More students today are seeing their college advisors. That’s according to a recent survey by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, a research initiative out of the University of Texas at Austin, which found that 78 percent of returning students claim they have met with an advisor.
But experiences for students once they visit an advisor vary. The report also found that just 65 percent of surveyed students say their advisor “helped them develop an academic plan.”
While there is room for improvement in how advisors support students, Evelyn Waiwaiole, executive director of the Center of Community College Student Engagement, believes the attendance rate is unprecedented.
“I don’t know if we could say [78 percent of students saw an advisor] a decade ago,” says Waiwaiole. “That’s a new experience that is beginning to happen, and we are reaching more students.”
The study, released Tuesday, analyzed responses from more than 90,000 returning students from 188 community colleges, and about 40,000 first-term students at 94 institutions.
Greg Hodges, vice president for academic and student success services at Patrick Henry Community College in Virginia, says his campus has seen similar growth in advising appointments since adding more advisors and reforming the school’s approach to academic advising.
Today, he says, nearly every student visits an advisor at least once. But that hasn’t always been the case. Five years ago, Hodges explains, “we realized so many students come to campus with a huge amount of barriers that are external to their [academic] life, and the only way to help them succeed is to get them to an advisor.” Now, the college has embarked on a series of strategies that include targeted interventions to get more students to meet with an advisor.
One successful strategy highlighted in the report is a wider adoption of “high-impact practices,” such as tutoring, orientation or student success courses. And in addition to more hands-on support, the study finds that more colleges are requiring students to meet with an advisor. Among the 78 percent of returning students who met with an advisor, the study found more than half were required to do so in order to register for courses. For newly entering students, 73 percent said meeting with an advisor was a requirement to enroll.
For many colleges in the study, the forcing function was to make advising mandatory. “We began to use that word—students are ‘required’ to do orientation or ‘required’ to see an advisor before [they] start college, or we block registration. That’s I think why we are seeing these high data points,” says Waiwaiole.
Meeting with an advisor is not required at Patrick Henry, Hodges says, but the college has tried other incentives like giveaways and raffles for students who attend.
Other changes in advising have also revolved around technology, including predictive analytics which aim to use data to determine if a student needs extra support from an advisor. But the study intentionally left those components out of its survey. Waiwaiole says that’s because much of the technology available in the advising space today is largely focused on the adivor and not the student.
“Tech is a new conversation in advising, but students don’t always know there are these new tools that advisors are using,” she says. “Not all, but many tools are there to aid the advisors, and we are trying to understand the student experience.”
Despite the uptick in students seeing their advisors, there’s room for improvement as well. In particular, the majority (65 percent) of students surveyed reported that their advisor did not discuss having a follow-up appointment. So while students may have seen their advisor least once, getting them to show up again has been a challenge.
To get more at-risk students involved in advising, Patrick Henry began offering an intensive college-coaching program where select students receive mandated and consistent advising. Hodges says the students in the program often outperform those who participate in the school’s more traditional advising model. But that kind of support “is very expensive to maintain,” he says, and it’s been a challenge figuring out how to get (or afford) similar outcomes that the coaching program has seen but for all students.
Patrick Henry recently hired four new advisors and moved four part-time advisors to full-time roles. Still, in order to expand some of their successful programs, Hodges says, “I wish I could hire 20 more coaches.”
That challenge resonates across the industry. According to a 2013 study from NACADA, a national academic advising association, the median ratio for academic advisors to students is 296 to 1 at 4-year institutions. At 2-year colleges, that number jumps to 441 to 1.
These high ratios present a challenge for the next area that Waiwaiole thinks college advisors need to tackle. “We need to begin to equip and prepare advisors to have more in-depth conversations [with students]... Not just these high impact practices, but we need to integrate these into a holistic redesigned student experience that everyone experiences.”
The study found that there is one group of students who enjoy in-depth advising services: student athletes. Student athletes were more likely than the general student body to report that they were required to meet with an advisor. Athletes were also more likely to meet with an advisor more than once per term.
“It may be cost prohibitive to scale up a comprehensive advising model that currently is used for only a small group of students,” Waiwaiole said in a prepared statement. “But colleges can evaluate their processes for small-scale in-depth advising and consider which aspects of the model might be used for all students.”