To Better Advise Students, Colleges Must Get Past the ‘Quick-Fix’...

Opinion | Student Success

To Better Advise Students, Colleges Must Get Past the ‘Quick-Fix’ Metrics Solution

By Brett McFarlane     Apr 20, 2018

To Better Advise Students, Colleges Must Get Past the ‘Quick-Fix’ Metrics Solution

This article is part of the guide: Innovations in Student Success: From Campus Collaboration to Tech Implementation.

My day normally starts at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee in one hand, my cat circling the table below, and a laptop in front of me—all subjects vying for my morning attention. This is also the time when I catch up on updates in the world of higher education, and specifically around my profession of academic advising. Lately during this morning ritual, I’ve seen a surge of pieces around “success-driven interventions,” self-proclaimed technological silver bullets, hype and frustrations over metrics-focused programming, and of course, the occasional thought piece where the author is trying to make sense of it all, leaving us with either hope or despair for the future.

The field of academic advising has received more attention in the last decade than in the thirty years prior for two primary reasons. The first is that higher education leaders have come to realize that academic advising can serve a powerful role in our new world of “student success.” Second, institutional leaders realistically have much more control of what happens outside the classroom than in, such as controlling campus resources, structures, and policies that are not instructional related.

These two shifts have resulted in a number of positive outcomes. The most powerful may be that many institutions are truly asking and programming around what students need to learn through their interactions with academic advising, and then structuring campus approaches, staffing and advising curricula to fully support this learning.

But the new wave of academic advising has also had its pitfalls. For instance, many institutions have spent a great deal in time and resources trying to find a short-term “fix” by identifying a subset of students who need extra help or are what some term “at risk” of not graduating or persisting. The thought behind these efforts is often that if the campus can focus help on this subset of students, then general “success” metrics will rise. Not surprisingly, software companies have taken notice, and have invested significant resources on tools that would help campuses identify these “at risk” students—noting that the cost of this software would be easily covered by the increase in retained students.

The unfortunate side effect of the quick-fix, metrics-driven method is that some educational leaders shortsightedly approach complex institutional challenges as though they only need to focus on select students, and the remainder of students will somehow successfully self-advise their way through the institution with minimal assistance.

For the long-term, however, we really should be posing different questions. Instead of asking which program, intervention, software solution, or popular metric is most important to focus on, we should instead be asking: What is it that students deserve through their interactions with academic advising? What do students most need and desire through their interactions with academic advising, and how do we make sure that happens?

I foresee the next decade of academic advising presenting us with two types of institutions: those that ask these deeper, more holistic questions, and those that don’t, and continue to focus on a student deficiency paradigm and short-term metrics.

Colleges and universities that do ask these deeper questions will have to grapple with the fact that some of their current structures, policies, processes, and approaches—most of which were developed over multiple decades—may not support what students need most through academic advising. And they too will have to acknowledge that a short-term investment is not going to solve those problems. Those campuses that take a holistic approach to advising will have no choice but to address institutional deficiencies, outdated structures and assumptions about students. Student “deficiencies” have really never been the primary challenge; our failure as institutions to adapt effectively to meet student needs has always been the true challenge.

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So what do students deserve through academic advising? This of course has to be a question explored by each institution—but prior research can offer a place to start. For starters, we know students benefit from dedicated staff and faculty who care about their individual success. We know students benefit from timely and frequent interactions with advisors. We know students need help with goal setting, navigating our complex structures, and reflective practice. We know students come to us with backgrounds, experiences, goals, and identities that are unique to each student and need to be recognized, honored, and celebrated as such. And finally, we know students come to us confused about how their education relates to their future goals, dreams, passions, and career aspirations.

I am certainly not a fortune teller. But I suspect the colleges and universities that structure the next decade around the question of what students deserve from academic advising, and explore this question with deep reflective practice, will be the institutions that others will turn to for guidance. Those institutions that continue to focus on short-term metrics or the student deficiency model for defining practice will continue to struggle as they fail to comprehend the integrative and interconnected needs of our students.

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