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Rethinking Advising for Community College Students

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by Tiffany Pennamon

Citing advising as “the cornerstone of student support,” the Center for Community College Student Engagement makes the case for improved advising models in a new study published this week.

Dr. Evelyn N. Waiwaiole


The study, “Show Me the Way: The Power of Advising in Community Colleges,” found that despite the benefits of advising, not all students are getting the same advising experience that they need to succeed academically. With improvements to the structure, content and intensity of advising, community colleges can better support their students and increase student engagement, according to the report.

“I hope that colleges will take a moment to celebrate: we’re seeing more and more students meet with advisers. We’re seeing that structures are being put in place that require students to meet with advisers. We’re seeing that advisrers are visiting the classrooms,” said Dr. Evelyn N. Waiwaiole, executive director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin (UT). “The next things that we need to think about are our [student-advisor] ratios, professional development, continually ensuring consistent information to our students and frequently delivering the information to our students.”

Considerable findings in the study revealed that of the community college students surveyed at more than 200 colleges, half had initial advising sessions that lasted only 16-30 minutes. But when students had more than 30 minutes of advising, their engagement scores rose.

Eighty-six percent of students indicated that an adviser explained the classes they needed to achieve their academic goals, but only 65 percent of those students reported that their adviser helped them develop an academic plan, the study said. And two-thirds of students noted that their adviser never discussed when their next meeting would take place.

Another highlight indicated that only 62 percent of entering students and 78 percent of returning students met with an adviser in the first few weeks of school. At first glance, Waiwaiole thought the statistic for entering students was impressive.

“But the first four to five weeks of your very first fall semester? We would have hoped [the number] was a lot higher,” she said after reflecting on the student advising data. “We should’ve seen you right away. We should’ve made sure you had all the information to be successful.”

To increase the number of community college students being advised and the engagement of these students, the study suggests that community colleges can restructure their advising by introducing policies such as a “guided pathways” model where academic planning and advising are required for all students and built into registration.

Researchers also note that increasing the frequency or length of student advising meetings can benefit students. Waiwaiole said that this would be helpful for students who go “rogue” and take credits that they do not necessarily need to graduate or transfer.

“That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” she said. “All those extra credits, all that extra debt … So if you’re meeting every semester, someone is keeping you on the path.”

By making “comprehensive advising” the norm at community colleges, advisers would ensure that students have conversations about “setting career goals, making an academic plan, considering commitments outside of school and understand[ing] employment opportunities,” the study said.

Revised approaches to advising could potentially improve student retention, persistence and engagement as national data for community colleges shows that between the fall and spring semester, some institutions lose approximately 30 percent of their students.

“Within the fourth and fifth week, if more students had seen an advisor, and they felt like they were on their way with more accurate information, more tools in the tool belt earlier in the semester, would they have been retained?” Waiwaiole adked. “We don’t know the answer to that, but we wish that number would’ve been higher.”

Waiwaiole’s concerns about the ever-increasing role of advisers today takes into account the fact that many community college advisers now have less time to meet with students about their academic and career goals. Advisers at many institutions must also be able to share more resources about current institutional services such as a transfer student center, or be knowledgeable about job markets and regional career opportunities in addition to information related to students’ academic plans.

Institutions like the Community College of Philadelphia and St. Petersburg College in Florida worked to offset these challenges by hiring more full-time advisers and training their advisers for the “hard conversations” that advisers have with students. At St. Petersburg, advisers had to reapply for their job and receive more than 100 hours of training for the newly written advising role that the college implemented for its students’ success.

St. Petersburg “did a marvelous job of getting their folks up to speed on the new level of conversations and the new level of preparedness that they wanted their academic advisors to have,” Waiwaiole said. “Advising has to be relational … they completely changed the tone of their advising center.”

The Center for Community College Student Engagement provides a list of questions for community college advisers, faculty and community members to consider before changing advising policies and practices.

Historically, the question for student advising has always been, “What classes do you want to take?” Waiwailoe said. “It’s a whole new level of conversation we want advisors to have, but we have to prepare them and equip them to have those conversations. That’s where the level of training [comes] in.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tpennamon@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.