The Key to Academic Success—For Student and Institution

U.S. News & World Report does not rank the quality of academic advising. It is unlikely that any ranking system does. Outcomes easily measured are most frequently used in rankings. Unfortunately, the quality of advising is neither accounted for or easily measured.

Teaching is ultimately the purpose of the university, and advising may be the highest form of teaching. It allows a faculty member and student to work through challenges in making career decisions guided by their talents and abilities in a one-on-one setting. The trend over the past four decades has been to assign advising to specialized staff who are not faculty members. In many cases this works out to the student’s advantage. Faculty members are not always aware of the latest curricular changes, policies, prerequisite requirements and other detailed requirements for advising across the programs on campus. Advising professionals are frequently better suited to these tasks. However, energetic faculty know career fields through direct experience and can assist students in sorting out priorities and aspirations. Professional advisers may not have that capacity. Teams work.

Students who are effectively advised in an environment of shared responsibility are more likely to graduate in a timely fashion that conserves both individual and institutional resources. When these kinds of efficiencies occur, students are more successful; through that success, universities are deemed to be more effective. Sue Ohrablo, an adjunct professor at Valencia College, says that student-focused, proactive advising supports the effectiveness of the university in general. Student feedback, student engagement and clarity are critical. In other words, good advising makes an impact, not just an impression.

As enrollment declines at many universities, the attention of smaller regional public institutions and private liberal arts institutions to the welfare of individual students increases in importance and complexity. Unfortunately, advising impact is often measured by the number of students seen by an adviser. Additionally, little emphasis is placed on the value of faculty members formally talking with students about life aspirations, career goals and long-term interests.

Quality advising is not just important on campuses challenged by enrollment declines. The University of California Davis is a well-regarded land-grant university that produces recognized academic results and holds high advising excellence. Carolyn Thomas, the Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education, observes, “As higher education across the globe acclimates to the disequilibrium caused by change, the stature and legitimacy of academic advising will rise, which will further inspire and require practitioner engagement on campus.“ Clinical professors, those who practice in their chosen profession and also teach, bring a wealth of applied experience to students seeking career counsel and advice.

This does not diminish the importance of excellence in academic advising in the details of completing a college degree. Do I need math class A before I take math class B? This is a critical question. Prerequisites in any number of disciplines demand a building up of knowledge and insight that follows from carefully-structured sequences.

Advising should be intentional and carefully considered by students and families as they select a place to study. In addition, the rising tide of transfer and nontraditional students—working parents, students who through dual enrollment graduate high school with an associate degree, students who have stopped out of university study and may return after 10, 15 or 20 years—all require special attention from passionate advisers. Advising becomes even more important as the nature, composition, demographics and aspirations of students become more complex and diverse rather than the monolithic character of students just a few generations ago. And, universities are slow to change.

Advisers who become scholars identify and create pathways leading and creating new insights about effectiveness in serving students. Advisers who are scholars frequently understand the difficulty of scheduling classes for a student when much of the teaching occurs between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Class conflicts become nearly unavoidable as was discovered at Michigan State University. Because advisers use technology that becomes the backbone of university management, they should be leaders in promoting technology that facilitates student learning across the broad spectrum of student needs, as “typical” students are increasingly scarce. Lastly, advisers are skilled in helping create connections and relationships across the campus. At Purdue, advisers helped lead the retooling of the change-of-major process.

Advisers play a key role in the educational process, from both an individual and institutional perspective. My advice for students and all those committed to student success? Talk to advisers and, more importantly, listen to them whether they are professional advisers or faculty. They hold the key to academic success for both student and institution.

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