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How to Apply Social Work Concepts in Academic Advising
By Ed Silverman, PhD, MBA, and Jason McKinney, PhD, LCSW-R
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 2 P. 24

Learn how one college is attempting to raise student development by adopting a social work and case management focus to advising.

Like many industries, higher education has been required (at times begrudgingly) to seek new practice paradigms to address emerging economic and student development challenges (Craig, 2015). A major industry stressor currently endangering higher education is that universities and colleges often lose one-third of their freshman entrants (Field, 2018).

Consistent with the literature, Lillis (2011) summarizes the key reasons that students leave college, reporting that financial concerns, academic issues, lack of social integration, and minimal opportunity for faculty interaction are factors that influence attrition and drop-out rates. He wrote that institutions have tried several high-impact practices thought to stabilize their retention rates, including common reading programs and learning communities. Yet, the impact on retention has been negligible. This is especially true for low-income, first-generation, and minority students. In addition, it appears that many of these initiatives are not necessarily evidence based. Often missing are precise data as to why students actually leave. Exit interviews at our institution revealed broad, but not particularly helpful, buckets for leaving: financial difficulties, family issues, a generalized homesickness, and a lack of fit (socially and intellectually).

Lambert and Siegel (2018) note that the emerging need for a more holistically trained student advisor on college campuses aligns nicely with the skills and knowledge of a social work graduate. Following this line of reasoning, this article describes an ever-evolving advising practice model developed at a small, tuition-dependent private college. The model is based on the assumption that student retention and development is more than a traditional academic advising endeavor—it is one that requires a social work–informed psychosocial assessment and action plan. This is not to say the model is one of deficit. In fact, it is strength-based in philosophy and practice. Yet, anticipating barriers to persistence is vital.

This role is viewed as fertile occupational ground for those trained in social work. Upon their campus arrival, incoming freshmen go through an initial transition, followed by a subsequent, ongoing developmental process. This model is underpinned by a social work and organizational counseling knowledge base, with elements from task-centered case work.

The Advising Model
Westover (2018) wrote that at its best, college can be an “engine of opportunity,” noting that 77% of those born into the top 75% income households will earn a college degree by age 24. Conversely, the same metric for the poorest 25% is only 9%. Furthermore, income inequality continues at accelerating rates with 95% of income growth going to 1% of the population (Sommeiller & Price, 2018).

Higher education appears to have a product distribution issue. It is not working efficiently for those who need it most. Students, degree in hand, rise two quintiles beyond that of their family of origin. Yet, persisting in school remains a complex challenge for resource-poor, first-generation students.

Currently, phrases such as “student resiliency” have arisen from behind a “student retention” smokescreen. An advisor will need to balance multiple demands and agendas. The traditional advising role and paradigm of student development has taken on an economic spin. Higher education has moved from developing students to retaining them, or, more precisely, their tuition dollars. Not that retention and development are mutually exclusive. A social work–trained advisor will be successful in navigating this paradox by creating a win-win situation for students, faculty, and even the chief financial officer.

The model (see accompanying figure below) has a social work and case management focus. The first step in the model is focused with initial, survival-level concerns, while the apex of the pyramid delineates a more ambitious level of development and achievement. The key differentiator is for advisors to adopt a process that is more developmentally oriented than episodic. Software can schedule students’ courses—perhaps more efficiently than humans—but cannot assess for nor unpeel the issues and obstacles that diminish retention—and later development—potential.

A proactive sense of urgency is required to access and identify each student’s strengths and barriers to success during the first semester (winter break is an attrition attractor). The other stages can be more fluid and more open-ended. By senior year, the advising process should likely resemble an organizational coaching process where career or graduate school alignment assumes priority.

Transitions vs. Change
The model’s first step represents individual transition. College freshmen initially engage in a major transition, with some being better prepared than others. Most will be leaving home, friends, and comforts behind. Some will feel, justifiably or not, intellectually unprepared.

Perhaps a smaller percentage will feel the actual grab of an emotional undertow, subtly and unconsciously sucking them back home to the safety of familiarity. Kirp (2016) notes that it is natural for new college students to experience freshman fear. He reports that this apprehension goes beyond a mere fear of failure. Students often feel like an interloper or imposter. Not surprisingly, the author reports that the poor, underrepresented, and first-generation college students are most at risk. Often the cycle of doubt becomes self-reinforcing, creating a pool of students at risk for stifled persistence.

Bridges (2016) presents a model of transition. A differentiating factor of this model is its focus on transition vs. change. Clearly, college matriculation triggers a series of changes, but ultimately it may be more useful to—like Bridges—view this challenge as one of transition.

The Bridges model highlights three stages of transition: ending loss and letting go, the neutral zone, and new beginnings. It is not a stretch to superimpose freshmen here. They often enter this transition with disorientation, fear, uncertainty, and a sense of loss. Perhaps least intuitive is that of loss. While the new student is at the precipice of a great adventure, fully engaging is doubtful without first addressing loss. Loss of comfort zone, friends, family, and, perhaps, identity. In many ways this is a life reset, especially for those whose life existed within the bubble of their own neighborhood.

This transition period, which is very much psychosocial in nature, is experienced differently by each student and often trampled on by a litany of episodic and concrete tasks that arise before and shortly after a student’s arrival (financial aid issues, registration, and residential difficulties, to name a few). Yet, if we can anticipate these emotional stress points and concurrently guide students through their feelings of loss, this grieving process can resolve more positively, allowing for a subsequent neutral zone period that serves as a bridge to connect each student from their familiar comfort zone to the unknown that awaits them.

The neutral zone allows for reflection (at times painful) and protects against instinctive decision making. It sets the stage for a new beginning where students can become more open to engagement, exploring, learning, growth, and change. It is also critical that during this period that students are supported in efforts to navigate the often siloed, poorly coordinated, and bureaucratic complexities that exist beyond the classroom.

Psychosocial Factors
Students who do not have the opportunity to grieve those left behind will likely not engage in their new world. And freshman students who cannot “engage” will likely not persist. Certainly many students do just fine with this transition, but many do not.

It is critical that the advisor/social worker can differentiate and triage the cohorts. Field (2018) notes that it is not unusual to see one-third of one’s freshmen disappear. The author reports that these high attrition rates are due to several “high-risk” factors inclusive of lack of preparation and fit. Economics and family issues typically tend to enter into the equation.

In addition, Beauchemin (2018) reports that there continues to be an increase in stress-related issues, coupled with poor coping skills, among college students. In fact, new students often face a fight-or-flight reflex, often exacerbated when a history of trauma is present (Lambert & Siegel, 2018; Buckingham & Goodell, 2019).

Kuh (2006) wrote that academic advisors, in addition to their more task-focused activities, can assist new students on an engagement level. He, like many of the current consulting companies, highlights several strategies that closely parallel a case management process. Most notably, Kuh (2006) speaks to an advisor’s need to have meaningful interactions with students.

One can anticipate that new students, in addition to feeling a sense of loss and security at a Maslow-survival level, might additionally experience anxiety and disequilibrium in a new environment. A professor lacking self-awareness and empathy can present a barrier to a student’s overall integration (Lillis, 2011). Without an advisor’s assessment, attention, and anticipation, the freshman student will face a greater transitional challenge.

The Paradox of Fitting In While Finding Oneself
Students who productively navigate the transition to higher education and return in good standing for their sophomore year are next challenged with maximizing a return on their educational investment. Superimposed on this activity is the paradoxical challenge of finding one’s place while allowing a new or changing self-identity to emerge.

The whole of this activity is not necessarily economic but more one of identifying explicit pathways to academic and social success (Kuh, 2006). In fact, this is a primary advisory and student outcome in the model’s middle stage. We might be aware of who a student is or what they plan to major in, but not necessarily how this choice aligns with their likes, dislikes, talents, and temperaments. This is why it is critical for the advisor—like a case manager or an organizational coach—to know the unique “back story” of those they attempt to develop. In fact, Johnson (2017) questions whether an advisor needs to become more coach and less traditional advisor.

Coaching in Higher Education: The Student
Different advising models have emerged throughout the years. A more proactive and intrusive model has emerged as a retention strategy. As noted earlier in the article, more proactive advising does place a burden on both the professional and academic advisor. However, if superimposed on a collaborative interdisciplinary process, an efficient student resource network can emerge and be utilized (Johns et al., 2017). The additional piece is one that is more psychosocial in nature. Students tend to have the best college experience when advisors are willing to assume a counseling or coaching role when needed (Daly & Sidell, 2013).

Students face many challenges: roommates, dorm living, cafeteria meals, lack of historical privacy, and new accountabilities and freedoms. They need to form a plethora of relationships with other students as well as faculty in a relatively short time.

Less visible are internally focused processes. These are complex and not soft in nature, but do require a more counseling and coaching approach, as the student seeks familiar comforts at a time when they are exploring to locate which niche might suit them best.

Organizational coaching has emerged and grown as an industry unto itself. But the utility for higher education has not been fully explored. The goal of a coaching component in the academic setting is focused on supporting the developmental process whereby the student, as partner and collaborator, meets regularly with the coach/advisor to set goals, neutralize barriers, further professional identity, and generally align learning with career goals (Deiorio et al., 2016).

Their model is inclusive of establishing a relationship, conducting an assessment, setting goals and an action plan, and evaluating the results. While the field of coaching does not have its own unifying theoretical foundation, the Task-Centered Casework problem typology has been a useful ally. Student challenges can then be classified from within: interpersonal conflict and personal relations, interactions with formal organizations, role performance, and inadequate resources (Reid & Epstein, 1977).

Organization training experts Gostick and Elton (2018) encourage the conceptual practice of Managing to the One. They wrote of the importance of knowing and understanding each learner’s unique set of passions, talents, temperaments, and motivators. This, too, is important for higher education advisors if they are to consider each student as a holistic preprofessional. For example, the failing physical therapy major who has a passion for people and health care, but little talent for math and science, may be better suited for social work. Certainly a purposeful “role-related” internal major transfer is preferable to an academic dismissal.

Another important aspect of this middle stage is the timing and sequencing of advisor student interactions. Research by Daly and Sidell (2013) indicates that a student-advisor relationship is more effective if less episodic and more continuous. The research suggests that at least monthly meetings occur during a given semester. The critical takeaway is that advising should have more of a proactive, primary care focus than crisis reactions. This may be more of an up-front advisor investment, but avoiding a trail of ongoing crises can have its efficiencies. The more one engages and understands individual advisees, the less reactive future action will need to be.

It’s logical that without a supportive task-centered coaching relationship, a student will become overwhelmed, shut down, and revert to what feels safe (Lambert & Siegel, 2018). It’s not surprising that research suggests that students are more likely to succeed and retain when they have meaningful relationships with faculty and advisors (Miller & Murray, 2005). A more proactive, continuous process not only enhances student persistence but also begins to align a student’s classroom and experiential learning opportunities with future organizational and professional transitions at a higher social and academic developmental level.

Coaching in Higher Education: The Faculty
Coaching faculty to be more purposeful and proactive in their mentoring of students may be another role for the social work–trained advisor. Buckingham and Goodell (2019) speak to a “feedback fallacy” in organizations that has implications for higher education advising. They report that the conventional wisdom of praising and criticizing employees does not lead to their thriving. The authors note that neuroscience literature has revealed that criticism triggers a “fight-or-flight” brain response that inhibits learning.

We humans tend to reach our growth potentials when mentoring, coaching, and advising are strengths based (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005). The social work–trained advisor can coach and reinforce this strategy to and with faculty.

A deficit-focused approach to advising inhibits rather than facilitates learning potential (Buckingham & Goodell, 2019). It is therefore possible that a student’s brain responds to critical feedback as a threat, thus narrowing its activity. Boyatzis, Smith, and Beveridge (2013) speak to a similar phenomenon, reporting that coaching with compassion opens new growth potential while a deficiency approach facilitates defensiveness, reducing cognitive potential.

Emotional intelligence (and lack thereof) is often a leadership attribute associated with managers and administrators. However, several authors have examined the effect of faculty level of emotional intelligence on student retention and the classroom environment (Brackett & Katulak, 2007; Lillis, 2011). Bracket and Katulak (2007) note that the ability of faculty to be self-aware of one’s own emotions, coupled with identifying how others are feeling, requires intentional attention to and immediate analysis of an array of internal and external cues. Faculty deficiency in this area is likely to be as highly disruptive in the classroom as it is in the boardroom. For example, Lillis’ (2011) study on the effect of faculty mentor emotional intelligence and communication frequency found a relationship between student-faculty contacts and student retention. Most interesting is the degree to which faculty emotional intelligence had an effect on student attrition intentions.

Success and Competence
As noted earlier, by a student’s senior year, a level of competence should emerge that allows the advisor and student to become more professionally focused and career oriented in their interactions. This raises the question, “Is higher education preemptively doing enough to prepare students for college and the workplace in a more integrated manner?”

While the initial weeks and months of the student-advisor relationship focused on engagement, trust, and continuity, and the middle phase more on experimentation and active learning, the final stage is more focused and strategic. Gorrell and Hoover (2009) outline such a practice process from their research in organizational coaching inclusive of the following stages: engagement, assessment, exploration, strategic goal setting, and ongoing development leading toward competence.

Students are often measured in terms of grade point averages and standardized scores, but is that truly a valid and reliable operational definition of competence? Advisors, similar to career coaches, might do well to partner and align competence with academic and career aspiration. This ensures for a good fit. Obviously, this should be started early and continuously assessed throughout the relationship and fine-tuned during end stages.

For example, many social work students initially inform their advisors that a desire to work with people led to their choice in major. It’s not a horrible alignment for a college freshman, but by sophomore or junior year, they often can narrow their “helping” to something akin to a health care–focused social work specialty.

Others realized that they did, indeed, like working with people, but through engagement, trust, and exploration with their advisor internally transferred their major to human resources or education. Some may remain as social work majors but recognize their graduate studies will move in a different direction. Diaz (2018) wrote that colleges faced with a return on educational investment accountability might consider investing student success services—academic and career services, for example—in a more purposeful manner. Both coursework and cocurricular activities need this integrated oversight to work toward career alignment.

Implications and Conclusions
It should be noted that while our model is meant to provide some structure, there is certainly some fluidity among stages. Development typically does not transpire in a linear, proscribed course. The common thread among these students is that all retained, in part due to the advisor-student relationship. During the social work–infused advising process, a sense of competence begins to appear. This competence is not only scholastically specific but also inclusive of the student finding the beginnings of their own specific “self-career environment fit.” Finally, the last work of the advisor is to reinforce, fine-tune, and further align this sense of competence.

Elements of a productive student success program are typically present on a college campus, but seldom are these programmatic pieces integrated into a strategic process. Pieces of this complex puzzle often are fragmented by bureaucracy and professional and political silos. Retention and student success goals must be integrated, and stakeholders need to be cognizant of their interdependencies.

There appear to be two potential solutions. First, the skill set of the traditional advisor needs enhancement. As has already happened in health care, one can sense elements of case management and population health models emerging in higher education. College advising may be an emerging social work, case management, and clinical field. Furthermore, counselors and case managers are typically comfortable with an advocate role and are competent systems-thinkers.

Second, the student success challenge can be addressed as a process improvement or organizational development project. The objective is to create a process in which the student service areas are integrated and the student receives a coordinated effort to maximize student potential.

The key to both alternatives is structure and adherence of the advising model—one that anticipates and addresses the complete psychosocial, academic, and coaching needs of the student.

Ed Silverman, PhD, MBA, is a professor at Keuka College in Keuka Park, New York, who teaches in and has chaired both the social work and business divisions.

— Jason McKinney, PhD, LCSW-R, is chair and an associate professor of the division of social work at Keuka College.


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