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Locksley Knibbs, lead academic adviser for students studying the natural sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University, knows that advisers take on different roles to serve the whole student: mentor, advocate, mediator, coach. At FGCU, where many full-time advisers have faculty status, Knibbs even teaches a class on the foundations of civic engagement.
Still, Knibbs says, academic advisers first and foremost help students understand what courses they need to take, in what order, to obtain their degrees. And so a key finding of Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse’s recent Student Voice survey of 3,004 undergraduates about academic life, including advising and registration—that nearly half of students haven’t been advised on courses and course sequences required for graduation—surprises Knibbs.
“It’s a core responsibility to teach students about how to navigate the curriculum and our main function, regardless of how many hats we’re going to wear,” says Knibbs, a governing board member of NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. “We advise you based on the curriculum or the degree that you have declared on your record. That’s the most essential part of our job.”
According to the Student Voice survey of two- and four-year students at more than 120 institutions, just 55 percent of respondents say they’ve gotten the advising Locksley describes as fundamental. Could undeclared majors and underclassmen be skewing the results? Apparently not: just 57 percent of students who intend to graduate this year say they’ve received guidance on required courses and course sequences needed for graduation via the advising process.
Looking at responses by institution type, 56 percent of four-year college students say they’ve gotten this kind of advice, compared to 49 percent of community college students.
By race, greater differences emerge: some 63 percent of white students say they’ve been advised on required courses and sequences, compared to about half of Asian, Black or Latino students.
In a related finding that breaks down along similar demographic lines, just 52 percent of students say they’ve been advised on their degree progress to make sure they’re on track to graduate.
Terry O’Banion, author of Academic Advising in the Community College (2019), calls these data “truly appalling given the complexity of program descriptions, the ratio of advisers to students, the lack of professional preparation for advisers, and the overwhelming need for students to complete the courses and programs they need for their futures and the future of this country.”
O’Banion, also a senior professor of practice in educational leadership at Kansas State University, finds unsurprising the data’s racial dimensions, in particular. “The primary fault is with the colleges and universities not ensuring more equity in this key process.”
Melinda Anderson, executive director of NACADA, is similarly concerned about nonwhite students’ reported experiences and the related implications for diversity, equity, inclusivity, belonging and accessibility. “It makes me wonder how and why their experiences are different from their white peers and what institutions are doing specifically to address them,” she says. “The work for DEIBA has exploded on most campuses, but what specific actions are being taken beyond discussions and workshops regarding institutional culture?”
Respondents with full-time jobs (n=391) also are less likely than the group over all to say they’ve received guidance on required coursework for graduation, at about four in 10.
Melanie Gottlieb, executive director of American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says working adult students may understandably be “paying less attention to the messaging that institution is sending, or they may not be as plugged in to those channels because they’re working full-time.”
And so the “real question” concerns “the institutional strategy around serving adult learners,” Gottlieb says. “They require a very different level of advising and a different service model,” compared to the traditional first-time freshman.
Socioeconomic status may also be a factor in advising effectiveness. Students who report being upper middle class (n=425) are more likely than the group over all to say they’ve received guidance on required courses, at 64 percent.
Interacting With Advisers
Despite some apparent gaps in core academic advising areas—and to Knibbs’s point about advisers wearing many hats—advisers are helping students in a number of important ways, some of which extend beyond academics. This includes choosing majors, internships and research opportunities, and graduate programs, and managing unforeseen events or health issues that challenge academic success.
Strong advising means treating the student as a person, not just as a student, says Deja Kenion, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and current graduate assistant for social justice education at Clemson University, who has written about student-inclusive approaches to redesigning advising for the Advising Success Network.
“Holistically advising a student based on their individual needs is key to redesigning the way we advise,” adds Kenion. “I would like to see the field of advising truly focus on the whole student and not solely on their academics. Yes, it is important to help a student academically, but it is also pertinent to understand their needs inside and outside of a classroom.”
Kenion says that her own advisers, past and present, “have been fully invested in understanding me for who I am and not based on the boxes that society puts me in. Their genuineness and overall support have contributed to my success.”
Students at private institutions, meanwhile, are much likelier than their public counterparts (39 percent versus 25 percent) to say it was easy to get an appointment with their adviser, as well as to want to meet with their adviser in person (35 percent versus 20 percent).
Knibbs from Florida Gulf Coast says he prefers face-to-face meetings over online meetings, but that either is far superior to voice-only telephone calls.
“We want to see who you are. We want to talk to you; we want to get to know you. And we want to build those relationships over the time you’re here,” he says. With telephone advising, he adds, a student with an early-morning appointment could be emailing as soon as later that morning to ask, “What did you say about this again?”
Kimberly U. Wright, director of academic planning and advising at Northern Virginia Community College, says that students “definitely want both options,” meaning in person and virtual. More generally, she says, virtual platforms have improved accessibility to advising.
Most Student Voice respondents say they were assigned an academic adviser. Just 12 percent say they found an academic adviser on their own.
About two in 10 say they were required to meet with their adviser once. The same share say they’re required to meet periodically with their adviser (for private institution students only, the number is closer to three in 10).
Anderson from NACADA says that many institutions require academic advising for students, but that this “always depends on institutional resources.” Think: technology, number of academic advisers and degree program plans. “Required advising appointment policies are very dependent on having enough advisers to manage caseloads,” she adds.
NACADA doesn’t have a recommended adviser caseload, given that this work varies from setting to setting and institutions differ greatly in student population. But it encourages institutions reviewing their advising structures to ask, “What is a reasonable adviser-to-student ratio for your institution’s advising situation that is based on explicit expectations and responsibilities for the role?”
A 2011 NACADA study found that the median number of advisees per adviser was 296. That’s a large number, but many adviser caseloads today are much higher.
Anecdotally, multiple advising experts have told Inside Higher Ed that the field is a historically undervalued and underresourced component of student success, and that long-standing concerns about lack of opportunities for career advancement, stagnant pay and high caseloads were exacerbated by COVID-19, prompting some colleagues to leave advising altogether. These departures don’t help lower caseloads.
The Student Voice survey also asked about problems encountered registering for classes—and approximately one in three students say a class they need to graduate has filled up before they could register. The same share of students say a class they need to graduate wasn’t available the semester they wanted to take it.
This doesn’t necessarily mean registration issues delayed students’ graduation timelines. Many if not most institutions also prioritize registration for students closer to graduation as to avoid such delays. But students who expect to graduate in the standard time are more likely than those who don’t (or who aren’t sure about their timelines) to say they haven’t experienced any listed problems with registration, at 36 percent and 26 percent, respectively.
Course registration is a challenging issue for advisers that isn’t entirely—or even mostly—in their hands, says Louis E. Newman, a former dean of academic advising at Stanford University and now John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Carleton College. That’s because departments typically decide which classes they offer in which terms, he says. “The math department is deciding about calculus offerings, but that’s going to have an effect on all sorts of majors that aren’t even in their department but who are relying on their courses. A whole lot of factors come into play here.”
Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant vice provost for the Student Success Research Lab at Ohio State University and a research affiliate of Columbia University Teachers College’s Community College Research Center, adds that some colleges “don’t necessarily know how many students are following each program of study, or they don’t have a clear curriculum map for students to follow within the program of study, and as a result, they don’t have a good sense of the likely demand for each course—or the number of seats they should offer—in each term.”
Some courses are “very expensive to offer, and the college may not be able to afford offering the course as often as students might want, so they fill up quickly,” Jaggars continues. (Possible examples include courses conducted in expensive physical science laboratories or computer labs.)
Nevertheless, the survey data on required course availability irk O’Banion of Kansas State, who says this is a problem that technology should be able to solve: “If technology can map almost every street in the U.S., it can surely be designed to calculate the number of students who will need which courses in the coming semester to meet graduation and next-step requirements. That is, if colleges and universities want to serve the crucial needs of students.”
O’Banion adds this: “But if for some odd reason they want to block students’ progress and goals and make them angry and have them stick around for another term so they can continue to pay tuition, then the plan is working.”
Anderson, of NACADA, says that some institutions do use predictive analytics to inform course offerings, though she notes that the faculty’s ability to deliver courses remains a major factor. And Knibbs notes that advising teams can and do play a role in asking departments to add more course sections when student demand outweighs the supply.
Registration problems are much more likely among four-year students than two-year students. Some 43 percent of community college students say they haven’t experienced any listed problems registering, compared to 27 percent of baccalaureate students. Jaggars says this may be because community colleges tend to offer a wider array of introductory courses and fewer advanced courses (which, again, tend to be more expensive to run).
About two in 10 students over all say they have been unable to register for a needed class because it required special permission, enrollment in a particular program, minimum grade point average or some other qualification.
Twenty percent of students also say they’ve been prevented from registering for a class due to a financial, advising or other type of institutional hold. (See more coverage on registration holds.)
Who the Advisers Are
Two less prevalent registration problems, each experienced by about one in 10 students, are, “My adviser told me to take a class to fulfill a requirement that did not actually fulfill the requirement,” and “My adviser told me to take a class that was not actually available to me because I was missing a prerequisite.”
Who is advising students, anyway? About half of students report that their adviser is a professional adviser or nonteaching staff member. Some 46 percent say their adviser is a faculty member, typically in their academic department. Three percent of students say they don’t have an adviser at all.
Institutions follow a variety of different advising models, including one in which students work with a professional adviser until they declare a major and then move on to a faculty adviser within their chosen field. A larger share (51 percent) of students at public institutions report having a professional adviser than do students at private institutions (40 percent). Relatedly, some 53 percent of students at private institutions say they’re advised by a faculty member in their academic program, compared to 33 percent at publics.
Despite the apparent flaws in the advising system, nearly eight in 10 students “grade” their academic advisers’ efforts and knowledge helping them choose an academic path with an A or B. About three in four students with professional advisers would grade them A or B, as would four in five students with faculty advisers.
Even with faculty advisers edging out professional advisers here, Newman urges against “blanket statements” about who does it better.
“It depends a lot on the quality of the professional advising staff—how much experience they have, how familiar they are with the institution, how well trained they are,” Newman says. “Faculty sometimes believe that [advising] shouldn’t be their job,” yet professors “know the ins and outs, they understand the academic life of the institution the best, they’re in the best position to give students academic advice. But that doesn’t mean that they’re good at it—particularly when they’re giving students advice about subject areas in which they have no expertise. It can cut both ways.”
Advisers can do a better job when they have support and tools, such as easy-to-follow curriculum maps that answer basic curricular questions for students, Jaggars says. This frees up time for advisers to do more complex advising and reach out to students who may be struggling.
Knibbs, who says the job of an adviser has morphed over time to include everything from degree certification to managing transfer students to trauma counseling, doesn’t think “a lot of folks at higher education institutions understand the importance of academic advising and the importance of academic advisers to student success. If we’re not a part of that equation, how are your students supposed to navigate and get out on time when most colleges are pushing a four-year graduation? That doesn’t happen without advisers in the midst of that.”
Does your institution have an unusual or unusually successful advising model? Do any of these findings ring true to you or prompt more questions? Tell us here. And read more about the Student Voice survey findings on advising and registration here.