Intrusive advising for college students

5 traits of successful proactive-advising programs

Although “intrusive advising” is rising on the list of higher ed buzzwords, this approach is likely more than a passing trend. As colleges strive for greater levels of student success, some are finding this strategy can bring higher retention rates and, in turn, help the bottom line.

Intrusive advising isn’t just a rebranding of traditional methods. Also known as proactive or engaged advising, it represents a genuine change: Staff take the initiative in reaching out to students rather than wait for students to come to them.

While on the surface this may seem a minor distinction, advocates say the difference is huge.

With traditional advising, students typically seek help—if they do it at all—only when experiencing difficulty. With intrusive advising, potential problems are identified and addressed before they become major barriers.

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It involves establishing relationships with students through frequent interactions, preparing students for the next steps, and monitoring performance using key measures in an analytics system, says Richard D. Sluder, vice provost for student success and dean of University College at Middle Tennessee State University. 

“When students are off track, advisors use a variety of mechanisms to draw them in,” Sluder adds. “Old-school advising works by expecting students to come to advisors, but often, the students who take advantage of advisor availability are those who probably don’t need intensive services.”

Following are five key elements of impactful intrusive-advising programs.

1. Robust technology

Data analytics makes it possible to do everything from tracking first-generation student progress to triggering alerts when students miss classes.   

Analytics can make it easier to drive at-risk students to services or other supports before it’s too late, says Sluder.

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“The beauty of the work is in using some fairly straightforward analytics to identify at-risk students. Often, these students do not appear to be at risk using conventional or traditional measures.”

Such technology is probably the biggest trend in advising, says Charlie L. Nutt, executive director of NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. “The use of data analytics gives advisors better info so they can be alerted to student needs earlier in the process.”

Georgia State University, which uses the term proactive advising, has been tracking all undergraduates for more than 800 analytics-based risk factors every day for the past six years.

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When an alert is triggered, the advisor assigned to the student receives an immediate notification and has 48 hours to contact the student.

There have been more than 250,000 one-on-one meetings between academic advisors and students prompted by system alerts, says Timothy M. Renick, senior vice president for student success. In the past 12 months, the number of interventions topped 55,000.

To achieve those results, the 51,000-student university hired about 40 new full-time advisors at an annual cost of approximately $2 million. With increased retention bringing in some $12 million of additional tuition and fee revenues yearly, the staffing investment has been more than paid for, Renick says.

2. Early intervention

At Maryville University in St. Louis, advisors, dubbed life coaches, contact students the summer before they begin classes and have them complete multiple learning diagnostics.

“These assessments provide insights that we use to better serve the students and to better prepare the life coaches for their initial, ongoing and engaged support of their students,” says Jen McCluskey, vice president for student success at the school.

“The life coach serves as a retention agent, academic adviser and career coach, and the learning diagnostics establish a platform to build on both the relationship with the student and the success of the student.”

When students take the College Student Inventory, life coaches reach out to assigned students and work to encourage those who admit low confidence in math and science, weak family support or lack of commitment to their major. This outreach is proactive, consistent and personalized for each student, McCluskey says.

Incoming students also complete an assessment for top strengths.

“Results are used to drive meaningful conversations between coaches and students well before the traditional advising conversations even begin,” McCluskey says. “We learn who the student is and what is important to them.”

3. More than academics

At Maryville and other institutions, administrators realize academics is far from the only area advising sessions must address to impact student success.

“Research shows that most students need personalized support, continuous engagement and a go-to person at the institution to be successful,” McCluskey says. “By completely revolutionizing our approach, we are truly setting up students for academic and career success in ways traditional advising just can’t.”

This can range from advice on roommate conflicts to guidance on mental health counseling. At Maryville, one coach helped a student who needed a ride from the airport; another hosted a student for a holiday dinner. “It’s remarkable how the relationships support students across their lives,” McCluskey says. 

4. Careful communication

A potential problem with intrusive advising is that it’s, well, intrusive.

“Proactive advising can feel like Big Brother if students don’t have a good relationship with their advisor or university, or if they don’t understand the intent or support guiding this approach,” says LeeAnn Melin, associate vice provost for student success at the University of Minnesota, which has seen both retention and graduation rates increase through proactive advising.

This approach includes required advising appointments, especially in students’ first year, as well as sending alerts to advisors when a student has not logged into the learning management system for over two weeks or when a student is earning low grades in multiple classes.

If students sense that interactions are punitive or advisors are hovering too close during every move they make, they can feel it’s an infringement.

Staff should carefully consider what types of behaviors warrant outreach, and how to best communicate concerns.

“Contacting a student because they missed one class is not a productive threshold,” Melin says. But a student who has not attended class for two weeks can indicate something more serious is going on.

Wording of such outreach also makes a difference. “Communication with students needs to be positive and inviting,” says Rhonda Gonzales, interim vice president for student success at The University of Texas at San Antonio, which has been using intrusive advising since 2014.

Advisors in her program use email, text and face-to-face contacts, and then keep records on interactions via Ellucian Degree Works and EAB’s Student Success Collaborative platforms.

“We also facilitate conversations between students and specialized units within our advising team to help students proactively resolve issues so they have a clear path forward,” Gonzales says. UT San Antonio data has shown that the earlier students are identified as at-risk, the better they perform overall.

Intrusive-advising messages should have a cooperative and helpful tone.

“Be creative in how you reach out to students,” says Joseph Croskey, director of the University Advising Services Center at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. “Utilize social media, text messaging and other ways to communicate. Advisors should strive to be regarded as open, friendly and nonjudgmental.”

At Clarion, an email may begin with, “I hope you’re enjoying your afternoon,” before covering the topic at hand. Advisors use colloquial language such as, “Let me know what you think,” and typically close with a statement such as, “I look forward to seeing you soon.”

5. Campus buy-in

Having access to data analytics for retention and advising is just a starting point.

“Planning and communication with all stakeholders on campus is key to a successful launch of a proactive-advising plan,” Gonzales says. “Know your targeted populations, have a timeline and develop a clear messaging plan for the academic advisors and faculty.” 

Administrative support for an intrusive-advising approach is essential.

When Georgia State launched its initiative, President Mark Becker met with the advising staff to promote buy-in.

He noted that analytics system training would be provided and that while adopting a new approach to advising would be disruptive in the short term, the changes were necessary to better serve students over the long term.

Administrators also worked with HR to revamp advisor job duties to reflect the use of the new technology. Going forward, ongoing ROI analyses demonstrate success in the form of increased student retention, with positive results helping to promote continuing campuswide support for the program.

“The success of analytics-based proactive-advising platforms depends 10 percent on the technology and 90 percent on the effectiveness of the implementation,” Georgia State’s Renick says.

“The students, staff and faculty will ultimately determine the impact of the new technology, so one needs to put the bulk of the efforts into changing existing behaviors.”

Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based writer and adjunct professor. 


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