An Ode to the Community College Academic Advisor

Higher education and student affairs is a broad field where individuals with a variety of skill sets can contribute to the overall success of an institution. Working with students can be technical, navigating between red tape, periods of policy reform, and crunching numbers related to enrollment, tuition, and complex curricular changes. Many corners of the field may require highly developed interpersonal skills, empathy, motivation, and an understanding of student development theory. The ability to leverage a bureaucratic environment, establish positive relationships in intense political cultures, and deliver exceptional service in high-stress situations are also desirable skill sets for professionals working in higher education settings.

While many professionals can lean into limited facets of this work, the Academic Advising office is often the intersection of them all. Within those four walls, a team of professionals switches between high-level, low-level, analytical and soft skills day in and day out.

Advising in the Community College

In many ways, community college Academic Advisors are the rock stars of higher education, as those most successful in impacting students are constantly striking a balance between technical knowledge and compassionate guidance. Perhaps more frequently than in other areas of an institution, they often shoulder the institution’s enrollment and retention pressures, while still maintaining a commitment to the best interests of students. An Advisor’s work often involves helping students make sense of overly complex curricular pathways, aligning majors to ever-changing workforce opportunities, identifying bottlenecks in the student experience, and sometimes guiding students away from their dreams.

This is especially true in community college settings where the “other duties as assigned” line in the job description often delivers more than meets the eye.

Recently, I was selected to oversee the development and implementation of our College’s One-Stop center, which will join together high-volume student service areas like Admissions, Records and Registration, and Financial Aid. As a result of this assignment, a great deal of my time recently has been spent facilitating conversations with departments across the Enrollment Management and Student Services division. While many of the conversations focused on the scope, training, and transactions within the center, my meeting with the Advising team included high-level concerns about the support structures in place after the student completes the enrollment processes within the center. As one Advisor mentioned, without the oversight of Residence Life (infrequently found at community colleges), Academic Advisors often fulfill the role of caretaker, mentor, and guide throughout the entire student experience. This support, as she pointed out, is critical as the College streamlines its transactional services.

Her point has stuck with me, and has caused me to see the Advisor role differently within the context of a community college setting. As a former Academic Advisor myself, and now an administrator providing leadership to an Advising unit, I have always understood the profound impact quality academic advising can have on student success. I have even naturally expanded my advising philosophy to fit into the community college setting, though without much reflection. In the absence of Residence Life and other services provided by four-year institutions, community college Advisors are often responsible for building a similar safety net around the students they serve.

When I take a step back and look at the Advising department I currently lead, I can see the swelling of Advisor responsibilities within our setting. While providing guidance related to curriculum makes up a large portion of the Advisor role, individuals are also expected to help a largely first-generation population understand what it means to be a college student. They look into the eyes of students who have turned to our college as their last hope to obtain an education and improve their lives, and help them find a motivational spark. They are often responsible for telling students they can no longer return to the institution due to their low grades, or that the career an individual has been trying to build may no longer be an option due to a competitive admission process.

While these discussions are commonplace in any academic advising setting, they are often complicated by the “last option” nature of a community college opportunity. Early in my career, while working at a semi-selective four-year institution, I was able to facilitate these conversations with students knowing they would leave my office with other options. The local regional campus or community college would welcome the students who left our university and provide them another chance at an education. While still impacting me as an Advisor, these discussions seemed easier when an alternate option lie within reach.

Institutional completion agendas and retention plans often challenge Advisors to think critically about alternative pathways available to struggling students. Where a student’s plan to transfer to a four-year college begins to crumble, an Associate of Applied Science degree may present a viable option for career options. A developmental education student’s bumpy path may present an opportunity for a certificate on which a degree can be built later on. Countless articulation agreements can open doors that may be the perfect for some students, but a recipe for disaster for others. When community colleges fail to foster success in students’ lives, the doors for future education begin to close. The pressure to retain students and ensure they leave with a credential is profound within this type of setting.

Community college advising requires an exceptionally high level of compassion, coupled with a whole lot of grit. As underprepared students embark on their educational journeys, the learning curve can be steep, the stakes high. When barriers such as grade point average, past criminal history, lack of family support, and financial strain appear, they often appear in a profound way for a community college student. Without a complete understanding of the resources available to them, the Advising office often becomes the primary location of refuge. Students remember the person who assisted them at the front door, and equate college Advisors to the guidance counselors who may have assisted in the distant past.

Good Advisors dissect the student experience for clues, and can skillfully deconstruct a student’s struggles or triumphs and weave together carefully tailored plans of action. The Advisor brain balances active listening while simultaneously connecting the story to appropriate campus resources, weighing options, and thinking within the context of the college’s complex policies and curriculum. For the student, the Advisor is an educational equivalent of Grand Central Station; he or she is the sounding board where all the facets of an overwhelming college experience intersect and branch out.

Breaking the Advising Burnout Cycle

Given the heavy lifting involved in academic advising at a community college, one of my biggest challenges is keeping morale high and motivation strong among the Advisors I supervise. Their days are often repetitive, structured, and demanding. Not surprisingly, a college’s priorities and focus on outputs like enrollment, retention, and persistence reinforce the belief that Advisors should simply see as many students as possible. As a result, the field has become known by many as a high burnout area within many Student Affairs divisions. Keeping advising teams motivated requires a commitment to diversification of job tasks, which is often counterintuitive to the idea that Advisors should be ready at all times should a student walk in the door.

In my experiences both as an Advisor and an administrator in this student services area, I have found that breaking down the walls around advising helps to lessen workload, form partnerships, and increase visibility on campus. During low student traffic periods in my current office, Advisors can often be found staffing an outdoor table or approaching students about their plans for attending next semester. These interactions break the cardinal rule regarding Advisor coverage by taking Advisors out of the office. However, this has not only helped students connect with Advisors, but helped the team to shake up their routine and feel more connected to the campus community. Likewise, these outreach efforts are usually followed by a surge in student traffic as individuals who conversed with Advisors in a casual setting often stop by to continue the dialogue or utilize the department for additional support. A proactive and targeted stroll around campus can almost always reach more students than a team of Advisors waiting for students to walk through the door. As an administrator, I just needed to think differently about what an advising team can do, and redefine the expectations surrounding how we connect with our students.

By nature, many Advisors are lifelong learners who crave not only information but also a clear understanding of how systems, processes, and curricula impact the way students move throughout institutions. They are often the ultimate student advocates in the community college setting, and show keen awareness about barriers, bottlenecks, and complexities that create stumbling blocks for students. Because of this, advising departments rely heavily on strong partnerships and open flows of communication surrounding processes at the college. For example, our team has established a mutually beneficial relationship with our campus Financial Aid department. This partnership has created areas for cross-training among both teams, as well as helped Academic Advisors contextualize how student situations can have both academic and financial consequences. A strong understanding of Financial Aid requirements regarding completion and progress frames a more holistic approach when working with students, and helps Advisors provide guidance from a variety of perspectives.

As mentioned early on, Advisors draw upon a large knowledge base in order to respond to the needs of each individual student while maintaining an understanding of overall student behavior patterns. While any Advisor training program should include a heavy amount of informational material, the introduction of related content can enrich the required knowledge base as well. For example, advising team staff meetings can include conversations about diversity, poverty, unemployment, religion, cultural competency, counseling, workforce trends, safety…the list goes on. Nearly any topic relating to human behavior can add depth and dimension to an Advisor’s toolkit if a culture of learning is established early on among an advising team. This steady stream of information, training, and learning continually refreshes the work of an Advisor, and provides a variety of lenses through which to view individual student situations and the college experience.

While advising remains a high burnout area within many college settings, the field of community college Advising provides an excellent training ground from which other experiences can take root. Few other areas within student services foster such a broad foundation and complex understanding of the college’s inner workings, and an Advisor is likely to bring this wealth of expertise to other levels or areas of the institution.

Parting Thoughts

Whether you read this article from the vantage point of an Advisor, supervisor, faculty member, or professional from an area outside of academic advising, I hope that you can now see the role of the Academic Advisor with renewed appreciation – especially within the community college setting. These teams build safety nets around students and think on their feet to help students navigate the complexities of the college environment. They are open to partnering with you, other colleagues, and can serve as dedicated advocates for change within an institution. Advisors see what others may not when it comes to student barriers, and witness the student experience, good and bad, firsthand. With them, they carry an astounding amount of knowledge, talent, and problem-solving abilities.

Perhaps I am biased given my experiences earning my professional stripes through academic advising. However, I owe it to those with whom I share this unique perspective to give the field a shout out and highlight who I believe to be the rock stars of higher education. I hope that you will pass this shout out along the next time you pass a frazzled Advisor in the hallway, send a stressed out student to the advising office when other referral options don’t seem quite right, or pass by a long queue of students just before the start of the semester. Behind these interactions are your college’s unsung heroes who carry a unique mix of information and care in an effort to help students find their way.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the perception of academic advising at your campus? How are Advisors viewed by various members of the campus community, such as high-level administrators, faculty, students, and staff?
  2. From your vantage point, what should be the role of a community college Academic Advisor?
  3. Academic Advisors are often challenged to improve the college’s retention rates, predict success barriers, and improve enrollment numbers. Do you think Advisors should be at the center of these initiatives, and what other areas from within the community college can advising centers partner to meet these demands?

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director in the Center for Advising, Support and Exploration at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and serves as the project co-manager for the College’s intergrated student services initiative. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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