Published on 2013/05/28

Strong Advising Critical for Adult Students

Strong Advising Critical for Adult Students
More institutions need to create advising offices dedicated to serving the needs of non-traditional students, as their concerns and needs are vastly different than those of traditional-aged learners.

As the number of non-traditional students rises at universities, one service that could stand improvement is student advising.

Not all universities have offices dedicated to non-traditional students, but they should. My former university had an office for non-traditional students, but the advisors could only discuss general education courses or specific cases where students with less than a year left of their program, who had dropped out, were recruited to return to the university. However, they understood the many obstacles faced by non-traditional students and were there to listen, give advice and facilitate introductions with other adult learners who could help answer questions and share experiences.

I recognize the complications associated with advising students in the non-traditional category because of their varied ages and individual circumstances. In most cases, these students are not entering university life or the workforce for the first time. Some students take courses for advancement at their place of employment while others are pursuing a career change. Each case is different and some students require more guidance than others. A full-time student might require guidance in how many hours should be allotted to studying for four versus five courses a semester, or help finding a tutor. In other cases, students might need assistance in planning a class schedule around a work schedule, for example, searching for availability of night and online classes or finding out whether they can complete their program after work or if they will need to take day courses. For returning students previously within a year of graduating, an advisor is needed to help them navigate how many courses they have left to complete or the quickest route to complete a different degree.

If an advisor clearly identifies the goals of students, then he or she can empower students with information to help them make better decisions. For instance, if a student is unclear about what career to pursue, the advisor could recommend The Strong Interest Inventory test to evaluate a student’s personal interests. For undergraduate students intending to pursue graduate programs, an advisor could suggest resources for online versus on-campus instruction and explain how to research programs to learn about prerequisite classes students might need to take at their current university. Some students don’t have the time to research resources  they might need and they require basic assistance on where to find the necessary information or contacts.

For universities with general education or department advisors, the mindset of a traditional advisor needs to change. An advisor must have a desire to understand the varied responsibilities of non-traditional students and be willing to assist in their transition to a university environment. Emphasis should be placed on creating goals that are best suited for the student. Advisors should not approach a situation solely from the perspective of the demands of the program. Advisors need to consider alternative solutions for non-traditional students rather than trying to make them fit a pre-existing and potentially outdated mold.

Advisors with non-traditional students should consider offering ways to communicate beyond in-person appointments, such as answering questions via phone and email, because many students are not on campus during business hours. Familiarity with on-campus support services such as the career center, tutoring, mentoring programs and student peer groups to which they can refer non-traditional students is also vital. Moreover, an advisor should understand potential outside pressures, but not assume all non-traditional students are too busy with work and family obligations to participate in demanding programs or extracurricular activities the way a traditional student might.

Another way to assist with advice is to match a non-traditional peer advisor or mentor with a student in the same department, or a peer who has attended the university for a while, who can answer specific questions, knows where to find the answers for the student and is willing to do so.

Students should be prepared to do their own research with regard to courses, programs, financial aid, internships, career opportunities and more, but universities should also provide advisors better suited to guide non-traditional students through their university experience.

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Readers Comments

Chuck Schwartz 2013/05/28 at 11:24 am

I sense that the hesitation from institutions to create stronger student advising has to do with the presumed costs of having such services. You seem to be saying that universities and colleges need to have dedicated advisors for adult students who are specially trained to deal with their needs — and that costs money. Further, institutions may need to also introduce complementary services, such as the mentoring or tutoring you say advisors should direct their clients to — again, that costs money. So, I understand the reluctance.

That said, what institutions need to realize is that not having these services in place results in negative experiences for non-traditional students and, in some cases, jeopardizes their ability to finish their education. In the long run, this costs institutions (not to mention society) more.

Ian Richardson 2013/05/29 at 1:56 am

The key is to train advisors to give personalized attention to non-traditional students. Advisors often have the same set of answers they give to students who come in and see them, because many traditional students have similar concerns.

What is unique about non-traditional students is that their questions, though following common themes (work-school balance, family responsibilities, financial aid), tend to refer to their individual case. Thus, advisors need to be prepared to adopt a case-specific approach to handling their issues.

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