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Lindsey Pierce, South Seattle College

Lindsey Pierce When thinking of case management, one might draw associations with social work, healthcare, or even customer service rather than academic advising.  However, advising departments and other student services units are increasingly implementing case management principles, especially with targeted populations, to improve student retention and support.  The Case Management Society of America (2016) defines case management as “a collaborative process of assessment, planning, facilitation, care coordination, evaluation, and advocacy for options and services to meet an individual’s . . . needs through communication and available resources” (para. 1).  Translated into advising practices, case management might include the following: targeted outreach to specific student populations, creation of individualized student success plans, intentional referrals to other departments and services, maintenance of detailed advising notes and student records, advocacy for student-centered policies and procedures at all institutional levels, and continual evaluation of the advising process and its effectiveness (Richardson, 2008).

A case management approach to advising is especially important when working with academically underprepared students, who are more likely to stop out before finishing an educational program (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2011).  Academically underprepared students are those who lack basic skills in reading, writing, and/or mathematics upon postsecondary enrollment (Miller & Murray, 2005).  The National Center for Education Statistics (2009) reports that one third of students entering college require some amount of developmental coursework, and this number is more significant for students enrolling in two-year colleges, at 44 percent.  Furthermore, academically underprepared students, which often include English language learners and non-traditional students, require more hands-on advising assistance and relationship-building to succeed in college (Carmack & Carmack, 2016; Miller & Murray, 2005; Peters, Hyun, Taylor, & Varney, 2010; Richardson, 2008; Rios Erickson, 2007; Skorupa, 2002).  In considering the implementation of a case management approach to advising, it is important to consider the advising model, theories, and challenges that characterize it.

Advising Model

The majority of postsecondary institutions operate on a shared advising structure wherein a combination of centralized and decentralized advisors provide advising services (Pardee, 2004).  Pardee (2004) suggests that this structure is also the most sensible for serving a large number of underprepared students.  Utilizing a case management approach within a shared advising model, new students may be directed to a centralized advising department for initial intake and then assigned to a specific advisor with whom they continue to meet until certain goals have been reached (e.g. starting college-level Math/English, reaching a certain credit threshold, finishing a program of study, etc.).  Case management advising requires the ability to get to know students on a deeper level and follow up with them regularly to monitor their progress and address barriers they may face.  Therefore, advisors must be well-equipped to meet students’ needs through reasonable case load numbers, sufficient time allotted to appointments, specialized knowledge and training about underprepared students, and diverse service delivery methods (email, websites, social media, etc.).

A shared advising model can include a combination of professional and faculty advisors—evidence suggests that incorporating faculty into advising is key to students’ learning and retention (Allard & Parashar, 2013; Chakrabarti, 2013; White & Anttonen, 2012).  Faculty are able to see how students function in the classroom, review their academic work, and provide guidance in program or career areas in which they specialize, giving them a valuable perspective for advising.  As Allard and Parashar (2013) put it, “Faculty advisers play a critical role in student development that professional advisers may not be able to fill” (para. 26).  In many postsecondary institutions, students meet with a professional advisor when they are new, undecided, or in transition between programs, and they are assigned to a faculty advisor once they have embarked on a particular program of study.  While this may be the most practical model, it often does not allow for advising relationships between faculty and academically underprepared students, who usually must complete developmental coursework before entering a program of study.  Professional advisors, being dedicated mostly to advising rather than teaching, are better positioned to provide case management, but it is critical that they communicate consistently with faculty who teach underprepared students.  This may take the form of reaching out to faculty at key points in the term to check on students’ progress; conducting in-class advising sessions or presentations; creating intentional referral systems between faculty, advisors, and other student support services; and/or facilitating regular meetings between faculty and advisors to build relationships and share information.

Advising Theories

Many advising departments favor a strengths-based approach to inform their practice, especially when serving academically underprepared students (Chakrabarti, 2013; Miller & Murray, 2005; Peters, Hyun, Taylor, & Varney, 2010).  This approach encourages advisors to let students’ strengths, skills, and passions, rather than their limitations and mistakes, guide advising interactions.  Applying a strengths-based approach to practice in a case management setting can include a variety of tactics.  An important starting point is to frame basic skills coursework positively, such as describing it as “preparatory” or “foundational” rather than “remedial” and helping students understand that they will be much more successful in their college coursework with a stronger footing in math and English.  Additionally, the use of an intake questionnaire asking students about their goals, interests, strengths, and challenges can lead to more meaningful and uplifting conversations and plans of action, as opposed to the more punitive conversations that tend to result from reactionary advising.

Another approach that many advising units advocate is proactive advising, also known as intrusive advising.  Proactive advising promotes reaching out to students to explain how advising and other support services can help them before the student initiates contact or encounters barriers to their success.  Belmont College (2010) and Richardson (2008) emphasize the importance of proactive advising in a case management approach, especially in the form of reaching out to students at crucial points to ensure they are making steady progress toward their goals and addressing challenges before they become problems.  For example, an advisor might send emails to their caseload of students a few weeks before registration begins to not only ensure they register for the next term, but also to make referrals to tutoring, counseling, or other student services if they are struggling.  Taken a step further, proactive advising within case management might involve following up at the end of the term with students to inquire whether they actually pursued the recommended referrals and what the outcome was.  This kind of follow-up requires detailed advising notes for each student and sufficient time for the advisor to follow through.


Adopting a case management approach to advising underprepared students does not come without its challenges.  One such challenge is a large student population and too few advisors.  Many colleges and universities today admit an increasing number of students but do not adequately fund advising services to serve them effectively (Applegate & Hartleroad, 2011; White & Anttonen, 2012).  Employing a case management approach takes significant time and effort for each advisor to make personal connections with their students, and yet Robbins (2013) conveys that the median case load of advisees per full-time advisor is 296—and for large institutions, it climbs up to 600.  Institutions with such advisor to student ratios wishing to implement a case management approach must seriously consider increasing their advising staff, whether through funding new positions or integrating more existing faculty and/or staff into the advising process.  Additionally, such institutions might try targeting case management advising to a specific subset of students and/or piloting it with an even smaller subset to determine its effectiveness before bringing it to scale.

Another challenge of case management advising with academically underprepared students is that the latter represent very diverse identities and backgrounds and, therefore, cannot be served with uniform advising methods.  For example, many underprepared students, especially at community colleges, are English language learners (ELL) coming from diverse cultures.  Rios Erickson (2007) notes that advisors must be trained to work effectively with ELL students through intercultural responsiveness and understanding their specific needs.  ELL students represent merely one subgroup in the underprepared category, which also includes non-traditional students, first-generation college students, and students who are undocumented, to name a few.  Advising administrators must create ample opportunities for professional development around serving diverse student populations and also recognize the importance of continually assessing advising services to ensure they are meeting all students’ needs.  In addition, a commitment to hiring diverse advising staff who represent the identities of their students is imperative to effective case management advising.


Academically underprepared students are attending college in increasing numbers and represent a proportion of the student population that cannot be ignored or marginalized.  Fortunately, there is evidence to suggest that underprepared students can be just as successful as their more prepared counterparts, as long as they receive proper support (Miller & Murray, 2005).  Implementing case management strategies in advising is a promising way to increase the retention and completion of underprepared students through a personable, proactive, and strengths-based approach that emphasizes communication, collaboration, and accountability.  It can create a more meaningful experience for students and a more fulfilling vocation for advisors.

Lindsey Pierce, M.Ed.
Student Success Specialist
Advising/Basic & Transitional Studies
South Seattle College
[email protected]


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Alliance for Excellent Education. (2011). Saving now and saving later: How high school reform can reduce the nation’s wasted remediation dollars. Retrieved from http://all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/SavingNowSavingLaterRemediation.pdf

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Case Management Society of America. (2016). What is a case manager? Retrieved from http://www.cmsa.org/Home/CMSA/WhatisaCaseManager/tabid/224/Default.aspx

Chakrabarti, L. (2013, December). Reflecting on academic advising in the English language program at Kansas State University. Academic Advising Today, 36(4). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Reflecting-on-Academic-Advising-in-the-English-Language-Program-at-Kansas-State-University.aspx

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National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). 2007-08 national postsecondary student aid study [Data file]. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009166.pdf

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Peters, L., Hyun, M., Taylor, S., & Varney, J. (2010, September). Advising non-traditional students: Beyond class schedules and degree requirements. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Advising-Non-Traditional-Students-Beyond-Class-Schedules-and-Degree-Requirements.aspx

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Robbins, R. (2013). Implications of advising load. In Carlstrom, A., 2011 national survey of academic advising. (Monograph No. 25). Manhattan, KS: The Global Community for Academic Advising. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Advisor-Load.aspx

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White, M. M. & Anttonen, R. G. (2012, March). Reinvigorating faculty advising on your campus. The Mentor. Retrieved from https://dus.psu.edu/mentor/2012/03/reinvigorating-faculty-advising/

Cite this article using APA style as: Pierce, L. (2016, December). The case for a case management approach in advising academically underprepared students. Academic Advising Today, 39(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


# David
Wednesday, December 14, 2016 4:33 PM

Well written article. I have a career history in both social work and case management. After serving as an adjunct instructor at my current school, I was hired as our first academic advisor because of the arguments you make here. We recognized that I had a skill set that was needed to improve retention and reduce the number of students that were in academic trouble. Since that time, about two years ago, we have made significant improvements with retention based on increased attendance and a reduction of students being withdrawn.

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