What's Working: 21st Century Advising for Today's College Students

When Whatcom Community College started reaching out to students who were in danger of failing a course, the faculty and administrators were happily surprised by the student response.

"Students were very, very happy to receive the early alert," recalls Ward Naf, Whatcom College's IT director. "Quite a few had no idea that they were really in trouble or that their faculty were worried about them."

Whatcom is one of an increasing number of colleges and universities that have started using a suite of online advising tools called iPASS, which stands for Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success. Early alert, for example, automatically flags students who have repeated absences or missed assignments for in-person follow-up. This allows the student to get back on track. Since implementing iPASS, Whatcom has seen fall-to-winter retention rates increase by 5 percentage points compared to the previous year.

Promising interventions such as iPASS are important not only for students--for whom earning a postsecondary credential is the surest path to the middle class--but also for the U.S. economy. By 2025, two-thirds of all jobs will require education beyond high school. But, at the current rate, the U.S. is expected to face a shortfall of 11 million skilled workers. Central to the problem is the shocking statistic that half of students who start a postsecondary program never reach graduation. The percentage is even higher for the new student majority--including first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, part-time enrollees, working students, and students who are raising children. That's why it's encouraging that advisors at several colleges say that the new student majority--who often have the fewest supports and the least room for a misstep in their educational journeys--are among the most enthusiastic users of iPASS.

Jessica, who was the first in her family to go to college when she enrolled at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), received kudos messages--rather than alerts--from the early alert tool.

"The kudos messages are reassuring," says Jessica. "If you do well on a test, it encourages you to keep it up. I'd print them out and keep them in my desk or with my notes as an extra reminder." Jessica kept up her strong habits and graduated last spring.

Another iPASS tool helps students see which courses will move them closer to their certificate or degree. Without the tool, many students were inadvertently enrolling in classes and earning credits that didn't count toward their program. The extra time and expense of taking more courses than they needed delayed their graduation and increased their chances of leaving without a credential.

Antonia Ceballos, academic advisor and iPASS coordinator at Austin Community College, remembers the pre-iPASS days of long lines of students waiting to talk to an advisor for tasks such as selecting courses or tracking their grade point average. Evening and weekend students had a particularly difficult time finding an hour or more to stand in line--in addition to work, family, and other commitments.

But now, students at Austin Community College and other institutions can use their computer, tablet, or mobile phone to choose their courses and to ask questions and get answers. For colleges and universities, no longer needing to track down written transcripts or manually process registration forms allows advisors more time to help students who face other challenges--such as with finances or transportation--that otherwise could lead to them dropping out.

Vanessa Kenon, assistant vice provost for information technology at UTSA, says that implementing iPASS had the added benefit of leading students to become more self-directed. They suddenly want to talk not just about the upcoming quarter or semester, but about years into the future.

When I went to college, I remember the excitement of discovering the new possibilities that postsecondary education opens up. It doesn't surprise me at all that today's college students are eager to reach their goals and plot their own path to the credential that will change their lives and help them cross the bridge to opportunity.