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Proactive Advising: A Playbook for Higher Education Innovators

Proactive Advising: A Playbook for Higher Education Innovators

The University Innovation Alliance (UIA) is proud to share our learning from the Monitoring Advising Analytics to Promote Success (MAAPS) project. Between 2016 and 2020, this initiative scaled proactive, predictive, analytics-enabled advising for first-generation and Pell-eligible students through a randomized control trial study of 10,000 students across 11 campuses. Funded by the federal First in the World program and led by Dr. Tim Renick of Georgia State University, we studied how guided, proactive advising relying on degree maps and predictive data would affect GPA, retention, and graduation rates for low-income and first-generation students.

The MAAPS project scaled a proactive advising approach originally adopted at Georgia State in 2012. While students in both the control group and the treatment group received the standard advisement practiced on their campuses, the treatment group received additional supports including:

  • Proactive advisement to help students navigate key academic choices across individualized academic maps
  • Early, real-time, analytics-based alerts to keep students on track
  • Timely, targeted advising interventions

Along with generating data on student outcomes, the MAAPS project also yielded lessons about adopting a specific model of advising. The UIA has created a playbook to share what we learned and provide recommendations for universities thinking of adopting proactive advising. Following are five components we learned are important to address when implementing proactive advising.

1. Assessing the university’s organizational structure and advising culture
The existing advising structure and culture at your institution will inform the most effective way to deliver proactive advising support. If your structure is already centralized, you can expedite impact by incorporating proactive advising practices into your existing advisement model.

If advising is delivered via decentralized supports across campus (by college or department), proactive outreach will require more coordination and bridge-building. However, it can still have a tremendous impact when focused on specific populations of students most likely to benefit from frequent, early intervention; and when participating staff and students understand how this support will work in tandem with existing support.

2. Understanding and using degree plans and academic maps effectively
Degree maps allow advisors to help students plan long-term and understand how immediate decisions affect future options and outcomes. Degree maps also serve as a reference point to guide advising conversations, with students and advisors both clear on the student’s destination.

Developing degree maps takes time, resources, and coordination. Plan adequate time to work with departments across campus to develop maps, recognizing that some degrees may not be possible to achieve within four years. To that end, the degree-mapping exercise can identify necessary program and policy changes. Once degree maps are in place, consider how frequently your institution will expect advisors to update them. Develop a user-friendly, efficient template and tools to help advisors maximize their time with students.

3. Leveraging strong data-driven tools to help advisors guide students
Data is essential to implementing an effective proactive advising model. Institutions that don’t yet have a system in place for leveraging historical student data to inform current advising practices should consider developing such a system. Whether working with an existing or new data system, seek input from advisors about how the system can best allow data to be accessed, understood, and shared among multiple users. A data specialist may help advisors make the best use of available data.

By developing and using a predictive analytics data system, institutions may discover where data are spotty and what functional limitations should be addressed. Predictive analytics can only be effective if timely data alerts lead to students reevaluating and changing behaviors, so consider how data alerts can be communicated most effectively to students.

4. Ensuring dedicated advisor capacity and training to deliver targeted support
A university that shifts to a proactive advising framework will need to train existing or new academic advisors in the practice. Advisors accustomed to prioritizing student satisfaction must now ensure that timely graduation becomes the North Star for every advising interaction. They should be comfortable working across departmental boundaries and become fluent in a wide range of degree programs. The university should be prepared to assist advisors with specific issues related to each department or major.

It will be essential to devote sufficient resources to academic advising so that advisors won’t become overwhelmed by high student-advisor ratios. Many advisors will need initial and continuous training on how to use data and work with specific technologies designed to facilitate proactive advising.

5. Securing ongoing leadership support and investment
Given the complex nature of transforming any fundamental campus process, senior university leaders will need to make proactive advising a priority. Organizational and cultural dynamics will be unique to each university, but support by senior leadership will always help to overcome barriers in the cross-institutional collaboration that's vital to effectively implement a proactive advising model.

Leaders should clearly articulate the importance of four-year graduation rates as a student success metric, and how academic advising is pivotal to helping more students graduate on time. They will also be well-positioned to provide the resources needed to avoid overwhelming advisors and make proactive advising a success.

A Map for Student Success
MAAPS demonstrated the value of organizing advising in accessible, coordinated ways. By developing detailed degree maps for hundreds of majors, universities uncovered a wealth of information about why students were struggling to reach the finish line. While any such initiative will vary by institution, proactive advising has the potential to raise graduation rates and reap significant financial benefits for both students and universities. The UIA's publication Proactive Advising: A Playbook for Higher Education Innovators discusses our learning in greater detail, offering experiential snapshots from universities participating in the MAAPS project, and sharing considerations for how to navigate the adoption of proactive advising in your context. We look forward to continuing the dialogue around proactive advising and welcome inquiries about our work and experiences.

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