The University Innovation Alliance (UIA) was honored to partner with The Chronicle of Higher Education for its 5/26/22 panel discussion on the future of academic advising. The UIA was founded by a pioneering group of university presidents and chancellors committed to breaking down the silos inhibiting collaboration, and to leading on testing, sharing, and scaling ideas across the sector to help more students succeed. We recently published Proactive Advising: A Playbook for Higher Education Innovators, and our CEO Bridget Burns joined the Chronicle's Assistant Managing Editor Ian Wilhelm to co-host this virtual conversation about the future of academic advising. Panelists included:
- Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education
- Melinda Anderson, Executive Director, NACADA
- Tim Renick, Executive Director, National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University
- CJ Powell, Special Assistant in the Office of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education
Looking at the Whole Student
Secretary Duncan delivered the panel's introductory statement. During his tenure at the Department of Education, he initiated programs like First in the World and the White House College Opportunity Summit, which incentivize collaboration and innovation for student success. He wants government to play an ongoing role in making higher education possible for all students.
"I’m a much bigger believer in carrots rather than sticks," he said. "I don’t think you beat people into doing better. You build a coalition of the willing, folks dissatisfied with the status quo who want to do something better, and then put resources behind it." He calls education a nonpartisan issue. "This is work to sustain our democracy, and the federal government can help to shine a spotlight on what’s working."
Secretary Duncan agrees that academic advising is a critical support for any student. "We know the majority of folks who go to college don’t graduate," he said. "But the worst-case scenario is we’ve taken all that debt and don’t have a degree to show for that. I don’t think anyone has ever gone to college saying, 'My goal is not to graduate.' But that’s what’s happened. That’s an untenable reality that we have to change together."
He believes that advising needs to look at the whole student – mental health, food and housing insecurity, family needs – and that institutional leaders need to embrace this holistic model and actively seek remedies to the have/have-not division around educational opportunities, which he considers one of the biggest pain points that we face as a nation.
"I would love to see us set the goal of leading the world in college graduates again," Secretary Duncan concluded. "If we could unite behind that, we would not just have the best-educated workforce in the world; I’m convinced we’d have a much stronger democracy."
Advisors' Roles and Students' Expectations
In speaking about student advising, it's helpful to ask who the advisors are. While faculty members may seem best equipped for the task, our panelists suggested that professors are better suited as mentors, focusing the student on the discipline of a specific subject area rather than the nuts and bolts of navigating the college experience, which are better handled by professional advisors. Mr. Powell explained, "Having that professional advising core is still really crucial to make sure that all of those critical questions are answered about how to get through the institution. The faculty member can help you see how you can connect those dots of the discipline and to the greater world."
One critical piece of advising is student expectation. Dr. Anderson observed that they can't ask questions about what they don't know. Looking through student eyes, she elaborated, "When I come to the table, everything that I need to know, from when I’m enrolling, to when I’m registering for classes, to what I understand about my degree requirements, to how I’m paying for school, all of those things need to be laid out so that I understand exactly what I need to do to be successful." She observed how this becomes a more formidable task as educational bureaucracy becomes more complex.
Dr. Renick illustrated that complexity as he talked about the advising model his program has developed at Georgia State, which assesses a wide array of student risk factors and notifies students with early alerts to help keep them on track. "The field of advising is very different from when many of us went to college," he recalled. "It was a fairly casual enterprise. You would have a faculty member that you liked, and you’d drop by to talk about what you’re doing." He added that faculty members already have enough work without asking them to proactively monitor individual students.
A Changing Model and Higher Demands
Academic advisors' job descriptions are changing as more institutions recognize that dedicated, proactive advising is now a pillar of success for an increasingly diverse student population navigating an increasingly complicated world. Dr. Renick explained:
"The old model was that students self-diagnosed a problem they were facing, they would figure out where the resource was available on campus, and then find the bandwidth in their day to access that resource. That worked well for certain students in residential colleges full-time. Doesn’t work well for working students, parents, non-traditional students today. So rather than assuming the student will access this passively available resource, we say all students deserve the help they need when they need it."
He went on to describe a system of predictive data points, syncing data between departments, appointment scheduling systems, and reaching out proactively to students individually or via chatbot.
Dr. Anderson noted that because not all schools can handle the same level of technology, there are other ways to facilitate the support that advisors need to do their job efficiently. "We can start thinking about what can we do to streamline our practices and policies," she said. "How do we create more efficiencies? How do we scale up? You can advocate to the provost office and your chancellors to let them know about the implications of the work that’s happening for you, because we do not want to continue to lose advisors coming out of this pipeline. They are the lifeblood of student success on these campuses, and we cannot do this work without them."
Mr. Powell agreed that the current dropout crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, impacts not only students, but also advisors. He asked, "If our advisors are burnt out and leaving the field, who is going to help those students get back to campus and get across the finish line? We just released guidance last week on using higher education emergency relief funds to support the mental health of campus communities. I think faculty and staff, especially academic advisors, are often overlooked, and we can’t continue to overlook them."
Scaling Up and Uplifting
In the spirit of accelerating a nationwide initiative toward proactive advising, we asked Mr. Powell for a sense of how the Biden administration hopes to further this goal. "We think about college value and completion as a top priority," he assured us, "and answering the questions as to how we can lift up those best practices that are happening across the country – coming out of [the UIA's] playbook, for instance – and making sure that we can get institutions across the country on the same page. In the last omnibus, we had a $5 million post-secondary student success fund. How can those dollars be used to scale up some of these really great things happening on campuses? Once we see how great the pilots are working, we should be able to go to a larger program to make sure that we’re serving more students. And I think the role of federal government is to help facilitate those practices."
Our other panelists left us with equally inspiring words.
Dr. Renick said, "Good advising pays for itself. Georgia State is graduating 3,500 more students than we were a decade ago, every single year. That’s a lot of additional revenue. It wasn’t entirely due to our changes to academic advising. But I can tell you that academic advising is more than covered in cost by those increases in tuition and fee revenues."
Dr. Anderson added, "For those administrators at institutions who support and uplift your academic advisors, continue the good work that you’re doing on your campuses. The creativity and innovation that we’ve seen in the pandemic will be the way for us to continue to do the work that we know our students need."
Note: This blog was adapted from a panel discussion hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education on 5/26/22. We provide a transcript of the full conversation if you would like to learn more. You can also watch on demand.