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Advising Reform: A Crucial Step to Improving Graduation Rates

March 7, 2019 Molly Jacobson Boston Consulting Group

I recently sat across the table from an academic advisor at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC), in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Putting myself in a first-time-freshman’s shoes—and imagining the simultaneous excitement, confusion, and trepidation I might be feeling—I asked this advisor to walk me through her typical process to register a new student for classes. 

I expected her to pull out her course catalog, but instead, she turned to a sophisticated-looking software dashboard on her computer screen. 

The advisor told me that, before meeting with each advisee, she could use the software dashboard to view notes about the student that teaching faculty or MCCC Enrollment Services had previously submitted. She would typically start a conversation with a new student by confirming that he or she had completed their online orientation and placement tests and submitted their FAFSA on time. She would then reference the results of the student’s career assessment and start a conversation by asking for their reactions: Were they surprised by the results? Did they feel that their top job matches best represented their abilities? She used this conversation to segue into the student’s long-term education plan, which she translated into implications for their course load and class selection. Next semester, the advisor would be able to assess the student’s GPA and progress in required courses. In fact, using her software, the advisor was able to sign her advisees up for that next meeting on the spot. 

I left the advisor’s office in awe, realizing that the proactive, in-depth, technology-aided, advising interaction I had just witnessed is unique in postsecondary education today. As the New York Times has reported, at least 1 in 10 postsecondary students never meet with their academic advisor. Only about 4 in 10 students consider advisors their primary source of advice on academic matters.  

This is a big deal. With the cost of college soaring, students who deviate from their recommended course path may end up spending thousands of extra dollars—not to mention extra time—completing their graduation requirements. Or, they may drop out of school altogether. In addition, students who fail to receive coaching and advice may struggle with socio-emotional challenges and miss “make or break” deadlines, such as those necessary to secure financial aid or admission to transfer or graduate schools.

Along with colleagues from Boston Consulting Group’s US Education practice, I recently studied four exemplar postsecondary institutions—three universities and one community college—that reformed advising on their campus to improve student success. Our work was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Advising reforms that we witnessed included using technology tools to proactively initiate advising interactions; intervening early and often to engage students in dialogue tailored to their unique needs; and taking strategic steps to simplify students’ path toward a degree.

My team sought to better understand the journey of our studied institutions, the economics of the reforms they undertook, and the academic outcomes they achieved. We found, in brief, that advising reforms helped postsecondary institutions improve graduation and retention rates at a relatively low incremental cost. Specifically, advising reforms at our studied institutions contributed to an increase in on-time graduation rates of as much as 21 percentage points.[1] At the same time, the reforms required a relatively modest and sustainable incremental investment of less than $100 per student. 

I was particularly drawn to the story of MCCC. To better address the needs of its students, 70% of whom attend school part-time, the college embarked on a journey to transform campus planning and advising resources. In 2012, MCCC increased the number of advising touchpoints, beginning with the student admission process. It also supported a cadre of professional advisors to engage on a broader set of topics than those traditionally covered by academic advisors, including career and financial planning. New analytics and technology tools enabled student monitoring and tracking in real time and connected the advisors more closely to teaching faculty. Today, an MCCC student experiences a markedly different journey from enrollment through graduation.

While each college and university’s journey to provide rigorous advising will be unique, to maximize success of advising reforms, my team found that institutions that implement advising reforms should consider the following strategic steps:

  • Fully commit to advising reforms as a strategic priority.
  • Engage a cross-functional team of faculty, administrators, and other relevant stakeholders early—at the reform design stage—and create mechanisms for regular feedback.
  • Centralize advising resources, including professional advisors, to support at-risk student populations to the extent possible.
  • Focus initial investments on tactics and tools that simplify students’ paths to credential, enable closer monitoring of students’ progress toward a degree, and automate advisors’ workflows.
  • Tap outside technology vendors strategically, particularly for basic tools, such as those that aid in calendaring and note taking.
  • Engage faculty and staff in designing software tools, particularly when selecting variables for risk-alert systems.
  • Strengthen and invest in data analytics and reporting.

At a time of significant enrollment and funding pressures in higher education, advising reforms help institutions stay competitive with their peers. Moreover, they open the door to college degrees and certificates for more students. 

To learn more about this work, read our full report here.

Molly Jacobson is a Project Leader in Boston Consulting Group’s Boston office.  In her recent client work at BCG, Molly has analyzed the holistic return on investment (access, student outcomes, economics) for technology-mediated advising reforms and helped to segment higher education institutions to determine how digital learning solutions could be best activated on their campuses. She currently works across BCG’s education, social impact and technology practice areas.  Molly received her MBA from Harvard Business School and her Masters in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

[1]. Graduation rates are defined as the proportion of students who graduate in four years from four-year institutions or in two years from two-year institutions.