Reinventing Advising to Transform Student Outcomes
It has long been recognized that academic advising, coupled with support services that surround students and their advisors, is a critical factor in student success both nationally and at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). Students entering urban, access-oriented, research institutions like UWM are increasingly diverse, less academically prepared, more likely to be first-generation, and more likely to need financial assistance than previous cohorts.
We know the challenges of providing the environment those students need to thrive. And we know the challenges of providing that environment given limited resources exacerbated by demographically driven declining enrollment and limited state funds. Nevertheless, facing growing pressure to raise retention and graduation rates, UWM began exploring options to determine how best to serve our students. Mindful of the notable impact on retention and performance of students at universities that have made significant investments in advising services and technology, a work group on undergraduate advising was formed at UWM to study our current structure, identify enhancements and opportunities that would maximize limited resources, and deliver the best possible academic advising.
Advising at UWM is decentralized and structured around schools/colleges with a loose confederation of administrative coordination. Students without a clear direction, lacking a determined major or scope of study, are advised within the college of Letters and Science. Depending on their circumstances, students may have a number of assigned advisors including a major advisor(s), athletics, honors, multicultural office advisors, and, for those students admitted to UWM without meeting minimal admissions requirements, intrusive advising through the Academic Opportunity Center.
It can be a complex process for students to navigate, requiring meeting with multiple advisors in various offices who may or may not be fully aware of each other’s actions or advice. Further, students visiting various offices may experience different policy and procedure implementations using different tools and processes. This lack of consistency in the student experience complicates understanding and, potentially, progress towards a degree.
In this context, adopting a new tool to enhance advising efforts and provide a platform to advance a more consistent student experience made sense. While UWM had adopted the Student Success Collaborative (SSC) Foundation in late 2014, the discussions of the work group in 2015 brought clarity to the potential of the tool beyond providing a technical assist to advisors carrying heavy loads.
Given our decentralized advising model, building an infrastructure to provide a forum for campus users to discuss and work in concert was our first step. When we first adopted the SSC Foundation, we did a soft launch. While there were many discussions and aspirations, there were no directives about use or expectations given our culture and the decentralized structure. The focus was on allowing advisors to explore the value of the tool themselves rather than making a hard sell that we knew, from previous experience with other student success tools, might create an environment where adoption would become more difficult. It became apparent during the pilot phase that even those advisors who were most reluctant to add another tool to the toolbox became converts, sharing with others that that the SSC allowed them to do a better job. That is not to suggest that they were completely happy with all the features. There were many things they wanted to see improved or modified. But the stage was set to capitalize on the energy and allow the advisors to embrace it organically rather than have it imposed from above.
The development of the SSC-SWAT team, comprised of representatives from each school/college (some larger units sending more than one), was the method by which we were able to bring voices together in a productive way to enable sharing of good practice, innovative ideas and hurdles advisors faced in adoption—driven by the advisors themselves. SWAT team members are the designated super-users within each unit and the first line of contact for assistance in using the tool. Chaired by an experienced advisor who knows the role and can speak with knowledge about day to day issues and concerns, SWAT is supported by a leadership team comprised of the chair, the technical lead (whose primary role is within the Student Success Center, thereby bringing a Student Affairs perspective into the conversations) and myself. SWAT meets once a month and the leadership team meets at least once a month (far more during the SSC-Campus implementation process) to discuss agenda items, feedback and strategy for responding to known or anticipated issues.
Perhaps the most innovative work we’ve done via the SWAT team thus far is advance campus-wide, coordinated campaigns. Whereas from the start some advisors and units were engaging in idiosyncratic campaigns for their own needs, with SWAT we were able to launch and track campus-wide campaigns geared to meet institutional goals. Capitalizing on campaign ideas suggested by the EAB, SWAT discussed what campaigns best fit their individual versus campus needs, agreed upon which should be adopted and when to implement. The leadership team developed extensive campaign toolkits that detailed schedules, goals, measurable objectives, criteria for student selection, advising unit coordinator action steps, advisor action steps, tips and supplementary notes. The leadership team also provided templates for emails and other communication methods. In short, the leadership team provided as much detail as possible so the campaigns, while additional effort, were as easy to implement as possible and required minimal effort.
Of the campaigns launched thus far, the campaign aimed at engaging stop-out students is the most innovative. Focusing on students in good academic standing with 90 or greater credits who were enrolled in term x but not term x+1, we isolated a population that close to graduation given credit accumulation to see what could be done to help them over the top. In the first phase, those with financial holds were excluded as we lacked institutional funds to assist. In subsequent phases, we have been able to relaunch and include that population as well given new investments. Still in progress, we have seen some promising results thus far.
With the implementation of the SSC-Campus tool within the last month, we are looking forward to greater participation and the evolution of the coordinated care network students need today—bringing together the efforts of advisors and student support offices such as tutoring, financial aid, mentoring, career services, and instructors. We are just baby steps in the process and there is much work to be done to ensure the tool meets our needs and work processes. However, excitement for what we might be able to build is palpable as more people become engaged.
These investments in tools and people is all about retention, graduation and satisfaction. The benefits to the individual students who feel engaged and enabled is priceless. The value to the institution comes in the form of reputation—students who attend UWM are successful—and tuition dollars given increased retention. We are always looking to provide the best environment for student success—to enable them to know that the investment they made in UWM was worth not only the money but all the blood sweat and tears. It’s about making UWM the best place for the students to succeed!
Author Perspective: Administrator