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Updating academic advising for the 21st century


Editor’s note: This is the 40th anniversary of O’Banion’s seminal article on a model of academic advising, first published by the American Association of Community Colleges' Junior College Journal in 1972. The model has been adapted by hundreds of community colleges and universities in the last four decades. The following is an edited and updated version of the original.

Academic advising is the second-most important function in the community college. If it is not conducted with the utmost efficiency and effectiveness, the most important function—instruction—will fail to ensure that students navigate the curriculum to completion.

The purpose of academic advising is to help students select a program of study to meet life and vocational goals. As such, academic advising is a central activity in the process of education.

For the full version of the updated article, read it online in the October/November 2012 edition of the Community College Journal.
Academic advising occurs at least once each term for every student in the college; few student support functions occur as often or affect so many students. But while there is general agreement surrounding the importance of academic advising for the efficient functioning of the institution and the effective functioning of the student, there is little agreement regarding the nature of academic advising and who should perform the function.

The model proposed here defines the process of an academic advising and outlines the skills and knowledge required of academic advisors who work with students through this process. It is a flexible model that can be adapted to the needs, resources, and culture of any institution of higher education.
The process
The process of academic advising includes five steps:
  • Explore life goals
  • Explore vocational goals
  • Program choice
  • Course choice
  • Scheduling courses

  • This is, of course, an ideal sequence. Too often, colleges fail to connect this sequence for students, giving short shrift to the first two steps because of the pressing need to address the final three.
    If a college wants to boost student success—from the first term through completion—it must ensure students experience each step of the academic advising process.
Explore life goals
College leaders recognize the need for students to explore life goals, and many programs and practices have been designed to foster this experience. In previous decades, colleges created classic general education programs often anchored by a personal development course.

Today, programs such as the first-year experience and the student success course represent contemporary efforts to help students explore life goals. In many of these courses, academic advising—along with assessment, orientation, career counseling and registration—is folded into the experience to better connect life goal questions with educational plans.
Explore vocational goals

Most experienced educators know that a large number of community college students are not prepared to make decisions pertaining to their vocational goals when they first enter college. Once these students are clearly identified, they should be required to enroll in a prescribed program for undecided students.

If the college has a classic core of general education courses, this becomes the prescribed program. As an alternative, a learning community that includes a student success course, an introduction to psychology, and a developmental or college-level writing course—or some appropriate cluster of courses—becomes the prescribed program.

If the undecided student is enrolling in only one course, that course should be a student success course or an experience in which the exploration of life and vocational goals forms much of the content.

Choose a program

Once the college has provided an opportunity for students to consider life and vocational goals, whether through summer advising groups, occupational seminars, orientation programs, self-development classes, programmed guides, technology aides or experiential sessions, the student must choose a program.

If students are absolutely sure of their program choice, the academic advising process should move them smoothly and efficiently to the next steps. These students might be channeled to specific programs or departments, such as nursing or criminal justice, where trained advisors and faculty will confirm their choices and help orient them to careers in select fields.

Undecided students, meanwhile, are prescribed a limited program. Students who have an inclination toward a particular area of study must be given an opportunity to test their interests and make changes without losing credit. This is tricky business for the student and the advisor; only the most effective advisors should work with undecided students.

Choose courses

There are many challenges inherent in selecting specific courses for a term. Such challenges require knowledge and training on the part of personnel who assist in this process. Students who register late will not have as many choices as those who register early. Low-income and poorly prepared students tend to register later than other students and are more likely to become frustrated and disappointed when required or recommended courses are closed or not available at the right times.

Colleges committed to the completion agenda and the student success pathway should require students to create personal development plans or road maps intended to frame their choices and track their progress as they navigate the college experience. These plans should include the courses required and elected for the program of choice. Advisors typically must sign off on these plans.

Schedule courses

Deciding when to take courses is no simple task, either. Many community college students are unfamiliar with concepts such as semester-hour credit, transfer, grade point average and developmental studies.

Any well-conceived program of academic advising will encompass each of these five dimensions. It is possible for each to be explored in a single day. But most colleges are likely to view the process of academic advising as ongoing, beginning before the student attends his or her first class and continuing throughout the entire college experience.

A final note

While historically systems of academic advising have been designed as “faculty advising” systems or “counselor-based” systems, this model strongly supports academic advising as a system-wide team approach. Academic advising is too important to assign it to one group. Personnel should be assigned based on the skills, knowledge and attitudes required for each of the five steps.

The student is the primary decision maker throughout the advising process. Students must be engaged in academic advising as full partners from the beginning.

While a student’s role depends largely on his or her experience, ability and clarity of goals, all students should be required to review prepared materials about vocational goals and program choices and/or to participate in special summer or pre-enrollment sessions designed to help them make important decisions about programs and courses. Academic advising should be mandatory for every student every term, and the student should be prepared to meet his or her obligations.

O’Banion is president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College and senior advisor for higher education programs at Walden University.