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Kathy J. McCleaf, Mary Baldwin College

Kathy McCleaf.jpgStudents in our institutions today arrive on campus with an assortment of baggage, some literal and some figurative. Academic cultural capital helps students more quickly glean an understanding of the academic society they are about to participate in and the new expectations of them. Acquired understandings to be successful in college are not equally accessible to every student walking into an advisor’s office.

Cultural capital can be defined as previously acquired knowledge necessary to successfully navigate in a particular environment. In an academic environment, this means developing recognition of implicit and explicit expectations, both inside and outside the classroom.

Collier and Morgan (2008) express a sense of frustration and miscommunication between faculty expectations and student expectations. When applying Collier and Morgan’s academic success model, they build on several theories derived from role theory and cultural capital theory, making all the more clear the importance of our student / advisor / faculty interactions. To assist students who have less cultural capital means to add more tools to their personal arsenal for attaining greater academic skill. Collier and Morgan’s model suggests that “mastering both the explicit and implicit aspects of the college student role” (p. 248) increases the likelihood that students will succeed during their undergraduate years.

The role of an advisor should include bolstering the cultural capital of each advisee. Most advisors are aware of the inequities in student preparation through early personal interactions, review of admission files, or initial progress reports by faculty members. Cultural capital can be understood by examining the difference between actual capacity and the demonstrated capacity that a student has when performing academically (Collier & Morgan, 2008). Helping students move toward actual capacity includes designing and implementing a plan for intellectual development.

Incorporating a plan for student intellectual development must take into account the college environment. Initial insights can be gleaned when advisors consider the complexity of college life. Assisting students with achieving integration through both social engagement and academic engagement as suggested by Pike and Kuh’s (2005) research can be an important first step. Social and academic opportunities together help to enhance the application of what students are learning in the classroom. Integration may hold the key to peer intellectual engagement and social development. Advisors can encourage social engagement as well as academic engagement by providing students with resources and connections to campus activities that complement their academics. Some of the implicit cultural capital that may be missing can be further developed when peer relations with stronger students are developed outside the classroom.

Integration can be seen when students take the concepts they are learning in classes and apply them in campus social environments. One example of integration would be watching students generate a campus-wide social justice effort initially fostered through an academic class.  Another example would involve students actively pursuing service learning opportunities after the requirements of an academic course are completed. Opportunities encouraged during advising sessions can help students with unequal cultural capital find common ground.

Key to understanding cultural capital differences is recognizing the tremendous amount of knowledge that is implicit as students successfully navigate a college campus, both inside and outside of the classroom (Collier & Morgan, 2008). Students without the benefit of family and friends who have previously traversed the first exam period or first long paper do not understand the demands and requirements for study, persistence, and staying power necessary for completing a college degree.

Advisors can become instrumental in helping bridge the knowledge gap by not letting unfamiliar language, faculty expectations, or systemic processes, often assumed to be understood, get in the way of an advisee’s academic success. When meeting with advisees, ask them questions about their course syllabi, including whether they understand the significance of the documents themselves. Doing so creates a bridge between the students and their faculty that will help advisees to understand faculty expectations.  Point out that a syllabus will be received from each professor. Spend time explaining the purpose of a syllabus. This helps students affirm an understanding of the initial contract with the professor about their learning obligations.

Continue the dialogue with advisees by asking what ancillary documents were provided by their professors, such as reading lists, honor code, and disability service expectations. Do they understand how their faculty members will provide them feedback on the work that they submit? Remind students to be certain they understand how to submit their work, electronically or in paper form and by when. Review with students each professor’s office hours and late penalties.

Be sure students can access course materials. Can they readily access the computer labs, the electronic software and online learning systems? Even if a course that they are scheduled for is not  identified as an online class, many professors expect students to access quizzes and course materials online. Make certain that campus resources are easily located with a clearly identified campus map.

Identify the roles of offices, such as the Registrar’s Office or the Office of Technology or the differences between the Academic Dean’s Office and the Student Affairs Dean’s Office. Be sure advisees know how to use the library and access its resources, including how to use professors’ reserve shelves in the library. Help students discover what choices in vendors are available for purchasing course materials to help with budgeting available educational dollars.  

Help advisees to realize the advisor’s role as a partner in their learning. When a dialogue includes an exchange of questions, richness is added to the information that can help students to become academically successful and increase their academic cultural capital. Be open to all questions, most importantly the questions that may be most taken for granted. Build advisees’ cultural capital. Take implicit understandings and make them explicit. Adding to an advisee’s academic cultural capital will increase the likelihood of a great start on the new semester.

Kathy J. McCleaf
School of Social Science, Business and Global Studies
Mary Baldwin College
[email protected]


Collier, P., & Morgan, D. (2008). 'Is that paper really due today?”: Differences in first generation and traditional college students' understandings of faculty expectations. Higher Education 55(4), 425-446.

Pike, G. R., & Kuh, G. D. (2005). First- and second-generation college students: A comparison of their engagement and intellectual development. Journal of Higher Education, 76(3), 276-300.

Cite this article using APA style as: McCleaf, K.J. (2012, March). Improving our advisees' cultural capital. Academic Advising Today, 35(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2012 March 35:1


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