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Kelly W. Reddick, John Trifilo, Steven B. Asby, Diane Majewski, and Jayne Geissler, East Carolina University

Editor’s Note: Hear more about this program from Kelly Reddick in our upcoming Webinar, Advising Strategies for Students on Academic Probation.

ECU team.jpgThe emphasis on increasing student retention and graduation rates at institutions of higher education is driving the creation and implementation of many student success tools. One popular way to identify students in academic difficulty is the use of an academic early alert system (Lynch-Holmes, Troy & Ramos, 2012). Faculty are prompted to initiate the process by sending notifications to students, which informs students of their academic performance early and often during the academic term. Depending on the system’s capability, academic advisors may receive a copy of their advisees’ notifications at the same time the students receive them. These systems provide an opportunity for advisors to follow up with students to discuss potential intervention strategies. In this article, the authors discuss the role of advisors in the effective use of an early alert system, opportunities and challenges for the advisor, and process strategies that advisors may implement.

The Role of an Academic Advisor in an Early Alert System:  Opportunities and Challenges

A quality student-advisor relationship is critical in assisting students with educational decisions and can bridge a personal connection to the institution. In fact, students rate academic advising as a strength and place it as a priority in their college experience (Noel-Levitz, 2013). A key tool in facilitating dialogue among faculty, students, and advisors is an effective early alert process, which provides a communication channel among the three parties. As such, an early alert process incorporates student development, engagement, and persistence theory foundations by providing students with direct feedback from individuals who impact their academic success.  An advisor follow-up process through the early alert system allows advisors to go beyond traditional advising responsibilities (e.g., registering for courses and checking off graduation requirements) to purposefully building a support structure with their advisees.

Academic advisor follow-up has the potential to create a dialogue with the student which can develop rapport, assess the student’s needs, and connect the student to the appropriate support service. To facilitate an effective outreach to students, advisors utilize email, phone, and individual meetings. It is important for advisors to initiate follow-up since students, especially those at risk, may be reluctant to resolve academic concerns independently. Being advocates to connect students to the many campus services and encouraging students to seek support provide rich opportunities for advisors to intervene early in the semester. During follow-up, advisors discuss options for the student to take action towards resolving the raised concerns. These actions may include recommending that the student talk to his or her professor, change study habits, seek tutoring or other support services, or initiate a course drop.

Academic advisors face many challenges in providing regular follow-up to students. As more faculty embrace the effectiveness of the system, the notification traffic can become overwhelming to an advisor. When East Carolina University (ECU) implemented an early alert system (Starfish Retention Solutions™) in Fall 2011, 28,000 notifications (kudos, academic concerns, attendance related) were sent to students and their advisors. During Fall 2013, faculty initiated almost 46,000 notifications to 16,700 unique students.

Advisor Strategies for Effective Early Alert Follow-up and Outreach

At ECU, professional advisors typically carry an average caseload of 350 students. Faculty initiate the majority of these notifications during the academic registration period when pre-registration advising appointments are prevalent. In order to provide follow-up to their students, especially during high work periods, advisors primarily use students’ campus email addresses. Table 1 indicates that 96% of advisors use email to follow up with students, which often prompts a face-to-face meeting. In 2011 and 2013, 100% of the advisors indicated that they provided some form of follow-up.   

Table 1:  Advisor follow-up to early alert notifications.


Follow-up method

Advisor follow-up to advisees following notifications











Face-to-Face Meeting




Phone Advisee




Social Media




No Follow-up





Focus groups for academic advisors revealed that they often utilized a follow-up process with students and offered strategies for managing high volume of notifications:

  • Scheduling a daily or weekly time dedicated solely to notification follow-up is a helpful time management strategy, especially when advising calendars fill up early. This time can be used to read through notifications, prioritize notifications, and reach out to students.
  • Students in academic difficulty and at risk for suspension should receive priority for follow-up.  It is recommended to reach out by phone instead of email to encourage a meeting and discuss progress in the semester.
  • Advisors should take a more aggressive approach in following up with students who receive three or more academic difficulty notifications in order to investigate factors that may be affecting academic success.
  • Incoming freshman and transfer students should also receive priority for follow-up.  An email correspondence is generally sufficient to initiate communication and explain the importance of taking action after receiving a notification.

Admittedly, the use of email to communicate with students continues to be the most popular advisor follow-up tool. As such, advisors should pay close attention to the content, structure, and length of the correspondence. Although the initial inclination of an advisor might be to send a detailed list of  everything the student needs to do, a long email message may be off-putting to students (and difficult to read on a phone). Instead, a short, informal message expresses concern and availability to the advisee. Messages should encourage a response from the student and ease into a dialogue between the student and advisor. Including specific details about the student’s academic situation will help the advisor remember the main details about this student’s academic performance. An example of the initial follow-up message is below:

Hi, Will – Hope you are enjoying this warm weather! I saw that you had a flag for your Ethics course and wanted to make sure everything was going okay. Let’s talk soon!   Kelly

By using the abbreviated email outreach, students have an open-ended opportunity to respond that reflects their individual situation. In yearly surveys, many advisees indicate appreciation for the effort that the advisor made and often offer an explanation for their struggle or simply let the advisor know that they are “back on track.”  An example of an advisee response is:

Ms Reddick,
Thank you for your concern in regards to my academic success, it is a good feeling to have someone on your side cheering for you. I saw that you said we can meet Friday (tomorrow). How about 9:00 a.m.? Thanks once again for your concern.

Process Strategies to Create Advisor Buy-In to Early Alert Outreach

In order to reinforce the importance of the early alert notification follow-up and outreach from advisors, the following approaches should be considered:

  • Inform faculty and professional advisors of the critical nature of follow-up using student examples and responses to provide a personal meaning.
  • Provide workshops and guides on how to efficiently manage the early alert system and follow-up. Depending on the early alert system, advisors may have options regarding the receipt process (specifying when and how often to receive copies of notifications) and sorting options (including identifying advisees with three or more alerts).
  • Share advisee survey results and how students view emails or phone calls from an advisor to increase faculty and advisor buy-in.
  • Present universal student success research and/or campus research indicating the effectiveness of the early alert system.
  • Conduct a yearly assessment of the early alert system on campus. Collect both quantitative and qualitative data from faculty, students, and advisors regarding use of and satisfaction with the early alert system. Include open-ended questions and encourage each population to make recommendations for improvement.
  • Provide retention and graduation data to faculty and professional advisors and highlight trends and goals. If there are performance measurements tied to these students’ success targets, reiterate those goals and how it may impact the university budget structure to underscore the emphasis on student success programs and processes.

The initiation of the advisor outreach process is one of the most critical extensions of the early alert system.  It targets struggling students and provides a consistent opportunity for advisors to communicate with students who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the system. Although an early alert system offers obvious benefits, it is important to take advantage of the advising opportunities provided through the system, whether it is encouraging action or simply building rapport.

Kelly W. Reddick
Academic Advisor, Major Advisement Program
East Carolina University
[email protected]

John Trifilo
Project Manager, Starfish
Academic Advisor, College of Arts & Sciences
East Carolina University
[email protected]

Steven B. Asby
Associate Director, Academic Advising & Support
East Carolina University
[email protected]

Diane Majewski
Special Projects Director, Office of Undergraduate Studies
East Carolina University
[email protected]

Jayne Geissler
Executive Director of Retention Programs and Undergraduate Studies
East Carolina University
[email protected]


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Nadler, L.B. & Nadler, M.K. (1999). Faculty and student expectations/perceptions of the adviser-advisee relationship. Journal of the Association for Communication Administration. 28(2), 47-59.

Noel-Levitz (2013). National student satisfaction and priorities report. Retrieved from www.ruffalonl.com/papers-research-higher-education-fundraising/student-retention-white-papers-and-trend-reports/national-satisfaction-and-priorities-reports.

Peterson, M., Wagner, J.A., & Lamb, C.W. (2001). The role of advising in non-returning students’ perceptions of their university. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 10(3), 45-59.




Cite this article using APA style as: Reddick, K.W., Trifilo, J., Asby, S.B., Majewski, D., & Geissler, J. (2014, December). Maximizing the use of an early alert system through advisor outreach. Academic Advising Today, 37(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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