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Partly because the pandemic created so many obstacles for students, more colleges are taking time to re-evaluate the needs of their student body and then taking more deliberate steps to meet those needs — and for Charlie Nutt, the executive director of the National Academic Advising Association, it’s about time.

At San Antonio College in Texas, for example, students are required to meet with an advisor at four points during the pursuit of an associate degree; a case management approach supports students in and out of the classroom; and a new program to bolster advising and support students who have earned fewer than 15 credits.

Robert Vela, the president of San Antonio College, said it’s a departure from the longstanding belief that because college students are adults, they should be able to independently decide whether to seek guidance and support.

“We took a parent approach, that we know best for our students. And because we know best, we need to take the word ‘optional’ out,” Vela said. For its efforts, San Antonio College this week won the 2021 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, an award given by the Aspen Institute.

Related: Student advising plays key role in college success — just as it’s being cut

Students are required to meet with an advisor after they enroll and after they complete 15, 30 and 45 credit hours on their way to a 60-hour associate degree. If they don’t, they’re barred from registering for classes.

Many colleges around the country use similar models, including the University of Utah, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio.

Nutt, who has been in the field of advising since 1991, said that for too long advising was considered just a way to help students register for classes. Advising is now more commonly viewed as a way for students to learn other aspects of navigating college, beyond getting their schedules straight.

Brett McFarlane, a longtime college advising coordinator who now works for an ed-tech company, said the idea of mandated advising first started bubbling up about a decade ago.

 “If you need — and you do need — to talk about what’s going to happen after you finish college, you need to be in the Student Enrichment Center. If you need — and you do need — to get supplemental instruction, you should get to learn who the staff are in our tutoring center.” 

Fidel Bém, director of advising at San Antonio College

“A lot of times in advising it was, you know, ‘go see your advisor,’ but no one was really clear about why you were to see your advisor,” said McFarlane. “And advisors would say, ‘well you came to see me, what do you need?’ It’s lacked intentionality for a long time.”

Even before the pandemic, San Antonio College was moving to a case management model for advising, which requires that advisors help students with not just academic but also personal and societal barriers they face, by connecting them to resources that can help them stay in school. Over the last 14 months, though, Vela said advising appointments have become much more like social work.

Where advising used to be heavily focused on the student’s academic path and career aspirations, it’s now about helping students juggle other aspects of life. Vela said lack of technology, food and housing insecurity, mental health issues, caring for family members or trying to figure out how to have several people working or schooling from home with only one or two computers are some of the barriers his students have had to navigate during the pandemic.

Related: Why aren’t more school counselors trained in college counseling?

Sara Passement, a certified advisor at San Antonio College, said that since she began seeing students virtually last year, she’s seen students sign up for appointments more frequently than required and stay longer than normal.

“Most of our students are from marginalized communities,” said Fidel Bém, director of advising at San Antonio College, where most students are Hispanic, Black or Native American.  Often, he said, students don’t know what they should be getting out of the college experience or how to find the resources they need.

“If you need — and you do need — to talk about what’s going to happen after you finish college, you need to be in the Student Enrichment Center,” Bém said. “If you need — and you do need — to get supplemental instruction, you should get to learn who the staff are in our tutoring center.”

Related: STUDENT VOICE: Ensuring low-income students get college advising  

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ginny Kinne, director of advising, said students are required to see an advisor before registering for classes every semester throughout their entire college career.

“I think the students that think that they don’t need advising are often the ones that need it the most,” Kinne said. “I’ve had students that have come into my office totally confident, ‘I’ve got this, here, sign my form,’ and we still have conversations about things that they thought they knew.”

At both the University of Utah and Lorain County Community College in Ohio, students are only required to meet with an advisor during their first two years — but they are barred from registering for classes if they fail to do so.

Nutt said there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for student engagement. What works will differ college by college, depending on the student population and the goals of the institution. Instead of jumping to a mandatory model without planning it out first, he said, colleges should take their time to make sure every aspect is intentional and focused on serving students.

College students have historically been expected to recognize when they need counseling and go get it. But recently, advisors and experts are known to repeat the same refrain: “Students don’t do optional.”

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  1. I am heartened to see that the critical role of the Academic Advisor is being acknowledged. With that said, I must point out that effective advising has ALWAYS taken into account the Whole Person through a modified case management approach. This is nothing new. As someone who served as an academic advisor for 20+ years, I maintain that the real issue is lack of understanding and under-appreciation for what advisors actually do. For many of us, it’s never been just about scheduling. Institutions have historically underestimated the impact that advisors have on their students. It’s time they start investing in increased staffing and commensurate compensation.

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