.

Broadening the traditional advising focus on degree requirements

Instead, much of traditional academic advising is limited to ensuring that students know which classes are required for degree attainment and in which order they should be taken. There’s often little room for exploration around whether a student’s chosen major is a good fit or will serve their future career goals. There’s even less time for students who are undecided about a major or who don’t have a strong inclination toward a future career.

This is not to say that advisors don’t want to provide this help and insight; of course they do. But they lack the time and resources to address the myriad of situations that fall outside the structured tracks of earning a four-year degree.

In the current environment, it’s even more crucial to give students the ability to run “what if” scenarios with their academic tracks. If they can’t complete their desired degree, are they closer to meeting the requirements of another one? Does it mesh with their interests and career goals? Once a student has interactively explored these alternatives, an advisor can step in with targeted advice and insights. The advising session becomes a true exchange and conversation, even if it’s done on a video call.

Navigating different degrees and life challenges

Highly technical and scientific programs, such as engineering and computer science, have a fairly rigorous curriculum where classes build on each other in a specific order. To take Calculus II, you must first pass Calc I. There’s generally little room for flexibility with electives. But many majors are less structured, with wider latitude for course selection within the degree track. Not having realistic insights into future career possibilities can leave a student adrift and illustrates the need for advisors who can dig deeper into the student’s temperament, passions and goals.

At the same time, nontraditional and remedial students may be confronted with other challenges other than COVID-19. For example, they may need to take a semester off, may be unable to take summer classes, or may need to juggle multiple jobs so they can pay for tuition. These students require more intensive advising to ensure they earn a degree. Further, first-generation students need extra help with navigating college life and with envisioning the career opportunities that are available to them.

Using technology to elevate the advising value

One of the most significant areas that must change in academic advising is to free advisors from the work that technology can do, specifically around manually ensuring that students are meeting their degree requirements. Automating the degree audit process system helps advisors quickly and accurately ensure student class completions and certify students for graduation.

Beyond that, planning and advising systems can provide tools for mapping the student’s journey from their first day until graduation. These tools engage students and can help them discover their interests and goals, while providing insight into careers a student might not have otherwise considered. Advisors gain immediate visibility into the student’s progress, where they might be struggling, and can highlight alternative paths that meet degree requirements. Rather than burdening advisors with administrative tasks and turning advising sessions into logistical discussions, advisors can increase the quality of their student interactions.

Other higher education technology tools can also help discover degree and certification eligibility that students might not know they’ve attained. This is particularly useful if students need an academic off-ramp and also builds feelings of accomplishment toward a longer-term goal.

As technologies are implemented for planning and advising, they need to be closely integrated with degree audit systems to ensure they stay current whenever degree requirements change. There also should be flexibility in mapping a student’s path that takes into account their advance credits, financial situation and other unique circumstances. In uncertain times, it’s even more likely that students won’t flow through a pre-planned, templated course of study without the need for some flexibility.

Technology advancements for academic advising provide the opportunity to optimize the experience and serve more students effectively. The future of today’s college students is at stake and getting it right is the only option. Elevating the advising experience by offering students a tailored experience will help lay the groundwork for empowering them to make the best decisions toward their individual degree pursuits.

Dale Peters is senior vice president of CollegeSource, a provider of products for degree audit, academic planning and transfer articulation.

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