Advising as a Strategy for Achieving Equitable Student Outcomes

By Alexa Wesley Chamberlain , Amelia Parnell

Implications for policy and practice:

  1. Foster the institution-wide collaboration needed to provide students with holistic support. Provide the tools, space, and guidance staff members from different departments and functions need to form partnerships.   
  2. Collect and analyze data about students’ perspectives to put students’ needs at the center of all decisions. Identify students who could benefit from advising, involve students in discussions about how to use data, and use data to inform regular conversations among colleagues about ways to adjust practices and institutional structures.
  3. Invest in supportive advising technologies through a collaborative process that takes all users’ needs into account. Address barriers that prevent students from using technology and provide training to staff members on how to make the most of existing systems.
  4. Provide incentives for continual improvement and knowledge sharing by providing professional development to staff members and conducting research about student experiences and the effect of equity-minded recruitment and hiring practices.

Evidence suggests that advising can have meaningful effects on the college persistence and completion rates of students, especially students of color, as well as students who are the first in their families to attend college or are affected by poverty.[1] Advisers can help students clarify and attain their academic, career, and personal goals, and can connect students to the support they need from their institutions, when they need it. To achieve optimal advising experiences and equitable student outcomes on a large scale, however, state and federal policymakers will need to invest in building the advising capabilities of community colleges, institutions that have been systematically undersupplied with resources. Redesigning advising means paying attention to evidence-based practices and the interaction of people, processes, and technologies. It also means that states will need to dedicate resources so institutions can follow the following recommendations:

Foster the collaboration among practitioners, senior leaders, and policymakers needed to ensure the delivery of holistic support.

Taking a holistic approach to advising involves providing personalized, seamless, and timely support services to students. Partnerships among all parts of an institution can help advisers connect students with relevant support and learning opportunities. While the academic advising function is typically located in a single division, effective advising requires an institution-wide approach, as students receive the best advising when advisers collaborate with institutional leaders as well as people in information technology, institutional research, career services, and other student support offices. At both four-year and two-year institutions, high levels of collaboration and integrated student support have been shown to improve student retention rates.

Staff members need adequate tools, space, and guidance from leaders to sustain these collaboration efforts that make holistic student support a reality. Faced with high caseloads, staff turnover, and unclear career tracks, advisers often have limited ability to build relationships with students and coordinate with other offices. Barriers to collaboration may also be structural, as some institutional models keep conversations about a student’s academic needs separated from those related to financial or career support. Determining which barriers are relevant in an institution calls for a deliberate assessment effort that engages that whole institution; once those barriers are identified, policymakers and institutional leaders can develop a strategy for making investments to overcome them.

Collect and analyze data about students’ perspectives to put their needs at the center of all decisions.

An institution that makes the decision to redesign its advising should involve students directly in the data collection and analysis that guides that redesign. Assessment practices should reflect a commitment to understanding a wide range of student experiences, recognizing differences across races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, enrollment statuses, and more. Leaders should ensure that students are not only represented in policy discussions, but that their perspectives are given meaningful weight in decision-making.

Institutions should also use data to determine how they can allocate limited resources to serve students with the greatest needs. Predictive analytics models, for example, use data on students’ progress and behavior to detect when someone would most benefit from specific advising interventions. While such models can predict, to some degree, the probability of a student outcome, they can also infringe on students’ privacy or exacerbate biases; institutions should put training and structures in place to prevent such problems. They should also supplement quantitative analyses about academic outcomes with qualitative data from student focus groups or interviews that provide more context, offering a more complete picture of students’ experiences. Regular data sharing and discussions among colleagues across offices and functions can help institutions respond to students’ needs and improve advising practices and policies.

As institutions make greater use of data, however, they need to make sure that they are using data categories precisely. For example, research suggests that comparing student outcomes using the most common, broad categories of race and ethnicity can misrepresent students’ experiences. These broad categories can neglect important differences among groups that share a category and effectively keep small populations hidden, which leads to inaccurate conclusions about some students’ progress and experiences on campus. Such misrepresentations can have implications for how institutions allocate resources, design policies, and measure progress toward their equity goals. Institutions should take the opportunity to involve students in the process of naming and reviewing categories to make sure the data are relevant, accurate, and representative of their experiences.

Invest in supportive advising technologies and implementation resources.

Advisers commonly use advising-related technologies to support personalized academic planning, caseload management, academic performance tracking, and outreach efforts. These technologies also enable students to develop personalized academic plans and track their progress.  However, one study suggests that more institutions serving high proportions of students who are eligible for Pell Grants report that students are not engaged with or making use of advising technologies, compared with institutions serving lower proportions of students who are eligible for Pell Grants. It could be that some students do not have the same access as others to reliable WiFi and laptops off campus. Contributing institutional challenges also include a lack of student and adviser representation in the process to select and implement new technologies, an excessive number of technological systems used in isolation of each other, and fragmented or misaligned policies about how to use those systems.

A collaborative and coordinated technology-selection process should give an institution a clear understanding of the needs of its users, particularly advisers and students, and the capabilities and drawbacks of its current system. An institution should select new technology that aligns with the vision for advising that arises from the assessments described above, and that accounts for the perspectives of all intended users. To address some causes of inequitable access to technologies, institutions also need investments that will strengthen users’ remote-connection capabilities, provide training on how to make the best use of existing systems, and interpret technology-use data to make informed decisions.

Provide incentives for continual improvement and knowledge sharing.

Advisers and other student support staff members need professional development to learn about effective practices and about how one-size-fits-all practices and policies can affect different students differently and exacerbate inequities. Students have many social and cultural identities, and students in any subpopulation can differ from each other in many ways. Institutions should give student support staff and faculty members incentives to practice “culturally engaging advising”; to do so, they will need to engage in professional development and constructive reflection.[2] Research that examines the effects of advising initiatives on students’ lived experiences can also deepen the field’s understanding of where policy solutions are needed. For example, research is needed into the effects of equity-minded recruitment processes and of hiring more racially and ethnically diverse advisers who share identities with the students they serve.

For all of these efforts to provide students with holistic advising experiences—through institution-wide collaboration, assessments, improvements in the use of data, continual learning about student identities, and more—colleges and universities will need adequate resources. Making targeted investments in these areas can allow policymakers to advance toward more equitable student outcomes.

Additional Resources:

[1]The Monitoring Advising Analytics to Promote Success (MAAPS) program is an advising initiative designed for students who are the first in their families to attend college or are eligible for Pell Grants. An evaluation of MAAPS at 11 institutions did not show significant impacts on academic achievement and persistence after one academic year. However, students participating in the study reported short-term benefits from MAAPS, and small, promising impacts on academic outcomes were observed at Georgia State University, which had stronger implementation of MAAPS than other participating institutions. For more information, see Rayane Alamuddin, Daniel Rossman, and Martin Kurzweil, Monitoring Advising Analytics to Promote Success (MAAPS): Evaluation Findings from the First Year of Implementation (New York: Ithaka S+R, 2018).

[2]Samuel Museus defines “culturally engaged advising” as advising that: (1) cultivates meaningful relationships that allow students to view advisers as real human beings and mentors who care about and are committed to their success; (2) assumes responsibility to actively connect students with relevant resources that can help them thrive in college and their future lives; (3) attempts to understand the complex, interconnected nature of various aspects of lives of students from historically marginalized communities and serves as a conduit to the larger support network on campus; and (4) helps connect students of color with learning opportunities (including civic engagement, learning validation, empowerment, and more) that are relevant to their communities and identities. See Samuel D. Museus, “Revisiting the Role of Academic Advising in Equitably Serving Diverse College Students” NACADA Journal 41, 1 (2021): 26–32.


Alexa Wesley Chamberlain is the director of research and strategy at NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Amelia Parnell is the vice president for research and policy at NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.