Using Data to Improve Advising Services

By Emily Rogan

Northern Virginia Community College used student feedback and institutional research to help inform its advising program, leading to student success.

In 2010, as part of the reaccreditation process, officials at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) asked graduates for feedback about their experiences at the school.

Students thought the teaching was great but that advising needed improvement, says George Gabriel, vice president of Institutional Research and Student Success Initiatives. As an Achieving the Dream institution, NOVA’s leadership knew to use quantitative information, collected over the past 10 years, with qualitative input from students to make data-driven decisions for improvement. Here’s how the college’s success story unfolded.

The problem

“We realized we needed to figure out a better way to advise,” Gabriel says. “You can teach all you want, but if you do not make the connection for them, how do you graduate [them]?”

With 78,000 students, administrators chose to focus on incoming high school students first. “The immigrant, first-generation students who were not highly motivated and did not have the support from home needed the most help with academic planning and advising,” Gabriel says.

Meeting the need for advising

The goal to “provide a higher level of service to a large number of students for maximum benefit” turned into GPS for Success. The program would address the needs of all incoming students under the age of 24, who had graduated high school within the past three years.

The college hired 30 new advisers who would each take on about 250 students. New students attended orientation and met with their first-year advisers to begin developing an academic plan, Gabriel says. “Many community colleges don’t have traditional orientations, but that’s changing now,” he says. “That’s where academic advising begins.”

Finding a solution in technology

The challenge was tracking student progress. NOVA officials purchased and implemented a software system, a customer relationship management (CRM) tool (similar to those that health-care systems use) so advisers and teachers who log in can see information on every student. “With just 30 advisers, that’s where technology came in,” Gabriel says.

At the same time, officials turned to institutional research and data at the college to determine factors that previously contributed to student success.

A clear pattern emerged. Students who attended orientation, started classes on time and took placement tests and the one-credit introductory course tended to complete their degrees.

The solution

By 2013, after an aggressive communications campaign to inform students and faculty, all six NOVA campuses began requiring students to register before classes began.

A year later, orientation became mandatory; students could not register without attending orientation. “Some worried that students would walk away, but we studied what other colleges were doing and we were convinced it would work for student success,” Gabriel says. Students were strongly encouraged to meet with first-year advisers at that time.

Almost 95 percent of students registered on time, and officials were pleased that they lost less than 1 percent of students.

The CRM system tracks all that. Filtered by student name or by aggregate, the college can see how many students meet with advisers. There is also an early alert in place: If a student misses classes or midterms, a professor can flag that in the system, and the student’s adviser is notified and can address the issue.

And at the beginning of the second semester, faculty members help students transition from their first-year advisers to ones in the students’ fields of interest to better align with specific course content and career goals.

“We’re putting that toolkit together,” Gabriel says. “In the past, access was the goal — to bring in more students from more backgrounds. But access itself is not enough if we don’t focus on success.”

How is your college using data to help advise students toward success? Tell us in the Comments.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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