Advising community college students during a pandemic

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The year 2020 was not one that higher education professionals will soon forget. Institutions quickly shifted their practices to provide students an education experience in ways never seen before. Advising professionals learned new technology, discovered challenges in connecting with students through a screen and were tasked to retain students in a world where all the rules have changed. Advisors balanced serving students’ academic and emotional needs while mental health challenges are on the rise.

What lessons can be learned from the past year? How can advisors continue to provide a quality experience during a global crisis?

Connecting with students will always be important.

Connecting with students is what advisors do best. How students meet with advisors may have changed, but connection is fundamental to student success. It is important for advisors to show their “human side” in a world where students are more isolated and have increased stress. Community colleges often have a high student-to-advisor ratio which makes the connection more difficult to achieve. It may be necessary for college leadership to shift job responsibilities or create a shared approach to student support to allow advisors the required time to make that necessary connection.

Institutions can use technology to help support that connection, including group advising using breakout rooms, bringing advising into the online classroom, providing the club or organization experience through an online course or utilizing social media. The challenge is getting the students to the experiences the institutions create. The most effective connection experiences are those that are integrated into mandatory experiences rather than things students must opt into.

The student experience must be simple.

Institutions have the best intentions, but sometimes over-complicate student processes. This may also lead to manual work that impacts the advisor’s ability to connect with students. In a time where stress is high, motivations might be low and Zoom fatigue is prevalent, becoming a new student and registering for classes should be self-explanatory and efficient. This may require a shift to high-touch approaches and reevaluating if student requirements are a value add.

Revisiting current advising structures and models may have a positive impact on student success. In cases where students receive advising from different people, departments or web links, campuses must evaluate whether their current practices are simple for students or require additional explanation to navigate. In a remote environment, there is no longer a need for a student to walk from one building to another. This is a great opportunity for advising professionals to develop strategies and transition plans to move students to the various support roles on campus.

Measuring success must be redefined.

Community colleges have seen significant drops in enrollment leading to significant budget impacts. Equity concerns have heightened awareness with a higher decline in enrollment for students of color who also are disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. College administrators are tasked with making difficult decisions about reopening campuses and/or offering experiences in person. There is no playbook in how to manage such challenges during a pandemic. So how do you measure success?

This article comes from the current issue of Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Success may be less of a quantitative measure and more qualitative. Prior to the pandemic, advising offices may have measured things such as number of students visited, how many students registered for the following semester and how many students graduated. Assessment may shift to measuring the level of connection students have, how engaged students are and if they are receiving the support they need. These important measures may heighten the awareness that things must be done differently.

Eliminating barriers for advisors and students alike will make a great impact on student engagement. The pandemic will eventually end and enrollment data will look less bleak, but the lessons learned from this year will have lasting positive impacts on student success.

About the Author

Sarah Banner
is director of advising at Mesa Community College in Arizona.