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Academic Advisers Who Make a Difference: Mentorship, Retention and the Road to Graduation

The EvoLLLution | Academic Advisers Who Make a Difference: Mentorship, Retention and the Road to Graduation
Higher education institutions can drive their retention and completion rates by investing in a robust academic advising infrastructure, helping them stand out to prospective students while following through on their mission.

Going back to school can be intimidating. This is especially true for working adults who have been out of college for ten, twenty, or thirty years. In the last three decades, higher education—particularly distance learning—has changed dramatically. This realization contributes to the uncertainty and anxiety many non-traditional students experience when matriculating into an online degree program. However, non-traditional students do not walk alone in this seemingly alien environment.

Academic advisers serve a pivotal role in helping students adjust to their new learning situation and provide the critical support that students need to stay in school and complete their degrees.

Academic Support Specialists as Mentors

Mentorship in higher education is often associated with the concept that faculty members are the mentors and students are the protégés. Undoubtedly, the role of faculty mentorship is highly important. However, faculty members are largely responsible for mentoring students within their classes and departments, respectively. On the other hand, academic advisers have access to a student’s full academic fingerprint and have the capacity to offer academic, emotional and administrative support throughout the entire academic lifecycle of a student. For example, faculty members do not typically have access to a student’s personal records, and therefore they would not know whether a student’s financial aid is almost depleted, or whether the student has requested disability accommodations in the past.

Academic advisers are in a better position to help students customize their degree plan, organize their financial documentation and overcome the inevitable obstacles that appear on the path to graduation. Accordingly, university leaders must recognize that faculty mentorship is just one piece of the entire student mentoring support system. Academic advisers are accountable for participating in the larger student mentorship structure. Kimberly Burgess argued,

The inclusion of mentoring practices, particularly when students are new to both the academic program and the online delivery environment or are members of historically disadvantaged groups, acknowledges students’ needs both within and beyond the content of the course and situates online instruction as a holistic endeavor.[1]

An institution-wide commitment to a strong, capable and proactive advising team would ensure that students have the help that they need to hurdle stumbling blocks, whether those obstacles are personal, financial or bureaucratic in nature. Proficient advisers also must take a preemptive—rather than a reactive—approach while working with students, addressing problems before they emerge. Informed conversations, personalized e-mail outreaches and even text messages sent by an academic adviser can ultimately be the determining factor keeping a student on track to completing their degree.

Retention and Advising: The Inextricable Link

In the competitive and dynamic world of higher education, retention is a key indicator of institutional viability. According to Copeland and Levesque-Bristol, “The retention rate of first-year students is a priority in many universities as it is often used to represent the degree to which the universities’ educational efforts have been successful and whether or not such efforts will continue to be successful in the future”.[2]

Correspondingly, high retention rates indicate to prospective students that an institution is committed to student support, degree completion and overall student satisfaction. In order to stand out from the crowd, many higher education institutions strive to guarantee that their retention rates are high in order to attract new students.

There are a multitude of factors that influence student retention rates. It is important to recognize that among those significant factors, academic advisers play a vital role in safeguarding a healthy retention percentage. Academic Advisers track degree progress, maintain detailed records, and check in with students on a regular basis in order to establish meaningful, responsive, and supportive relationships which promote academic success. According to White and Schulenberg,

Today it is the role of the academic Adviser to teach students how to put together a course of study that is individually meaningful. This work is accomplished in an increasingly complex system, which is often incomprehensible or mysterious to students and misunderstood by the world at large. As part of this process, the Adviser must help students discover the structure and rationale for the curriculum they have chosen.[3]

Often being the main point of contact for students, academic support staff are uniquely situated to assist scholars with an array of different issues, spanning from resolving scheduling conflicts to obtaining study materials. The level of service advisers provide can influence a student’s decision to withdraw or continue toward the goal of earning a diploma. Therefore, the actions of an advising team not only have the potential to change an individual student’s academic trajectory, but also the institution’s overall efficacy and public image.

In conclusion, experienced academic advisers have a noteworthy impact on students and higher education institutions alike. It is therefore important to reflect on the roles and responsibilities of academic advisers and determine how their valuable skills contribute to student experience, graduation rates and institutional reputation.

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[1] Burgess, K. R. (2007). Mentoring as holistic online instruction. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 2007(113), 49-56. doi:10.1002/ace.246. (p. 50)

[2] Copeland, K. J., & Levesque-Bristol, C. (2011). The retention dilemma: Effectively reaching the first-year university student. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 12(4), 485-515. (p. 485-486)

[3] White, E. and Schulenberg, J. (2012), Academic advising—a focus on learning. About Campus, 16: 11–17. doi: 10.1002/abc.20082. (p. 13)

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