Published on 2016/08/19
The EvoLLLution | Leveraging Technology to Create a Holistic Advising Experience
By understanding students’ needs and finding and leveraging appropriate technologies, staff and faculty can better manage their time and resources to maximize success for all learners.

As higher education leaders are pushed to turn their focus from access to outcomes, more and more institutions are trying to adapt and improve student retention and success. This can be particularly challenging at institutions that serve traditionally under-represented populations, but it’s certainly not impossible. In this interview, Gabriel Bermea reflects on how his institution has transformed its advising model and shares his thoughts on the importance of the effective leveraging of technology when it comes to ensuring students—and the institution—succeed.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What makes UTRGV a unique university?

Gabriel Bermea (GB): The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley opened its doors on September 1, 2015, so we are approaching our first year of existence. We’re a Hispanic-serving institution, with 89 percent Latino/Hispanic population. About 78 percent of our students receive Pell Grants, which is a strong indicator of the socio-economic standing of our learners. In addition to that, about 61 percent of our students identify as first-generation college students.

So, for us, our 25,120 undergraduate students are really a strong focus. One of the things that really makes us highly unique, in addition to those data points, is the fact that we consider student success our number-one priority. We do that through a more holistic point of view and strategy to get our students through to graduation.

Of course, a critical component of that is our academic advising experience.

Evo: What is the new advising model you and your team have developed to support the retention and success of learners?

GB: Advising is definitely a critical component of the student experience and of getting our students from the point of entry to the point of walking across that stage.

One of the things we’ve done is flipped the advising model. Rather than doing the traditional, prescriptive advising practice where students have a passive experience—where they come into the center and are told what they need to do to graduate—we have switched to a more proactive model. Our advisors are no longer discipline-specific. Instead, our advisors are now organized around student groups and student needs. What we’ve been able to do is fully centralize our advising model, where students have the opportunity to connect with a cross-functional advisor.

Not only are advisors trained to understand the components for graduation and the components that lead to a degree, we go past that. Our advisors see a holistic view of the students’ pathways to graduation. Instead of looking from the discipline up, our advisors are looking from a 360-degree perspective, identifying where a student is and understanding how to get them to a degree based on the courses they’ve taken.

We’ve also switched to an advising-as-teaching model. We want to empower our students, recognizing that a lot of them are first-generation, to understand how to navigate the university of the 21st century. As a result, we do a lot of educational components within the advising session. Additionally, instead of having just a single point of contact for an advisor, the students have an entire team of advisors they can connect with. In the first year, they have a single point of contact. But from the second year and beyond, students can connect with over 20 advisors within the advising center to support them through their academic experience. The history and documentation of their advising experiences are available to them online through our advising software.

What that means is that we now have a centralized model where we focus less on disciplines and more on the needs of students and getting them towards graduation.

Evo: How does the effective use of technology help support staff make better use of their time and focus more on high-impact activities?

GB: For us, the progress report function, early alert and our predictive analytics have really allowed us to strategically use our limited time and resources.

We have identified certain populations of students who attend the institution who are in need of additional support. For example, our TSI population, who are working towards meeting Texas College Readiness standards, greatly benefit from these technological features that allow advisors to provide strategic focus and support. Also, students returning from academic suspension and student-athletes are unique student groups we wish to monitor. These selected groups are often identified as high-risk, but it can often be very challenging to scale up our support for them because of institutional resources.

In addition to that, our traditional advising ratio is 600:1. When we look at it from that perspective, to really start thinking through how to make this advising ratio work—which can increase based on enrollment patterns—it makes it really difficult for advisors to meet with all students. While we’re always open to students, that’s not an effective use of our time and resources. With the use of SSC Campus, we can focus on particular groups, identify these high-risk populations, and connect them to an advisor as needed. We can make greater strides to help them and follow up on their progress. For example, if a faculty member indicates that a student is at risk of failing their course, the team of advisors gets that notification and we can do individual follow-ups to connect with learners and help them develop strategies to improve their academic performance.

The technology has allowed us to say that we effectively serve our students, but we can make an impact for those particular student groups that have the greatest need for increased support. We’re able to scale up for those populations, and the impact has been remarkable.

Technology has certainly allowed us to effectively prioritize, focus and scale up.

Evo: How has this advising model transformed the student experience?

GB: There are a huge number of benefits for students that I absolutely love from this advising model.

As a starting point, there’s a level of increased access to the Advising Center that’s critical. They have access to an online portal, available 24 hours a day and seven days a week, where they can schedule advising appointments and which provides students choice of which advisor they want to work with. The portal also makes clear that they have an entire team of advisors dedicated to their success—not just a single individual. This is a major change from the traditional advising model most institutions have in place. They assign students an advisor, which comes from the discipline they’re enrolled in, and that’s the individual the student works with. The capacity to choose the advisor is a huge change for students.

We also have advising notes, which creates another huge benefit for students. Students can access their advising notes at any time, as can other advisors. They constantly have that information at their fingertips, which allows for more scaffolding. Advisors know what was previously covered and can ensure there’s no unnecessary repetition of information. Students and advisors can keep track of what was covered in those meetings as well so they can stay on course and expand on particular aspects of previous discussions at their leisure.

What comes out of this technology-enhanced, data-driven student-focused approach to advising is the higher level of satisfaction for learners. The advising itself becomes less of a passive experience, and becomes more active and engaged. That is one of the most significant benefits for students. They begin to see the big picture of their education being formed more holistically and less in terms of a semester-by-semester experience.

Evo: What are some of the strategic benefits that the institution itself gains from this more holistic student view and from this focus on student completion?

GB: For the campus, we’re beginning to see a shift in quality. Our advising model allows us to focus on student needs, on specific high-risk populations. We can be more strategic about how we engage in advising; we can start think about where low-touch/high-impact support will work, and where high-touch/high-impact support is necessary. Basically, this translates to maximizing the effectiveness of our time and resources.

Because of this shift in quality—and the shift toward advising as teaching—we’re starting to see students who are far more engaged in their own educational experience. We’re beginning to see students who feel like they have a greater sense of connection to the institution. What’s more, these students are actively seeking out those educational opportunities that are not necessarily on the surface level. They’re inquiring about undergraduate research, service learning, volunteering and student organizations—those levels of engagement that are the characteristics of highly successful students that we really want to see from our first-generation learners. Our students really connect with opportunities they might not otherwise have access to. What’s more, the faculty can begin to provide a level of mentorship, which adds another level of support.

Then, of course, there’s the boost to the traditional retention rates and graduation rates that are often used to evaluate an institution’s success. With regard to first-year retention, we are excited to see that preliminary data is very positive.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how this advising model improves student success and supports institutional differentiation?

GB: At UTRGV, we’re open to innovation and we’re open to creating dialogues with our students centered holistically around our students. Our new advising model has really helped to truly embrace that approach to thinking outside the box. We’re adaptive and flexible in meeting our students’ needs. It’s really great to see that, as an institution of our type, that we’re in a position to support our students in a more holistic and collective fashion than ever before.

All in all, that’s very exciting for all of us and for our students!

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Key Takeaways

  • By segmenting students by need and risk, advisors can better manage their time to ensure the learners who truly need their support are taken care of, instead of falling through the cracks.
  • Introducing more self-service options allows students to become far more actively involved in their own academic success.
  • By rethinking the advising model and getting away from the discipline-centric approach, students start to think about their education more in terms of the holistic experience than the singular subject area.
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