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The Role of Proactive Advising in Student Success and Retention

The EvoLLLution | The Role of Proactive Advising in Student Success and Retention
Proactive advising supports a range of high-level institutional goals, like student success and staff workload management, and if it’s approached properly colleges and universities can maximize its impact.

Over the past few years, institutions have been experiencing declining enrollment and are looking to strategically attract and retain more students. In order to do so, institutions have developed programs and initiatives to reach out to students, and student support professionals have experienced an increased focus on the need to retain their students.

Academic advisors can play a critical role in promoting students success and, as a result, help to retain them. Students who feel connected to an institution, feel cared about, understand their purpose, and have clear academic and career goals are more apt to persist in their academic endeavors. Academic advisors can assist students in the areas of engagement, academic planning, decision making, and problem resolution.

One strategy for engaging students in purposeful discussion is through proactive advising. Historically known as intrusive advising, proactive advising is characterized by institution-initiated contact with students in order to achieve a specific goal. That goal may be enrollment, academic support or student engagement.

While the terms “proactive” and “intrusive” advising have come to be used synonymously, for purposes of this discussion, I’d like to make a distinction. Proactive advising initiatives are aimed at all students, with the objective of demonstrating concern and care for students, strategically providing them information, and helping them to avoid problems. The term Intrusive advising has traditionally been used when referring to targeted programs and initiatives designed to support at-risk student populations such as first-year, first-generation, or academically at-risk students. Some intrusive support programs are designed to help students resolve problems and improve academically.

Benefits of Proactive Advising

As students navigate their educational pursuits, they will naturally be attracted to activities that they perceive as enjoyable, meaningful or valuable. Favorite courses and professors will be determined by these criteria. Conversely, students will avoid what they fear, don’t value, or have had unsatisfactory experience with. Students may not reach out to an academic advisor for a variety of reasons. They may fear that, by doing so, they will find out that they are on the wrong track or have made poor decisions. They may feel that an academic advisor’s only role is to help them select courses, and if they do not need help with that, see no need to consult an advisor. Finally, if a student has had a negative experience with an advisor, the student may conclude that advising is not a valuable experience.

By engaging in proactive advising, academic advisors can reach out to a large number of students, some of whom may not have previously sought advising. By intentionally contacting students, advisors can take control of scheduling appointments for students and engage in early intervention in the hopes of helping students to avoid problems.

Academic advisors are in the unique position to assist students throughout their entire academic career, from admission through graduation. If a productive relationship is forged, the advisor can become an integral part of the student’s experience, and can provide support and direction for students on an ongoing basis. In a 2014 study, Noel-Levitz found that two important contributors to student satisfaction and retention are for an advisor to demonstrate knowledge and concern.[1] By engaging in proactive advising, academic advisors can consistently reinforce both characteristics.

Advisor Initiated Outreach

Consistent, informal advisor initiated outreach is an effective method for providing information to students while demonstrating concern. Strategies include impromptu phone calls to students, targeted, “just-in-time” mass emails, and spot-checking student records to review student progress, verify enrollment, and identify anomalies in student enrollment patterns or records. Academic advisors find that the majority of our work is focused on a minority of our students. Those students are self-identified as needing our support. Occasionally picking up the phone to a student who may have struggled last semester, experienced a personal crisis, or indicated they’re unsure of which career path they want to pursue is a great way to connect and support students.

To reach the rest of the students who may or may not have contacted an advisor, targeted emails are effective in proactively addressing common problems students experience or reinforcing a policy. Be careful not to inundate students with emails, as we are competing with the myriad of other offices that are also sending emails. Make sure to send the emails during strategic times, and target them to only the students who need the information. For instance, avoid sending an announcement about graduation to freshman. If you do not have the tools to distinguish between students by level, major, or GPA, for example, make sure that the subject of the email is specific enough to catch the attention of the intended audience, while allowing the other recipients to quickly delete or ignore it. Subject lines such as “Attention Spring 2017 Graduates” are more effective than “Important News.”

Institution-Initiated Outreach and Engagement

Intrusive advising programs and initiatives are “… about getting to the heart of what is causing difficulty for a student and recommending the appropriate intervention.”[2] Institutional efforts may focus on academically at-risk students, students who may experience challenges transitioning to college (such as first-year or first-generation students), or students who are at risk for departure, as evidenced by lack of enrollment.

Call campaigns are often implemented to reach out to students who have not enrolled. When initiating a call campaign, institutions must be strategic in their identification of students to call, as well as who will be making the calls. Calling students who cannot register due to holds or academic standing will increase the frustration of students and reflect poorly on the institution. Assigning personnel who do not have the proper resources or knowledge to make the calls will render the effort moot if students need information they cannot provide. Anticipating student needs is critical when engaging in such an initiative. Before beginning, identify key reasons why students haven’t registered such as lack of finances, lack of information pertaining to courses, and lack of knowledge pertaining to registration and deadlines.

Mandatory advising is another way institutions can intentionally engage their students. The benefits include reaching students who may not have been motivated to seek advising, establishing early an advisor/advisee relationship, engaging in intentional degree planning, and providing individualized support.[3]

Early Warning Systems, wherein faculty identify at-risk students through set criteria such as lack of attendance, unsatisfactory grades, or behavioral concerns, allow faculty to notify a neutral party (for instance, a student success office) that the student is not meeting expectations. Thus, in addition to faculty attempts at intervention and support, a third party reaches out to the student to provide support and assistance. Similarly, development of tools such as “D, F, W” reports which identify students who have received those grades in past terms and are at risk for academic difficulty and departure, are useful in providing advisors a resource to readily identify and reach out to their students.

Impact on Advisor Workload

Initially, advisors may balk at the idea of proactive outreach and advising. With increasing student caseloads, advisors are challenged with keeping up with incoming inquiries, walk-ins, and appointments. Finding the time to proactively outreach to students may seem impossible and counterproductive. After all, we need to assist the students who have sought our help. However, proactive advising can be a method of workload management. Comprehensive communications can be sent out prior to registration, when student traffic significantly increases. Answers to commonly asked questions can be provided in advance in an attempt to reduce incoming inquiries. Routine reviews of student records during slow times can reveal potential problems. Identified early enough, advisors are able to contact students and make adjustments to student records prior to problem escalation. For instance, a routine review might reveal that a student has a declared minor on their record that they did not complete. Early intervention can help the advisor determine their intentions. If the student does not wish to pursue the minor and is, in fact, planning to graduate this semester, proactive removal of the minor will avoid delays with the conferral of the degree.


Proactive advising is an effective strategy for enrollment management, student success, retention, and advisor workload management. By taking a two-pronged approach with both advisor and institution- initiated efforts, the institution can maximize the effectiveness of the programs and initiatives designed to engage and support students.

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[1] Noel-Levitz. (2014). 2014 National student satisfaction and priorities report, addendum

two: Four-year public colleges and universities. Coralville, IA: Noel-Levitz

[2] Varney, J. (2007). Intrusive Advising. Academic Advising Today, 30 (3), 11,23

[3] Donaldson, P., McKinney, L., Lee, M. & Pino, D. (2016). First-year community college students’ perceptions of and attitudes toward intrusive academic advising. NACADA Journal 36(1), 30-42