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Rory McElwee, Rowan University

Rory McElwee.jpgNACADA’s new partnership with Complete College America (Complete College America, 2017a) strongly demonstrates the centrality of academic advising to college completion and affordability. Strategies described in  the “Shared Principles for Boosting On-Time Graduation” (Complete College America, 2017b) will further bolster advisors’ success in supporting affordability and completion, from the “15 to Finish” campaign to the unique position of academic advisors to promote strategies for degree progress.  College affordability is a major social and economic issue: 70% of graduates from 4-year not-for-profit institutions owe student loan debt, an average of $28,000; furthermore, many former students who never attain a degree also accumulate significant student loan debt without access to the higher-paying jobs that would enable them to pay it off (The Institute for College Access & Success, 2015).  This article presents numerous ways advisors can boost affordability for their students, including strategies which facilitate timely degree completion and methods for serving as advocates for affordability-related programs, services, and even campus mindset.

Here college affordability is defined in the broadest sense: any costs—direct, indirect, or opportunity—that a student experiences due to or while attending college.  This includes tuition and fees, course materials, and basic living expenses including food, housing, health care and insurance, transportation, and more.  The “Beyond Financial Aid” guide and institutional self-assessment from the Lumina Foundation (Chaplot, Cooper, Johnstone, & Karandjeff, 2015) is an invaluable resource for this comprehensive view of affordability and has informed some of the strategies below.

Strategies for advisors to bolster college affordability

Maintain or accelerate time to degree.  When students do not complete degrees on time, each additional year costs not only more tuition and fees, it also reduces their lifetime income due to being out of the workforce or in lower-level jobs not requiring a degree.  Complete College America (2014) states that each additional year at a community college costs on average more than $50,000 and at a four-year public institution almost $70,000 due to direct as well as opportunity costs.  Academic advisors can support timely graduation by bolstering progress and completion:

  • Help students find the right-fit major, advising toward more flexible or open-enrollment majors if they are unlikely to succeed in their chosen field.  Williams Newman (2016) provides a helpful resource for honest advising with students whose desired major may be unrealistic.
  • Inform students of appropriate credit enrollment and benchmarks so they can assess and plan their graduation timeline realistically.  Complete College America (2011; 2014) reports that “full-time” enrollment is often considered to start at 12 credits, but students and even faculty and staff may not be cognizant that an average of 15 credits per term is required to graduate in 8 semesters, assuming a 120 credit degree.  Using language such as “15 to finish” and encouraging students to complete at least 30 credits (or one quarter) of their degree requirements each year will make them aware of their own timeline.  Certainly not all students can or should proceed through college at this pace (for example, if they have significant work or family responsibilities), but they should all be informed of the consequences to their graduation timeline, and the total cost of that timeline, if they do not
    • Summer and winter course enrollment can bolster completion.  Advisors at four-year institutions can encourage student enrollment at community colleges during the summer (with documentation ensuring transfer approval) to facilitate completion while reducing cost. 
    • Ensure that students are aware of the institution’s tuition policy to maximize the per-credit value (Complete College America, 2014).  For example, at Rowan University, students can enroll in 12-17 credits for one flat rate.  Rowan’s advisors inform students enrolled in 12 credits that they can take another course for no additional charge.
  • Increase students’ academic success by promoting on-time graduation through completion of more credits and maintenance of motivation as the students see they are achieving their goals.  Participation in advisement sessions, as part of an overall academic support structure, increases chances of success and completion (Kolenovik, Linderman, & Karp, 2013).
  • Encourage student behaviors which minimize remedial course enrollment to the extent possible within an institution’s policies.  Enrollment in remedial coursework is a significant negative predictor for retention and graduation (Complete College America, 2016).  Perhaps the student can be encouraged to study and then retake a placement test, or to use tutoring to raise the odds of completing the course on the first attempt, given that these courses can have high failure rates.
  • Ensure that students have final transcripts sent from previous institutions and all AP score reports sent as well.  Know the institution’s policies on credit by exam and other forms of prior learning assessment (PLA); can students complete CLEP (College-Level Exam Program) exams or other credit by exam options to earn credit for knowledge they acquired outside of a college classroom? This can be a very affordable way to earn credits.

Serve as students’ connector to college and campus.  New college students lack knowledge on how college works generally and on specific campuses.  Analogous to immigrants to a new land (Chaskes, 1996), new students do not have a frame of reference for navigating the systems and expectations on college campuses and need intentional enculturation and guidance.  Academic advisors can serve as cultural navigators to orient students to how college works, what they can expect to experience, and how to self-advocate within its systems (Strayhorn, 2015).  Advisors are also important for connecting students to campus offices through their relationships with key personnel in offices such as bursar, financial aid, and registrar.

  • Contact students to ensure they are aware of a hold and strategies to address it if advisors have access to information on student holds that prevent on-time registration, such as due to an outstanding health form or bill.
    • Make sure students are aware of any academic or other requirements they need to maintain eligibility for any scholarships or to stay in financial aid good standing (satisfactory academic progress or SAP).  Students may not be aware that a specific GPA is required to keep their merit scholarship or that repeatedly withdrawing from classes can affect their financial aid eligibility.  Support students through any available appeals processes for reinstatement of funding options.
  • Discuss with students how to learn about and access on-campus jobs or scholarships for continuing students.
  • Be aware that many college students experience significant food and housing insecurity; the recent increase in publicity to these issues (Broton & Goldrick-Rab, 2016) is leading to an increase in campus food banks and other resource centers for students.  Learn about any such resources on campus or in the local community, and be attuned to students who may need access to these critical services, such as students who mention they had not eaten yet that day or repeatedly miss class due to lack of reliable transportation. 

Emphasize professional preparation.  Students list the ability to get a higher paying job as a major desired outcome for attending college (Eagan, Stolzenberg, Bates, Aragon, Suchard, & Rios-Aguilar, 2015), and this can also help students to pay down any student loans they may have obtained.  Academic advisors can assist students with realizing the value of their degree through emphasizing the importance of active, intentional steps to plan their professional future through securing internships and relevant work experience, whether in a pre-professional or liberal arts program.  Advisors can encourage their students to utilize the career services office and to think through their path into the world of work, understanding how their actions during the college years will impact the success of their initial steps into employment.

Strategies for advisors to advocate for college affordability

Advocate on campus for attention to affordability issues.  Academic advisors can serve as champions and advocates for student progress issues (Nguyen, 2015).  This can include advisors sharing their observations regarding academic policy or process that may impede student progress with no clear tie to the quality of education.  Advisors can be uniquely positioned to identify obstacles and bring them to the right people’s attention by talking with their supervisor or colleagues regarding these issues and gathering best practices and conversation starters with students.  Advisors can keep decision-making others informed of their observations, such as a need for more course sections for students to get a full 15 credits of courses which apply to their intended degree.

Seek access to needed data and reports.  This may include reports addressing individual student progress within a given semester, such as which students have holds, have not registered for the subsequent term, are getting low early alert feedback from faculty, or have not yet been in for an appointment.  Other types of data reports useful to advisors include the retention and graduation rates for students in the programs they advise, any predictive analyses identifying high-risk students, and reports of the number of credits per term and year students are completing.  For example, what percentage of students in a program complete 30+ credits a year? How can advisors identify those who do not to suggest a summer course?

Raise awareness of financial literacy for students.  A simple internet search or perusal of books in online sites for “financial literacy college students” yields excellent resources.  The Lumina “Beyond Financial Aid” guide (Chaplot et al., 2015) also provides a strong argument for financial literacy for both students and employees.  Financial literacy programming for employees on college campuses is an important growing practice.  Robert Morris University created the College Affordability Academy® for faculty, staff and administrators with excellent information and educational videos (available here) created for students by the participants.  At Rowan, there have been numerous professional development sessions and open forums for both employees and students regarding financial literacy.

Talk with students about how they are financing their education, and how to make wise choices regarding borrowing.  While student loans can be essential to enable a student to pursue higher education, when students borrow more than they need, it can escalate debt quickly.  Student behaviors, such as choosing less expensive housing options or deciding among meal plans versus cooking for themselves, can have a significant impact on the cost of college beyond tuition (Chaplot et al., 2015).

In sum, NACADA’s partnership with Complete College America brings a new visibility and impetus to the central role of academic advising in college affordability.  Academic advisors are uniquely positioned in many ways to bolster affordability and thus minimize student debt, keep students enrolled, and ultimately help more students to graduate and move on to professional careers.  This is a game-changer for the students and for their families, communities, and beyond.  Academic advisors are extremely important for turning ideas about affordability into reality for individual students.

Rory McElwee
Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success
Division of Student Affairs
Rowan University
[email protected]


Broton, K., & Goldrick-Rab, S. (2016) The dark side of college (un)affordability: Food and housing insecurity in higher education. Change, 48, 16-25. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00091383.2016.1121081

Chaplot, P., Cooper, D., Johnstone, R., & Karandjeff, K. (2015). Beyond financial aid: How colleges can strengthen the financial stability of low-income students and improve student outcomes. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/beyond-financial-aid-2018-03.pdf

Chaskes, J. (1996). The first-year student as immigrant. Journal of the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition8, 79-91.

Complete College America. (2011). Time is the enemy. Retrieved from https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/time-is-the-enemy.pdf

Complete College America. (2014). The four-year myth: Make college more affordable. Restore the promise of graduating on time. Retrieved from https://completecollege.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/4-Year-Myth.pdf

Complete College America. (2016). Corequisite remediation: Spanning the completion divide. Retrieved from https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/corequisite-remediation.pdf

Complete College America. (2017a). Complete College America and NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising launch effort to boost on-time completion rates, reduce student debt. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Portals/0/Resources/Clearinghouse/Documents/CCA_NACADA%201_5_17%201PM%20QTR%20SYST.pdf

Complete College America. (2017b). Shared principles for boosting on-time graduation rates. Retrieved from http://completecollege.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/15-to-Finish-Principles-for-NACADA-v.2.pdf

Eagan, K., Stolzenberg, E. B., Bates, A. K., Aragon, M. C., Suchard, M. R., & Rios-Aguilar, C. (2015). The American freshman: National norms fall 2015. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA. Retrieved from https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2710405/The-American-Freshman-National-Norms-Fall-2015.pdf

Kolenovic, Z., Linderman, D., & Karp, M. M. (2013). Improving student outcomes via comprehensive supports: Three-year outcomes from CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP).  Community College Review, 41, 271-291. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0091552113503709

Nguyen, F. (2015, June). Academic advising or advocacy?  Academic Advising Today, 38(2). Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Academic-Advising-or-Advocacy.aspx

Strayhorn, T. L. (2015). Reframing academic advising for student success: From advisor to cultural navigator. NACADA Journal, 35, 56-63. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-14-199

The Institute for College Access & Success. (2015). Student debt and the class of 2014. 10th annual report of the project on student debt. http://ticas.org/sites/default/files/pub_files/classof2014.pdf

Williams Newman, D. (2016, December). Honest advising. Academic Advising Today, 39(4). Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Honest-Advising.aspx


Cite this article using APA style as: McElwee, R. (2017, June). College affordability: The central role for academic advisors. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2017 June 40:2


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