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Advising in the Face of Apathy: Collaboration, Connection, and Communication in Higher Education

Nikol Luther, Lewis-Clark State College

Nikol Luther.jpgWe witness it in our classrooms and offices, see it in the vacant stares of students at Registration and Orientation, and sense it in the lack of response to our written, phone, and email communications.  Apathy is spreading across campuses at an alarming rate, and it is highly contagious. Faculty are not engaging students, advisors are not connecting with their advisees, and morale is plummeting in the wake of the “do more with less” juggernaut.  Retention rates are dropping. If the cure for apathy has anything to do with its antonym, then the best way we can overcome this epidemic is to increase our activism, vigor, and purpose. It is a daunting task, but as professional and faculty advisors, we can reverse the effects of apathy in order to strengthen our institutions and promote student retention and success.

Throughout history, apathy has come in waves, usually determined by the social environment and history-making events. The current generation of privilege shows apathy in a variety of ways, but predominantly as a form of disconnection. This seems odd given the fact that the online marketers have labeled this the “connected” generation.  However, student dependence upon technology is actually resulting in disconnection and disengagement from the human, social contact needed to successfully collaborate, connect, and communicate.

The symptoms are recognizable: apathetic students are those who are disengaged, disconnected, unmotivated, uninterested, unexcited. They are students who do not communicate with faculty or advisors, students who avoid studying and who do not attend class. They are students who do not participate in activities; cannot fend for themselves; want the fastest, cheapest degree; and lack any concern with current social issues (NSSE, 2008).  The 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) found that  69% of the students surveyed report that they often come to class unprepared; 47% stated that they never discuss course material with faculty outside of the classroom; 46% “rarely or never” seek tutoring services; only 8% engage with faculty in activities “outside of the classroom”; and “35%-51% of students rarely or never take advantage” of academic advising and career counseling services despite recognizing the importance of doing so (pp. 11-16).

The effects of apathy appear in fairly alarming disengagement statistics. Harward (2008) noted that while “over 40% of ‘millennial age’ students self report episodes of depression sufficient to interrupt their academic work,” many are unrecognizable to faculty, and “over 35% of current students engage in binging with alcohol or other drugs with the intent of passing out – emotionally and physically disengaging” (¶ 1).  This disconnection trend has a direct effect on student success and retention, and many institutions are taking note. Investment in student retention is resulting in the organization of programs and policies and revised mission statements are being pumped out in a promotional frenzy to let our potential students know that we care. These promising words are easy to read and comforting to hear, but the follow-through is not always as simple. In fact, Harward further stated that some educators believe “that the efforts and resources currently in place on campuses are offering, in large part, partial treatments of symptoms, rather than dealing with causes” (¶ 6). So what does it take to defeat apathy, especially in a climate of insufficient funds, minimal resources, and low morale and motivation? Awareness and action.

Lotkowski, Robbins, & Noeth (2004) report that students who “fail to develop adequate academic self-confidence, academic goals, institutional commitment, and social support and involvement” are those who present the greatest attrition risk, and advisors are best suited for addressing these issues (p. vii).  Identifying the at-risk population and implementing a tracking, monitoring, and early alert program is a logical starting point.  At-risk students are those who lack basic skills and responsibility, are unrealistic about grades, apathetic toward learning, unmotivated, and unable to handle their own affairs (Walsh, 2003). According to the National Survey of Student Engagement (2008), in comparison to highly prepared students, at-risk students are “significantly less engaged in academic activities and collaborative learning” (p. 19), do not understand the importance of developmental courses, are “three times more likely to report ‘C’ averages” (p. 19), are less likely to plan on completing their degree, and have a much more difficult time transitioning to college.  Identifying and monitoring at-risk students requires effective communication methods, and collaboration.

Modes of communication are steadily evolving as campuses seek alternatives to institutional emails in an effort to engage and connect with their students. Social networking tools such as Red Rover©, Facebook©, Ning©, and Twitter© allow students to connect with their peers, advisors, and instructors.  Junco and Heiberger (2009) noted that “94% of first year students spend at least some time on social networks every week” (slide 18); however, ASSETT (2009) reported that “most universities are in a transitional state” (¶ 4) when it comes to updated communication technology, and “fewer than 45%” of IT specialists “believe that their university’s current communications infrastructure is equipped to meet evolving needs” (¶ 4). Effective retention programs take into consideration a variety of communication methods if we are to connect with and engage our students.

Perhaps the most important goal of retention efforts is helping first year students successfully transition to college life.  Hunter and Linder (2005) stated that campuses offering first-year seminars promote student learning, involvement, and “engagement in the learning process” (p. 276). ACT (2008) found that roughly 32% of public 4-year college students drop out without completing their first year; this indicates that a first-year seminar focusing on transition, connection, and active learning is an obvious step in the right direction (p. 3). Lance (2009) affirmed that, “academic advisors are ideal instructors for FY courses because they are often the most familiar with institutional policies and procedures and the resources available to new students” (¶ 6).

In order to address the disconnection that leads to retention issues there must be campus-wide awareness and buy-in. Frustration builds as apathy’s contagion becomes evident in the lack of faculty involvement, decreased awareness of advising issues, lack of responsibility for student success, and the lack of knowledge of advising roles and responsibilities. One way to promote awareness is to publish a monthly advising newsletter to keep faculty advisors updated on current trends and issues. Advisor trainings, workshops, and roundtable discussions also offer forums for faculty and professional advisors to discuss retention problems and solutions. An easily accessible and routinely updated advisor handbook is a necessary tool for successful advising.

These are demanding and challenging times. We face uncertainty on nearly every front, yet as academic advisors we are charged with guiding the education of tomorrow’s leaders. We must decide. Will we join the ranks of individuals whose pessimism is manifested as roadblocks? Or will we take action, and initiate a call for change? Quality academic advising may be the key to student retention and success.  It depends upon awareness, optimism, active collaboration, connection, and effective communication if we are to reverse the effects of apathy.

Nikol Luther
Career and Advising Services
Lewis-Clark State College
[email protected]


ACT, Inc. (2008). National Collegiate Retention and Persistence to Degree Rates.  Retrieved August 27, 2009, from http://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/Retention-Persistence-Tables-2017.pdf

Arts and Sciences Support of Education Through Technology (ASSETT). (2009) Higher Ed Updating Use of Messaging.  Retrieved July 1, 2009 from http://assett.colorado.edu/?p=436

Essential Elements of Engagement: High Expectations and High Support.Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). (2008). Retrieved June 30, 2009 from www.ccsse.org/survey/bench_student.cfm

Harward, D. (2008).  A different way to fight student disengagement. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved June 20, 2009 from www.insidehighered.com/views/2008/04/15/harward

Hunter, M. & Linder, C. (2005).  First-year seminars.  In M.L. Upcraft, J.N. Gardner, & B.O. Barefoot (Eds.), Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student (p. 276).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Junco, R. & Heiberger, G. (2009, March). You can use Facebook for that? Research-supported strategies to engage your students. Presentation at the National American College Personnel Association Meeting, Washington, DC. Retrieved July 1, 2009 from http://blog.swiftkickonline.com/

Lance, A. (2009).  Advising is teaching: Advisors take it to the classroom! Academic Advising Today, 32(2). Retrieved May 21, 2009 from www.nacada.ksu.edu/ePub/AAT32-2.htm#4

Lotkowski, V., Robbins, S., & Noeth, R. (2004).  ACT Policy Report. The Role of Academic and Non-Academic Factors in Improving College Retention. Retrieved June 30, 2009 from www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/college_retention.pdf

National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). (2008). Promoting Engagement for All Students: The Imperative to Look Within. Retrieved August 28, 2009, from http://nsse.iub.edu/NSSE_2008_Results

Walsh, P. (2003). At risk students. Retrieved August 28, 2009, from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site: www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/FAQs/atrisk.htm

Cite this article using APA style as: Luther, N. (2009, December). Advising in the face of apathy: Collaboration, connection, and communication in higher education. Academic Advising Today, 32(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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