Peer Review

Centralizing Advising to Improve Student Outcomes

In Making the Most of College (2001), Richard Light concludes that good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience. For many students, academic advising provides the only out-of-class contact they have with a faculty or member of the professional staff. Unfortunately, many college students express disappointment in the quality of advising that they receive. It is not surprising, therefore, that academic advising, along with parking, commonly receives among the lowest ratings on student satisfaction surveys. Although solving the complex transportation and parking needs of college students will continue to be a challenge for many institutions, the quality and nature of academic advising need not be.

Advising Today’s Students

Enhancing the quality of academic advising is essential to meet the challenges presented by the changing demographics and expectations of today’s students. The student body is growing ever more diverse with regard to ethnicity, cultural background, economic status, and academic preparedness. An increasing number of students come from groups that have been underrepresented and underserved by higher education in the past, including groups who have previously entered higher education in low proportions and those who have traditionally experienced high attrition rates. If it is the intention of institutions of higher education to assist all students in succeeding, then some fundamental changes are needed—especially in the area of academic advising.

Students are more apt to succeed academically, establish clearer educational and lifelong objectives, and tailor their educational experience toward their goals and aspirations when they receive ongoing and meaningful academic advising. Compelling evidence links student engagement, academic success, and persistence with good academic advising. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, many colleges and universities have yet to maximize the full potential of academic advising. Improving academic advising is a pressing concern, and an ongoing, never-ending endeavor on many college campuses.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is a public, four-year, urban research university located in the city of Richmond, the state capital of Virginia. With nearly 32,000 students VCU holds the distinction as Virginia’s largest university with among the most diverse student populations in the state. Over the last several years, VCU has implemented a series of changes to student support services and academic advising in particular. New programs respond to data regarding the effect of advising on student engagement. Consistent patterns confirm that the more times students meet with academic advisers, the more satisfied they are with the advising services that they received. Similarly, students who meet with their advisers at least twice per semester persist at much higher rates and are more likely to be in good academic standing at the end of the first year in college compared to their peers who met fewer times with their adviser.

Sweeping Changes in Academic Advising

Based on these compelling conclusions, the university implemented a series of sweeping changes in academic advising over the past two to three years to address stagnant retention rates, low levels of student engagement, and the high proportion of students who experience academic difficulty.

Sweeping change number one—Establishment of the University College. As one of the key initiatives of the VCU Strategic Plan 2020, the University College was established to provide a central home for the new core curriculum and campuswide academic support programs. The University College assumed academic advising responsibilities for all first-year students regardless of major, undeclared majors, pre-health and pre-law programs, interdisciplinary studies, and student athletes. A total of thirty full-time academic advisers (almost half of which were newly established advising positions) were appointed to the new university-wide advising center. This centralized advising model resulted in a decrease in the number of first-year students assigned to each professional adviser. Consequently, the size of the average advising caseload decreased from 300 first-year students to 175 advisees per full-time adviser.

Sweeping change number two—Development of programmatic advising goals and objectives. As the cornerstone of the University College, the academic advising program has established specific goals related to increasing student engagement, academic success, and persistence at the university. The advising program works on the principle that advisers can help students feel more connected with the university by increasing the number of advising interactions with each individual student. By feeling more connected with the university, students make more informed educational decisions, interact more with faculty, collaborate with other students outside of class, and report higher levels of satisfaction with their undergraduate experience. Consequently, students will experience higher levels of academic success and persist at higher rates.

Sweeping change number three—Creation of individual advising plans. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to advising is not the most effective way to serve the diverse student population in the wide array of academic programs offered at VCU. Consequently, each University College adviser determines the best advising approach for his/her students. Each adviser creates an advising plan that addresses key areas regarding how he or she will advise students and assess the effectiveness of advising. Prior to the beginning of each academic year, advisers submit their advising plans to their immediate supervisor to ensure that the plan contributes to the overall objectives of the advising program. At key periods throughout the year, the adviser and supervisor meet to assess adviser’s progress.

Sweeping change number four—Incorporation of proactive advising philosophy. Because many first-year students do not initially see the value of academic advising, the UC advisers take steps to take a proactive approach to connect with their students using a variety of methods. Students’ first contact with their advisers begins during summer orientation when students and parents learn about the advising program for the first year and meet with their assigned academic adviser. Each academic adviser strives to meet with each advisee a minimum of twice per semester. The first fall semester advising session takes place within the first six weeks of the term. At the conclusion of each advising session, advisers schedule a follow-up advising appointment. Throughout the academic year, advisers maintain regular contact with their advisees by sending announcements through e-mail, BlackBoard, and Facebook. As students exhibit at-risk behaviors such as low midterm grades and absences from class, advisers immediately contact students to address these issues.

Sweeping change number five—Collaboration between academic advisers and core curriculum faculty. As part of the strategic plan creating a new core curriculum, the university replaced freshman composition with a two-semester course sequence (Focused Inquiry) that targets five skill areas, writing chief among them. Nearly 175 sections of Focused Inquiry are offered each semester with approximately 22 students per class. The course incorporates an electronic attendance monitoring system. When students are absent from class, they receive an e-mail that encourages them to return to class immediately and to meet with their instructors to discuss the absence. At the same time, the students’ advisers are copied on the e-mail that the student receives. Advisers contact those students who have missed two or more classes to determine if there are underlying problems that are preventing them from attending this and other classes. Advisers work closely with the core curriculum faculty to address other problematic behaviors that may be preventing students from being successful in their classes.

Sweeping change number six—Implementation of extensive advising training program. With the number of University College advisers and the comprehensive nature of its advising program, the University College has invested time and resources for developing an extensive training program. To this end, advisers spend two hours per week in ongoing training sessions to update them on the curriculum, policy changes, and campus resources. Each semester, the entire University College professional staff attends a half-day workshop to develop greater depth of knowledge and skills in a particular area of need. In addition, the University College coordinates the master adviser certificate program for new and experienced faculty and professional advisers from across the university. Established in 2005, the fifteen-hour training program is an important step in promoting continuous improvement of academic advising.

Measuring the Effectiveness of Advising

Using both qualitative and quantitative data, the University College has incorporated a rigorous assessment system to measure the effectiveness of advising and to determine if adjustments are needed. Based on data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the VCU Center for Institutional Effectiveness (CIE), first-year students advised through the University College show higher levels of engagement and academic success and persist at higher rates. For example, NSSE reported a 14 percent increase in the number of students who expressed high levels of satisfaction with academic advising and a 6 percent increase in the number of students making more informed educational decisions compared to the previous NSSE administration. Similarly, NSSE reported gains in student engagement with their learning. For example, 10 percent more students reported that they collaborated with other students in studying outside of class. Additionally, the CIE reported the highest percentage of students ending the first year in good standing (76 percent) as well as a record percentage of students returning for a second year (82 percent).

A number of conclusions can be drawn from centralizing advising services for all first-year students. Most important, improving the quality of academic advising requires support from the top administrative levels and appropriate financial resources. The provost’s idea of the University College became a key component of the university’s strategic plan, endorsed by the university community and approved by the board of visitors. Therefore, the university committed substantial financial resources toward the centralization of academic advising through the University College. Through these reallocated and new resources, the University College was able to hire a staff of thirty professional advisers to implement a proactive advising approach and improve the quality of advising services. Establishing clear objectives for the advising program as a whole while allowing advisers to develop their own advising plans encourages advisers to use flexibility in helping the unit to achieve its overall goals. By so doing, the advising program capitalizes on both the specific strengths of individual advisers and the diversity of the student body. Moreover, creating a partnership between advisers and core curriculum faculty helps students make sense of their first-year experience and relate it to their overall education goals.

Over the past two to three years, the centralization of advising for all new students at Virginia’s largest university faced some challenges. Whenever an institution makes a change of this magnitude, it requires ongoing cultivation of supporters from stakeholders across the university. Considerable effort has been devoted to justify the benefits of a centralized advising program for first-year students. Fortunately, immediate positive results helped to convince even those who were most dubious of this new approach to advising. Also, when creating a large unit of this nature, it is essential to create an advising team of individuals who have a wide variety of skills and a passion for helping students to unlock their potential. Finally, early triumphs and documented accomplishments lead to high expectations of continued success. With an effective advising team to implement the proactive advising program in place at VCU, the University College is confident that its contributions to student success will be long-lasting. 

S. Jon Steingass is the dean of University College, Virginia Commonwealth University; Seth Sykes is the assistant dean of University College, Virginia Commonwealth University


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