Mike Dial, University of South Carolina
Paige McKeown, University of South Carolina
Early intervention programs, also referred to as early alert or early warning programs, are in use at a majority of two- and four-year campuses as means of improving retention and institutional persistence rates. According to Cuseo (n.d.), early intervention programs are “formal, proactive, feedback system through which students and student-support agents are alerted to early red flags” (p. 1). Karp (2014) cautions though that sending up a red flag in and of itself is not a student retention panacea. If that warning indicator causes an institutional helping agent to engage in outreach and intervention with the student, that may lead to greater student success outcomes.
On campus, student retention is everyone’s responsibility, and over the last decade, early alert initiatives have become incredibly buzzworthy. The explosion of interest in and facilitation of early alert initiatives is likely due in no small part to the profusion of consulting services and tech firms purporting to offer the next big solution for student retention. As such, disparate campus units have engaged in the early intervention space. Recent scholarship suggests that at about 90% of responding institutions, faculty and advisors are consistently engaged in early intervention (Barefoot et al., 2012; Estrada & Latino, 2019). Figure 1 below showcases that other institutional personnel engage in this work at lower rates nationwide.
Types of Professional Staff Engaged in Early Intervention
Note. Data from the JNGI 2012 Enhancing Student Success and Retention throughout Undergraduate Education: A National Survey Report (Barefoot et al., 2012) and the 2017 National Survey of the First-Year Experience (NSFYE) (Estrada & Latino, 2019)
There are many reasons that academic advisors are tapped for this role at most institutions. In Dial and McKeown (2019), several interventions are recommended that advisors can facilitate beyond faculty referrals or traditional early alert initiatives. Herein, in addition to these additional interventions, we as authors offer several reasons why academic advisors are best suited to respond to early alert notifications with at-risk students.
Where academic advising is appropriately resourced, including funding, staffing, and appropriate student information systems, beginning at new student orientation, advisors form 1:1 relationships with their advisees. It can reasonably be assumed that students are more likely to respond to emails, calls, and text messages from an individual on campus with whom they have a relationship than they would be to respond to outreach in the form of cold calls from a central retention office. Additionally, advisors get to know their advisees as whole persons and can co-design strategic and student-specific plans of action.
Advisors are also optimally suited for the work of intervention due to the caseload-centric nature of the role. Advisors may be the only full-time professional staff members on campus to whom students have a formal, assigned relationship, rather than serving as one-off or walk-in practitioners. Because a team of advisors are doing the work of intervention, rather than a central coordinator (or even two or three), the idea of whether or not advisors have the capacity to include early intervention in their work shifts from “one person doing the work” to “one person doing the work for a finite, defined group,” and others doing the same work on their own populations across the institution. Often, a major challenge to early alert is follow-up—critical so not only can staff gauge additional student need, but also be able to assess whether an intervention was effective. Advisors managing a caseload with a finite number of at-risk students can follow up with individual referring faculty in a way that a central office cannot.
When advisor caseloads are appropriately sized, 300:1 according to national best practice, advisors can stratify these groups early on using campus technologies and 1:1 appointments. Advisors are well-positioned to excel in caseload management in their day-to-day work—they know who they are responsible for and can therefore structure tiered interventions effectively, ensuring that all students get what they need when they need it.
Tiered intervention via academic advisors is adapted from the Response to Intervention (RTI) model, common in K-12 education for both behavioral and academic purposes (The IRIS Center, 2008). This model uses a pyramid visual to separate three categories of students in need of support: the base, often colored green, represents about 80% of a given student population, who will be successful when provided with universal supports that are preventative and proactive.
Advisors are uniquely positioned specifically to support this population due to students being in their assigned caseload. The second tier, usually represented in yellow, comprises an additional 15% of the student group and would be students who are classically at-risk and will be benefitted by monitoring and targeted intervention. Finally, the top tier, represented in red and making up about 5% of a population, would be those students who are actively struggling and will benefit from reactive, individual intervention. The aforementioned 300:1 caseload size allows advisors to give ample time to students (approximately four hours per year per student) and using the RTI tiers advisors can allocate this time effectively. Not every student in a caseload will need the four hours per academic year, and the time left over from those students is reinvested into time supporting students who need more than four hours.
Positioning Within Academic Units
The issues on which advisors are best able to intervene are naturally tied into their work—supporting the student with curricular advice and as a central source for guidance on decision making that will impact degree completion and time to degree. Often there are underlying causes that contribute to poor academic performance, such as mental and physical health concerns, serving as a primary caregiver to children or elders, or lack of access to basic needs. However, classroom factors, such as attendance issues and poor grades, are prone to appear as the red flags that alert professionals to these distal causes. When advisors are the central conduits of early alert and intervention, they are better primed than nearly any other higher education professionals to act quickly and effectively on the most visible academic red flags. Because advisors are, by the nature of their roles, embedded in the academic units and curricula where they advise, they are positioned to act as a one-stop shop for students’ needs when the issues that arise manifest as academic.
As academic challenges can be visible evidence of underlying challenges and can also have far ranging effects on degree progression, it is vital for students that advisors are engaged in this work and are not an afterthought or a referral agent only if a responding office thinks they may need to be. Where the matter of a student’s success or failure in courses may naturally necessitate course specific services, success in the course is inextricable from progress towards degree. Therefore, if a student needs support that involves a change to the degree plan because of this, the advisor is already involved, because they initiated the outreach. Because advisors are housed in their academic units and not a central retention-focused space, advisors can present assistance to the student that is focused on their curriculum and path to degree. Where faculty members are the purveyors of their subject matter, advisors are the purveyors of the curricula as a unit—so where faculty are the expert guides in their material, advisors are experts in guiding students through curricular complexity, and therefore intervening when there are adjacent factors of the college experience that disrupt the student’s path through the curriculum. Marc Lowenstein says,
An excellent advisor does the same for the student’s entire curriculum that the excellent teacher does for one course (Lowenstein, 2000). The entire curriculum refers both to the student’s major and to the courses taken to meet general education requirements . . . whereas the individual course is the domain of the professor, the overall curriculum is most often the domain of the academic advisor, and the excellent advisor coaches the student through the process of learning the curriculum. (2009)
Implications for Practice
Early alert initiatives are relatively new to higher education in comparison to pillars such as, first-year seminars, orientation, and academic advising itself. When facilitated well and by staff who can have the quickest and largest scale impact for at-risk students, early warning programs have the potential to benefit both students and institutions. Academic advisors responding to early alerts benefit students by connecting them to resources; ensuring they are in majors and courses that align with their strengths, values, and goals; and showcasing an institutional ethic of care for students and their success. Institutions stand to benefit financially from the tuition dollars saved as a result of advisor outreach and intervention preventing dropout and dismissal. Student success and retention are of course everyone’s responsibility; however, when academic advising is good, a special relationship forms between students and their assigned advisors. According to King and Kerr (2005), “academic advising is perhaps the most important way that first-year students interact with a representative of the institution” (p. 320). Due to the relational nature of their role, expertise in their curricula, university resources, and campus policies and procedures, and the finite number of students in their assigned caseloads, academic advisors are the most apt campus representatives to perform outreach and intervention following faculty referral.
Assistant Director of First-Year Advising
University Advising Center, Office of the Provost
University of South Carolina
Coordinator of First-Year Advising and Academic Intervention
University Advising Center, Office of the Provost
University of South Carolina
Barefoot, B. O., Griffin, B. Q., & Koch, A. K. (2012). Enhancing student success and retention throughout undergraduate education: A national survey. John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59b0c486d2b857fc86d09aee/t/59bad33412abd988ad84d697/1505415990531/JNGInational_survey_web.pdf
Cuseo, J. (n.d.). Red flags: Behavioral indicators of potential student intervention. https://docplayer.net/17519395-Red-flags-behavioral-indicators-of-potential-student-attrition.html
Dial, M., & McKeown, P. (2019, December). Beyond faculty referrals: Advisory facilitated early intervention. Academic Advising Today, 42(4). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Beyond-Faculty-Referrals-Advisor-Facilitated-Early-Intervention.aspx
Estrada, S., & Latino, J. (2019). Early-alert programs. In D. Young (Ed.), 2017 national survey on the first-year experience: Creating and coordinating structures to support student success (pp. 53–61). University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition.
The IRIS Center. (2008). RTI (part 5): A closer look at tier 3. https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/rti05-tier3/
Karp, M. (2014, January 13). Tech alone won't cut it. Insider Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/01/13/essay-looks-how-early-warning-systems-can-better-boost-retention
King, M. C., & Kerr, T. J. (2005). Academic advising. In M. L. Upcraft, J. N. Gardner, & B. O. Barefoot, Challenging and Suppporting the First-Year Student (p. 320). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lowenstein, M. (2009). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach? NACADA Journal, 29(1), 123–131. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-29.1.123
Cite this article using APA style as: Dial, M., & McKeown, P. (2020, December). Academic early alert and intervention: Why academic advisors are best suited to intervene at at-risk students. Academic Advising Today, 43(4). [insert url here]