Forest B. Wortham, Wright State University
Advising commuter students on a college campus is fraught with the challenges of trying to engage students during the limited time they are on campus. By definition, these students spend very little time on campus beyond class time. When commuter students are at risk academically, there is an additional urgency to connect with them before they are placed on probation or suspended.
Experience has taught me that a caring, direct, reality-based intrusive advising model is often the most effective way to advise this population. These students often are balancing multiple demands that include but are not limited to finances, family, personal issues, job(s), academic probation, and suspension, in addition to being first generation college students. Seldom are these issues presented as the reason for seeking advising when they come in. These issues, however, often are the stumbling blocks to their achieving academic success. Consequently, advisors find themselves helping students to develop life skills that address concerns inside and outside the classroom before academic advising.
At-risk students who are doing poorly often don’t know where to start to improve academically. When questioned as to what they could do to improve, they say study harder and longer. While this is commendable, doing the same thing more intensely is not a prescription for success inside or outside the classroom. Commuter students come to college with the intention of getting good grades and graduating; however, somewhere along the way many lose sight of that goal and are unable to pull themselves out of the downward spiral. Providing them with resources and helping them to discover an alternative to their current situation is the beginning.
According to Earl (1987), “intrusive advising is a direct response to an identified academic crisis…It is a process of identifying students at crisis points and giving them the message, you have this problem; here is a help-service. An intrusive/proactive approach includes questioning and probing students regarding their life outside the classroom.” With intrusive advising, the advisor literally opens Pandora’s Box and probes with the student to assess objectively what is going on in his or her life inside and outside the classroom. A word of caution: once we open Pandora’s Box and probe with the student, we have to be skilled enough to close the box when the session is complete; failure to do so will cause more harm than good. For many students, learned behavior from high school, work, and family are the roots of their challenges. Going through this process helps students to recognize and increase their awareness of how their actions impact their success.
Awareness of Poor Academic Performance
Students’ awareness of whether they are in academic trouble and in control of their academic destiny is paramount to gaining control over their academic and social lives. According to Aspelmeier, Love, McGill, Elliott, and Pierce (2012), “Locus of control, or the tendencies of individuals toward making either internal or external attributions for their successes and failures” has an impact on a student’s ability to adapt to college life. Likewise, Stupnisky, Renaud, Perry, Ruthig, Haynes, and Rodney (2007) concluded that perceived academic control is related to internal locus of control, which is associated with better college adjustment and higher GPA. Intrusive advising provides the gateway by addressing the “real time” issues that are impeding the student.
The most direct method of addressing this is the advisor and student reviewing the student’s transcript together to identify when the academic decline began and determine if there were any life events that triggered the poor performance. For some students, this the first time they have reviewed their academic progress with an outsider, and it can be embarrassing. It is important to find points of light in their academic record. Small successes can reinforce to the student that he or she is capable of doing better despite the failures. If there are no points of light in the academic record, that can lead to a discussion focusing on goals, money, and time.
Acknowledging that their personal lives have affected their academic performance is the first step to helping students regain control of their personal and academic lives. That often leads to awareness that they are responsible for changing their behavior that can open them up to other factors impeding their academic success. Outlined below are a variety of situations that have impeded students’ academic performance and how they were approached using intrusive counseling methods.
Time Management. When students are working 30 to 50 hours a week at multiple jobs while carrying five classes for 15 credit hours, it`s no wonder their grades suffer. Together, we calculate how much time they spend in class, studying, sleeping, working, and commuting. This forces students to look at how they consciously and unconsciously spend their time. We review the schedule to identify where they are wasting their time. Students looking at the calculations remark they had never looked at their time that way. In our fast-paced, multi-tasking society, students pile on time commitments with no regard to what they have committed themselves to accomplish. Students who see an improvement in their grades and their quality of life often report that they feel good about themselves. Similarly, students who don’t make changes return with the same academic issues.
Finances. A significant number of the students that come to my office have financial challenges. While working to pay for college isn’t new, working 30 to 50 hours a week and carrying a full-time course load is disastrous. In questioning my students as to why they need two jobs, I have found that while many of them are paying for necessities such as rent, food, gas and utilities, others work to pay for what I consider non-essential expenses, such as cable, mobile Internet service, and new car payments. Conversations with students about their finances have led to several of them reducing their debt loads. Students in dire need are referred to student support services that can direct them to financial management resources.
Career/ Major Decision. Asking students why they selected their majors elicits a variety of responses: don’t know, saw it on TV, pays well, guaranteed job, I had a nice doctor/dentist/nurse, my parents told me. While these are all good starting points, they aren’t valid reasons to spend $40,000 to $80,000 and four to five years of one’s life without further exploration. In working with students who are in the abyss of indecision, I probe as to how they chose their major, what they know about the major, and what their skills and values are. For students who exhibit flawed or no awareness as to how they chose a major, I outline how decisions are normally made and how a lack of career awareness in decision-making can affect motivation and grades. I then refer them to career services for counseling or to take an assessment inventory.
Family and Personal Issues. Family and personal issues can overwhelm students. Students gravitate toward these issues because they think they can resolve them. Family members look to them to resolve family problems that have been going on for years after one semester or less in college. Naively, the students believe they can.
According to Koirala, Davis, and Cid (2010), the primary reasons that “students left the university were: Financial difficulties, lack of family support, lack of engagement and motivation, lack of confidence (self-efficacy), lack of academic preparation, lack of proper advisement…These students come to college and are seen as the family member with the most flexible schedule, they are family problem solvers and resources for the family. They get drawn into family needs and that becomes their priority instead of academics.” They have difficulty setting boundaries and telling their families they are busy and can’t leave campus. They will first deal with family issues; the academics become secondary. The families don’t understand the student is working, not hanging out and having fun with friends.
Working with students who are dealing with family issues is extremely delicate when it is obvious the family dynamics are dysfunctional. As advisors, we can help students to see how family dynamics impact their quality of life and not to feel guilty or obligated to solve all the family problems. This includes helping them develop personal crisis management skills so that aberrations in their normal routine do not result in a meltdown. Students who are the first in their family to go to college have no idea of what to expect and their family members often don’t understand the demands of college. Family members can’t understand why the person who breezed through high school with extracurricular activities and a part-time job now has to spend more time away from home and/or studying.
Students on a commuter campus have a limited amount of time on campus, and we have to take advantage of that time by addressing issues preventing students from reaching full potential. At the same time, advisors must find a counseling style they are comfortable with; intrusive advising doesn’t work with every student. As students attempt to balance the multiple demands on their life while commuting to campus, it is imperative that advisors reach out to them early and often.
Forest B. Wortham
College of Liberal Arts
Wright State University
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Cite this article using APA style as: Wortham, F.B. (2014, December). Intrusive advising: At-risk students on a commuter university campus. Academic Advising Today, 37(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]