​Goodbye College Advising, Hello College Coaching

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Education technology is riddled with acronyms, and here’s another one to boot: iPASS. What confusingly sounds like an app is in fact an idea that goes far beyond digital tools. It stands for “integrated planning and advising student success” which in practice looks like new approaches to academic advising and degree planning services with the help of new technologies.

Those five letters permeated the conversations at the 2017 DREAM conference in San Francisco last week, organized by nonprofit Achieving the Dream (ATD). Among hundreds of educators, advisors and researchers, attendees included ATD’s current iPASS initiative cohort—26 two- and four- year institutions who are now redesigning their advising and planning services with the goal of increasing student retention and completion. At workshops and panel discussions throughout the week, representatives from the schools showcased the tools they’re using to do that such as early signal systems and intervention, peer-to-peer advising and new messaging and outreach methods.

“College advisors have always played an important role helping students navigate the degree process,” said Gates Bryant, a principal at Tyton Partners, an advisory firm focused on education. Historically, an academic advisor’s role has included helping students register for courses, monitor progress or choose a major. And importantly, he underscores, “when students encounter hurdles of academic variety, advisors offer recommendations and solutions.”

But recently, technology platforms like Starfish have largely taken on some of the advisor’s role when it comes to simple tasks like signing students up for courses. “Through the adoption of new technology, advisors are no longer needing to help register for courses because it can be done online. That frees up more time for the advisor to be more of a coach and less of a class advisor,” Bryant said during a panel discussion last Thursday. “Students may still need advice, but the idea that an advisor is a transactional relationship is starting to change.”

What Brought Us Here?

Melinda Karp, another panelist from Thursday’s discussion, has a close eye on the college advising landscape. As assistant director at the Community College Research Center (CCRC), an independent research group out of Columbia University, she studies and thinks a lot about the challenges community colleges face in boosting student outcomes.

“Completion rates have been stagnant over the last decade,” she said, referring to federal data showing that community college completion rates hovered at about 30 percent from 2000 to 2010—despite new technology, growing enrollment numbers and various initiatives set out to improve student outcome.

Even with organizations like Achieving the Dream, which launched in 2004 to improves student success rates, numbers didn’t improve as dramatically as those putting in the work had hoped or expected. “There have been efforts around reform, knowing these completion rates are low, but we just weren’t seeing the bumps we expected,” Karp told EdSurge.

That realization created a sense of urgency for something different, a new approach to the way institutions and researchers were looking at the issue. To improve outcomes, they needed to start with academic advising or “ground zero of the completion agenda,” as Bryant described it.

A More Holistic Approach

That new approach became known as iPASS, which is rooted in the knowledge that students who struggle in school often also deal with issues outside of the classroom. More and more often, “advisors are being asked to deal with things like mental health issues, financial aid issues or career alignment,” Bryant said in an interview.

Too often these supports are siloed across different departments and services, according to Karp. “Traditionally there has been academic advising here, and career advising over there, and financial aid advising over there. We have known for a long time that doesn’t work from a student point of view,” she said during the panel discussion. “As we move to an integrated tech system where an advisor is thinking about a holistic approach, advising isn’t even the right word it’s a coach.”

A new take on advising—or college coaching—would take these factors into consideration and streamline student services and support. In an ideal world, a system would track students from the moment they apply so an advisor can understand their background, financial situation, or other important details from the get-go, according to Mei-Yen Ireland, director of integrated student support strategies for ATD. Once students meet with their advisor, they can jump into more strategic career planning or get directed to additional support they might need.

New Hurdles and Resistance

Not all advisors are equipped to help students address non-academic issues. “If someone falls off track because they are hungry, that’s a totally different situation than if they hate their major,” Karp said. Just as important to implementing a successful academic advising reform is training and professional development.

“This is advising redesign, not technology deployment,” said Karp, who studies how iPASS efforts are implemented and adopted. “It’s harder to shift behaviors than it is to shift structures, and figuring out what people are going to do in the new paradigm has become a new focus of our work.”

According to Bryant, there are several organizations, like NACADA—an association of professional advisors, counselors, faculty, administrators and student—already looking at these barriers and ways to help prepare advisors for their shifting roles. But before that can change, Karp points out that some advisors themselves aren’t keen on assuming new roles.

“I’m not going to lie, there is resistance and there are advisors that don’t want to do this,” Karp said. “This fundamentally is asking people to do their jobs differently. But resistance and fear is real and needs to be honored. We need to hear what their struggles are.”

What’s Next

Shifting the college advising landscape towards a more integrated and holistic approach is a “big nut to crack,” Karp admitted. But it’s a part of a larger picture that she and others see as crucial in improving graduation rates across higher-ed institutions.

“Once you start to redo advising, you realize you want to use program planning tools, and you can’t always do that without redesigning your programs,” she said. “ You don’t have to do it all at once, but it all fits together.”

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