Published on 2012/03/02
Good Advising Isn’t Always Fun
Good advising should leave students with more answers than questions. Photo by Laughlin Elkind.

There’s been a bit of “mission creep” over the years in the world of higher education advising. There was a time when admissions advisers, program advisers, and even instructors actually gave…advice. Over the years, as a very hands-on instructor and in my capacity as a tutor I’ve heard a lot of stories that illustrate the holes in higher education advising. It’s not that there aren’t some good advising departments around the country, but as we re-examine our entire education system we must also look at how advising is serving and sometimes failing our students. Failure to ask tough questions in the beginning leads to more wasted time and tuition and feelings of failure later.

In the new educational climate (see the many articles on students vs. customers) many advisers sound more like sales staff than educators. True, it is important to fill those seats every semester. However, are we setting students up for eventual failure when we focus on enrollment numbers and not the individual needs of students? Faculty members, including the legions of adjuncts, are frequently disconnected from other essential school programs like developmental education, disabilities services, and advising. Often instructors don’t have the time (or sometimes the inclination) to ask students probative questions before dispensing a quick recommendation.  Enrollment and course selection end up as isolated events instead of acting as the beginning of a broader educational process.  The lack of robust advising and orientation programs means that schools share some of the blame for low completion rates, poor performance and dismal post graduation job prospects. We know better; why don’t we say so?

Here’s a typical situation I’ve seen repeated over and over again. A returning student, who has been out of the educational system for years and feels anxious about this, and who has heavy family and job responsibilities, is encouraged to take a full course load in their first term back. What are the chances this student will succeed? Advisers and instructors know there are only 24 hours in a day. When a student tells us that they are already drowning in work and parenting duties why do we encourage them to pile on classes? Are we afraid to suggest a more realistic approach?

Another all too common issue is the selection of a program or course of study. Nursing might be a “hot” career field, but is it really appropriate for the student sitting across the desk from you now? Instead of churning out graduates with less than marketable degrees, we should be challenging students up-front about their plans for that psychology or sociology degree.  We need to be asking students at the beginning of their college careers how they plan to pay for their education and if they have a career plan. In today’s economy we also need to ask if they have a Plan B. Sometimes that job in a chosen field doesn’t materialize for months or years. How will they survive, pay back student loans or refocus their job search?

When a student pays tuition they are paying for more than access to a textbook and instructor. They are here, in our institutions, to benefit from the whole range of knowledge we can give. Advising students in higher education should not be a series of unrelated appointments to fill out forms. Good advising is a process that should lead to increasingly prepared students and wiser decisions. And it will not always be fun. In fact, solid advising, like other like other teachable moments may be uncomfortable. Learning the realities of time management and career planning can be just as tough as mastering the 15 page paper or study skills for math exams. As educators we must make sure we are guiding students along the road to conquering all of these, even when it means asking the hard questions.

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Readers Comments

Kenson Church 2012/03/02 at 12:36 pm

The question is who the advice serves?

If the advice serves the student, the job becomes difficult for the advisor as everything must be tailored.

If the advice serves the institution, it’s easy because you push them into seemingly successful fields.

If the advice serves society, you push the student into in-demand fields and fill the workforce.

Who are advisors supposed to be serving?

Yancy Oshita 2012/03/02 at 1:36 pm

Wow…this article spurs a broader discussion about the role and impact of advising students, especially adult (25 y.o.+) students. I agree with solid advising, but add that its not only for the “returing student” with work/life responsibilities. What about proactively advising throughout the student’s program to improve persistence and graduation / completion? also advising about careers, job assimilation in the case of returning military or unemployed. Having been a returing adult student, I had a wonderful “advisor”, Jeff Carter, former associate director of Graduate School of Business, who (after almost droping out) made a difference in my completing my program. Great article from the “front line”, Karen! I encourage you to share other points of view!

Karen 2012/03/02 at 1:38 pm

Kenson, thanks for being my first comment. I believe the advice must first serve the student. Pushing students into programs or courses based on broad generalizations is not the quickest path to success–at least this is what I have observed over the years. We must, as educators and as a society, have more respect for individuals and their unique talents. When we really respect students (or friends, or family) we are willing to risk the truth. Computer engineering might be a hot job but perhaps the person you are speaking to at this moment is better suited for something else. Hope to get some advising professionals to comment here too.

Karen 2012/03/02 at 1:42 pm

Hi Yancy, thanks for stopping by. Last year, after attending a series of meetings on the needs of non-traditional students (50+), I created a list of questions for admissions advising. Several schools have since incorporated them into their work. http://karensouthw.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/college-advising-questions/ I finally emailed them so much that I posted them online.

Juan 2012/03/05 at 10:38 am

This article is on target. I have worked with well over 100,000 students in over 20 countries over the past 25 years. I continue to be amazed how there is, still, a huge gap and disconnect between educational leaders, students, institutions and industry. All are speaking a different language and for certain there is very little communications between them.

Educational as a whole, in my opinion, is light years away from where leading corporations are today for example. In my travels throughout the USA I’m in shock to see the level and lack of qualified teachers I run across. In my international travels I notice similar situations in poor public and private schools as the ones in the USA. I’ve come to realize that poor education is poor education regardless of the country.

We must not leave out, however, how overwhelmed the HS counselors are with extremely large case loads; particularly at the HS level. Another fact is that most students are not following g their passions. They choose career paths that were often suggested to them by counselors, teachers and parents. Amazingly surprisingly how often they choose a career because the money is good. This leads me to a recent survey on happiness that I read. It stated that 63% of Americans are not happy in there careers regardless of salary level.

Wow! Perhaps this is attributed to what this article is pointing. Perhaps it has to do with several factors other that the counseling. One thing for sure is we must figure out quickly how to alter our educational model with experiential.

Karen 2012/03/06 at 5:43 pm

Juan, thanks for stopping by and adding to the perspective of the discussion. Advising and education need to be high quality regardless of where we are in the world. Perhaps by realizing that the disconnect problem crosses boundaries we (the educational community) can do a better job of finding and using best practices — no matter what school, country or industry they pop up in.

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