Higher Ed Systems Find Advisors Key to Dev Ed Reform

Author Emily Warren, SStF Senior Project Manager

Given the impacts on higher education during the pandemic, students need access to high quality, well trained advisors to help them make sense of dizzying career and academic choices. For many students, particularly Black, Brown, Asian American and Indigenous students, returning adults and students from low-income backgrounds there are significant barriers to attaining their degrees. 

This blog post features two state systems working with Strong Start to Finish (SStF),  that focused on advisors and advising structures as a key part of their strategy. They did this work in alignment with the SStF Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education. Within a Comprehensive Student Success Strategy. After reviewing implementation trends across our 13 grant sites, the SStF team noticed that several state systems leveraged the expertise of their academic advisors in a variety of ways. 

Advisors play a critical role in helping students get into the correct courses that will move them through the college pipeline. If they are sidetracked by taking unnecessary, non-credit bearing coursework due to having been placed in a developmental sequence it could prolong time to graduation or potentially derail a student from progressing altogether. 

Colorado and Nevada trained advisors using SStF Core Principles

>Two state systems, the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Nevada System of Higher Education focused heavily on training advisors as a part of their SStF grant-funded work. Nevada’s stated developmental reform goal was to ensure that students would be advised and enrolled in gateway courses with or without corequisite support. Colorado built in advising structures to ensure all students were successful in registering for coursework in a program of study with an emphasis on choosing the correct math course. They further pledged to standardize training on developmental education reforms for advisors that work directly with students. 

Using the evidence-based strategy highlighted in Core Principle 7, which stresses offering structured opportunities for faculty and staff to reflect on the lived experience of their students and shape programming that meets their needs, Colorado’s participating SStF institutions prioritized training advisors to understand corequisites, placement implications, math pathways, alignment with programs of study and culturally responsive practices. Institutions used mini grants to support advisor certification and competencies. They created a Statewide Academic Advising Council to weigh in on policy, funding, and programs to support student success. Institutions were also able to redesign statewide transfer agreement materials to be student focused and show a path from general education requirements to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.

In Nevada, professional development for advisors also played a key role in implementing corequisite math and English courses and ensuring that students were enrolling. While they did not create a task force specifically for advisors, they did employ redesign subcommittees that included a mix of faculty and advisors from each of their seven campuses. These subcommittees formally solicited input to help determine the professional development content that was of most interest. Student Ready Strategies, a technical assistance provider in the SStF network who also worked with Colorado on their advising work, were brought in to deliver three training opportunities. 

Advisors  help systems implement corequisites with success

Nevada System of Higher Education administration brought a group of advising leads from each institution together, to offer one additional professional development session in Summer 2021 prior to the first semester of full corequisite implementation. The administration recognized that the role advisors play in the implementation of corequisite math and English is incredibly important. Not surprisingly, advisors communicate with students about a variety of things related to corequisite programming and have a significant role in helping to ensure that students are actually enrolling in the correct gateway math and English course (with or without corequisite support).

“Advisors provide a crucial component of corequisite implementation and should be included in implementation work from the outset. Not only would this keep the advisors informed at the same level as faculty, but it also would encourage faculty to recognize advisors as partners in the work of corequisite implementation”- System leader at the Nevada System of Higher Education. 

Both state systems recognized that it is not enough to make structural changes to courses or admission and placement requirements at a system or institution. The staff and faculty who are “boots on the ground” implementers have to first understand and then support the changes in order for true transformation to take place. As outlined in Core Principle 7, when administrators, staff and faculty pay attention to student voice and experience as a critical aspect of the student success movement, they help to dismantle biased structures and mindsets.  Creating communities of practice, such as advising councils, or offering professional development opportunities to staff can further validate the input of key stakeholders and implementers strengthening reform efforts campus-wide. Without these insights, even the best structural reforms will not reach their fullest impact and more students will be placed into incorrect and harmful developmental education courses even when other options are available at their schools and colleges.