When I was a student at a liberal arts college, advising mostly entailed trekking over to the chemistry building twice a semester to have forms signed. My advisor was a kind man who didn’t know my name. I now can’t recall his. Our meetings lasted five minutes and focused on confirming general education requirements and moving toward a major. His job was to check the boxes.
This was thirty years ago. Colleges and universities have since recognized the critical importance of advising to student success and satisfaction, and in doing so, many have moved this formative role to expanded—but siloed—spaces outside the faculty through staff advisors, career center advisors, and outsourced (real or virtual) coaches. Institutions making these investments have seen impressive gains in success markers like retention and completion rates, especially at community colleges and big public universities that serve large numbers of students and where close faculty advising isn’t practical.
Although they boast the most generous faculty-to-student ratios (11:1, on average, as of 2016), liberal arts colleges have grown student advising support in similar ways, introducing staff advisors for first-year students, counseling during internships and through career centers, and more. Faculty advising—promised to students as part of the experience—continues as a formal and sometimes redundant overlay. Meanwhile, the substantive work of intellectual mentorship is often separated out from advising and not formalized enough, left to faculty generosity or chance as students move through courses and departments.
This segmented approach to advising is a longstanding missed opportunity for liberal arts colleges to deliver on one of their most compelling features: an integrated student experience. The more college is conceived as a space where students collect the learning that happens over a period of time, and the more we help students see, understand, and synthesize this learning, the more meaningful it will be. Strong advising unlocks that perspective and accelerates student self-discovery. The conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruptions it has introduced into the student experience further underscore both the importance of connecting learning across contexts and the opportunity for liberal arts colleges to distinguish themselves through it.
Advising Is Teaching
Much is rightly made of the primacy of teaching at liberal arts colleges, and much has been done to enhance administrative and peer support for new faculty to develop their teaching practices. If we want all faculty to excel at advising and at general and discipline-specific mentorship, we must join the two and create equivalent spaces where faculty can learn how to guide students in their personal, developmental, and intellectual formation. In this, we would be recognizing advising as a form of teaching, one that takes effort to develop. To fully support faculty advisors, we must count advising formally as part of faculty teaching loads, not simply credit it as service or as a separate (and often vague) expectation. Just as faculty are accountable through the review process for the quality of their teaching, they need to be accountable in review, tenure, and promotion processes for the quality of their advising—and rewarded for it, too.
Being Advised Is Learning
Some innovative institutions, like my own, have made great strides toward the integration of learning and advising, using metacognitive inquiry as a framework for students to build their reflective muscles. Through a process called the “Plan” at Bennington College, faculty advisors guide students to articulate the questions that underpin, drive, and connect their interests and that connect their experiences in the classroom to their cocurricular pursuits and work experiences. What they learn is documented along the way in a series of essays and discussed with a faculty committee. Students regularly cite the power of this capacity building.
But so far, student learning through the Plan isn’t formally recognized with credits, nor is it sufficiently linked to institutional learning outcomes. Bennington—and every other liberal arts institution—has the opportunity to layer and formalize ongoing reflective inquiry, enabling students to develop an ever-more sophisticated understanding of themselves and their choices.
Connect Faculty and Staff Advising to Educate the Whole Student
When faculty are asked to provide more expansive advising, they often voice the objection that they don’t have the necessary expertise. When faced with crises regarding students’ physical and mental health, they are right. In these cases, clear protocols for coordinated professional support are critical.
But in general, the layers of staff advising that have become commonplace at liberal arts colleges—first-year advising to ease the acclimation process; pre-professional, internship, and career counseling; and identity-based advising—must fit hand-in-glove with faculty advising. For this to happen, professional staff must be recognized as full partners in both advising and its pedagogy. Too often, professional advising staff are used as a crutch to support poor faculty advising. In reality, it takes many guiding hands to make an integrated student experience.
None of this is to say, of course, that excellent advising doesn’t currently take place at liberal arts colleges. It does. As Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs confirm in How College Works, the quality of a student’s relationships with faculty and staff mentors, as well as their fellow students, matters the most. For me, my final years of college were turbocharged by switching to an advisor who became my intellectual role model. But too often, this kind of engaged advising happens because faculty care about their students, not because there are the right structures to support it. Imagine if there were.