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How Advisers Can Help Part-Timers Stay Engaged

By Sonya Stinson

Alamo Advise helps keep students on track from the start — especially those who could slip through the cracks.

Just before Ric Baser took the helm at Northwest Vista College late last year, the college doubled the number of advisers, creating a ratio of one adviser to every 150 students. He referred to the strategy in yesterday’s leadership post. Today, we take a closer look at the Alamo Advise model, and how and why this strategy is working. 

The relationship between student and adviser is fundamental to keeping community students engaged and focused on completing their academic goals. The role of the adviser is especially important for part-time students, who account for 62 percent of the enrollment at public two-year institutions. These students often are juggling work and family obligations along with their research papers and class projects.

In fall 2014, Palo Alto College, in San Antonio, Texas, put student advising at the center of its completion-improvement strategy, with its new Alamo Advise model. The school is one of five institutions in the Alamo Colleges district, where part-time students make up 70 to 80 percent of the population. By the end of the spring 2015 term, all 63,000 students enrolled at Alamo Colleges will be assigned an adviser, who will stick with them through the course of their studies, says Palo Alto College President Mike Flores.

To help create the blueprint for the model, Palo Alto administrators used data from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), at the University of Texas at Austin. A recent article on Inside Higher Education quoted CCCSE director Evelyn Waiwaiole, citing increased student support and advising services as part of the reason for an uptick in part-time student engagement.

A CCCSE study found that 70 percent of part-time community college students in 2014 had discussed their career plans with an instructor or an adviser, up from 61 percent in 2004. The report also pointed to increases in other engagement markers, such as class presentations, collaborations with classmates and assignment completions.

Advisers at Palo Alto

Advisers at Palo Alto start the dialogue by asking students about their passion — the dream or calling that’s driving them to pursue higher education. Flores says those conversations represent a “paradigm shift” from the more transactional advisory relationships of the past. Back then, students typically only sought out an adviser at the start of a term if they happened to have a question or problem with their course schedule.

“This is more transformational, in that the adviser is beginning with ‘What would you like to do? What is your passion? Now, let’s look at specific options related to that pathway that you want to pursue,’” Flores says of the new model.

Previously, an academic adviser’s caseload at Palo Alto ranged from 450 to 500 students; now, there is one adviser for every 300 students. The advisers are certified after they’ve completed nearly 60 hours of training, which covers such topics as the philosophy of academic advising and the theory of adult learning; faculty members complete at least part of the training program.

Palo Alto administrators worked with the National Academic Advising Association to develop the Alamo Advise model and consulted with with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning about training. They created an academic-advising syllabus — similar to a course syllabus — that outlines the milestones they want students to achieve as part of the advising experience. More than 300 faculty and staff members were involved in developing the program over several years.

Academic advisers and teachers at Palo Alto work in tandem to keep track of students’ progress.

“It’s a team approach,” Flores says. “It’s also not a one-shot. It’s an ongoing series of intentional conversations that the adviser and faculty will have with the student.”

Sometimes students will even get an email or phone call when they miss a class. While the first outreach may elicit a surprised and nervous reaction, Flores says most students eventually come to embrace the close connection.

“I think students definitely appreciate the additional support that they’re getting as part of the Alamo Advise model: an academic adviser that’s linked to them personally,” Flores says.

Does your college offer a special advising program? How’s it working? Tell us in the Comments.

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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