Academic Advising Resources


Resources for advising academically underprepared students

Advising Academically Underprepared Students
Authored By: Marsha A. Miller and Coleen Murray


In the 21st century, a college degree has become what a high school diploma was 100 years ago--the path to a successful career and to knowledgeable citizenship (Ramaley, Leskes and associates, 2002). Many higher education institutions report record enrollments as '75 percent of high school graduates get some postsecondary education within two years of receiving their diplomas' (Ramaley, et al., 2002). Today, older adults enroll in record numbers as learning has become a life-long endeavor.
As enrollment numbers increase, so do the number of students 'at-risk' for academic success. King (2004) delineates the 'at-risk' as a diverse collection of sub-groups of students who:

  • Are academically underprepared as a result of prior educational experiences (e.g., academic failure, poor preparation, low expectations);
  • Manifest a groups of individual risk factors such as neurological, cognitive, health, or psychological factors that can contribute to academic failure (e.g., traumatic brain injury, learning disabilities, chronic illness, psychological problems, or student attitude toward learning);
  • Experience familial risk factors including disturbed family functioning, dependent care issues, familial values concerning education, and lack of financial resources;
  • Possesses social risk factors i.e., conflicting ethnic or cultural values or stressful peer and social interactions.

Keeling (2003) adds another group to King's: the Millennial generation; students who graduate high school in the 21st century. These students often enter our institutions lacking educational planning skills.This article discusses techniques for advising one of the aforementioned at-risk groups: the academically underprepared.

Who are the academically underprepared?
Many of those enrolling on our campuses did not plan to attend college but requirements of today's workforce changed those plans. The American Association of College and Universities (AAC&U) reports that ' 53% of students entering our colleges and universities are academically underprepared,i.e.,lacking basic skills in at least one of the three basic areas of reading, writing or mathematics' (Tritelli, 2003). This is a 33% increase in the number of academically prepared students since 1996 (National Center for Educational Statistics).

Even so, McCabe (2000) found that 'each year.more than half a million (academically underprepared) college students successfully complete remediation' and go on to 'do as well in standard college courses as those students who begin fully prepared.' Boylan (2001) maintains that this success can be attributed to the use of a developmental approach when working with underprepared students. Boylan further supports King's (2004) assumptions when he says that 'students fail to do well in college for a variety of reasons, and only one of them is lack of academic preparedness. Factors such as personal autonomy, self-confidence, ability to deal with racism, study behaviors, or social competence have as much or more to do with grades, retention and graduation than how well a student writes or how competent a student is in mathematics.'

If King and Boylan are correct and academic underpreparedness is but one factor in the equation, what can advisors do to best assist these students? McGillin (2003) maintains that no matter the at-risk category, students' ability to cope, or their 'resiliency,' is the best barometer for success.

McGillin defines 'resilient students' as those students with the internal and external support necessary for success (p. 48). Resilient students have the personal development and drive necessary to succeed. When supported by positive institutional experiences that strengthen their self-esteem and self-efficacy, these students overcome the negative effects attributed to at-risk factors.

What can institutions do to help the academically underprepared students become resilient and succeed academically?
Based upon the work of Tinto (2004), Boylan (2001), and McGillin (2003), those seeking to improve success rates for academically underprepared students should lobby for a developmental education program that encompasses a three pronged approach that:

  • lays the groundwork for success with effective academic advising;
  • provides content and structure e.g., pre-college basic skills course, tutoring, and topical workshops;
  • develops resilient students who, despite sometimes improbable circumstances, can succeed.

Tinto (2004) maintains that campuses support the development of resilient students -- and thus enhance retention and graduation - when they provide effective academic advising. He sees advising as a major component of the academic, social, and personal support programs necessary to help students meet their learning needs.

Habley (1994) stated that 'academic advising is the only structured activity on the campus in which all students have the opportunity for on-going,one-to-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution' (p. 10). As such, advisors lay the groundwork for the success of academically underprepared students and 'play a pivotal role in promoting resilience' (McGillin, p. 48).
How do advisors assist in student success? Anderson & McGuire (1997) assert that students are more likely to achieve when their strengths are affirmed and they are encouraged to develop their abilities. This is especially true for the academically underprepared. Steele (1999) recommends that when working with underprepared students advisors should focus on student strengths and abandon the use of the phrase 'You need remedial work' in favor of 'You may be somewhat behind at this time but you are a talented person. We can help you advance at an accelerated rate' (p. 23).
When advising the academically underprepared student, advisors must build a close student-advisor relationship that, as it develops, encourages student independence as they achieve educational, career, and personal goals through the use of the full range of institutional and community resources (Winston, Miller, Ender & Grites, 1982).

Building a Success Plan
C. Anderson (2004), citing Spann and McCrimmon (1998), suggests that a detailed plan is needed if we are to address student academic needs 'since the underprepared student often has an unrealistic view of the importance of background skills and knowledge and tends to avoid registering in the necessary developmental coursework.' Development of such a plan could pose a significant problem, especially for the underprepared student who is also a Millennial since, as Keeling (2003) notes, Millennial students often enter our institutions lacking in educational planning skills.
Academically underprepared students often have no idea how to go about earning a degree: they do not know what steps they must take or the particulars of what institutions expect of them. It is imperative that advisors outline both the institution's expectations of students and what students can expect from advisors throughout their academic careers. These expectations should be made available in a clear and concise bulleted listing that reads 'The Advisor's Role and Responsibilities' as well as another bulleted listing of the 'Student's Role and Responsibilities' (see Student and Advisor Responsibilities in Advising resources within the Clearinghouse for examples).
Students should know their responsibilities as advisees as well as what behaviors are expected of them in the college classroom. They must understand that if they skip classes or offer weak excuses for not completing coursework, they will be held accountable for their actions. Students make choices and colleges hold them responsible for those choices; making bad choices can mean consequences they might not want to experience.

Intrusive Advising Helps Students Become Resilient
Experience shows that intrusive advising strategies can be especially useful when advising to build student resiliency. Intrusive advising strategies found to be helpful at the initial enrollment of an underprepared student include:

  • Utilize appropriate assessment tools (e.g., ACT, ACCULACER, COMPASS, etc.) to determine student skills and abilities;
  • Employ open-ended questioning techniques e.g., 'What subjects did you enjoy studying in the past?' with follow-up questions such as 'What methods did you find successful in studying this subject?'
  • Identify student strengths as well as skill deficits;
  • Be direct, emphatic, and prescriptive when designing a plan to overcome skills deficits (Ender & Wilkie, 2000);
  • Recommend courses appropriate to students' current skill levels mixed with course options in areas of previous success;
  • Help students learning style with the teaching style used in the course; use caution in recommending on-line classes or satellite classes;
  • Help students determine the time of day that will best optimize learning e.g., determine if the student is a 'morning person';
  • Help students set short and long-term goals and develop action plans to achieve their goals (Ender & Wilkie, 2000);
  • Introduce student programs, resources and groups-TRIO/SSS, Gear Up, writing and math centers, learning and study skills classes, college survival courses, Orientation, career development center, etc.-that create support structures;
  • Explain the importance of meeting deadlines and regular class attendance;
  • If the subject is eligible for financial assistance, encourage the student to obtain a work-study position on campus for a limited number of hours per week. Note: Research cited by Wilkie and Jones (1994) indicates campus employment is associated with higher retention.

Ender and Wilkie (2000) further suggest that underprepared students may 'have a negative self-concept with respect to the academic environment; it is important that the advisor provide the developmental student with positive and encouragement feedback when appropriate' (p. 135). Schreiner & Anderson (2005) not that advisors who help students set goals and build action plans based upon their talents inspire students to acquire the skills necessary for college success. Ender and Wilkie (2000) further recommend that advisors stress how expectations and requirements differ from high school/workplace and suggest ways in which students may become active participants in their learning (p. 135).

Advising Through the Term
As the academic term progresses, advisors should monitor student progress toward meeting action plan objectives. This should begin with a student planning conference held early in the term where educational plans can be revisited and problem-solving techniques taught to help students deal with any issues that have surfaced in the first weeks of the term. Maxwell (1997) suggests that advisors provide underprepared students with feedback regarding their progress and standing throughout the term. Utilization of a friendly, early-alert telephone or e-mail contact system can help advisors do just that. Ask for each student's preferred e-mail address during the planning conference since not all students use their college's e-mail system. Set up a distribution list of advisees for routine communication; not only is this convenient for both the student and advisor, the process saves on stationery and postage.When faculty report student problems,e.g.course performance or class absences, advisors should immediately send an e-mail expressing care/concern. Request that the student reply to the advisor so they can discuss options for addressing the issues. A tip when using the e-mail feature ? use the tracking option:'Tell me when this message has been read' when sending e-mails to your advisees; although tech savvy students can by-passed this feature, it provides a paper trail for the students' advising records.

Academic advisors are a vital part of the institutional effort to build resiliency in students who come to us academically underprepared. King (2004) suggests that we help underprepared students become resilient when we:

  • Assist students in planning a program consistent with their abilities and interests
  • Provide choices
  • Work in tandem with developmental education program personnel across the institution
  • Interpret and provide rationale for instructional policies, procedures, and requirements
  • Monitor student progress toward goals
  • Teach problem solving techniques
  • Use intrusive advising methods when appropriate
  • Refer students to campus and community resources as needed.


Marsha A. Miller

NACADA Assistant Director, Resources & Services

Kansas State University

Coleen Murray
Academic Transfer Advisor
Central Community College-Hastings Campus


Alliance for Excellent Education. (2006). Paying double: Inadequate high schools and community college remediation.  Retrieved from


Anderson, C. (2004). Helping students navigate the academic jungle: Working with under-prepared students. In Northwestern State University' handbook for faculty advisors.


Anderson, E. & McGuire, W. (1997).  Academic advising for student success and retention: An advising perspective. In M. Hovland,E. Anderson, W. McGuire, D. Crockett, & Kaufman, and D. Woodward (Eds.). Academic advising for student success and retention. Iowa City, IA: USA Group Noel-Levitz.


Boylan, H. R. (2001). Making the Case for Developmental Education.Research in Developmental Education, 12 (2), 1-4. Retrieved from


Boylan, H.R. and D. Patrick Saxon. (2006). Affirmation and Discovery: Learning from Successful Community College Developmental Programs in Texas. Retrieved from


Boylan, H.R. (2006). Reserve Reading:'Must' reading for developmental educators . National Center for Developmental Education


Capriccioso, Robert. (August 30, 2006). The Costs of Catching Up. Insider Higher Ed.


Ender, S.C. & Wilkie, C.J. (2000). Advising students with special needs. In V. N. Gordon & W.R. Habley (Eds.),Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 118-143). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Habley, W. R. (1994). Key Concepts in Academic Advising. In Summer Institute on Academic Advising Session Guide(p.10).  Available from the National Academic Advising Association, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS.


Keeling, S. (2003). Advising the Millennial Generation. NACADA Journal 23 (1&2) pp. 30-36.


King, N. (2004). Advising Underprepared Students. Presentation: NACADA Summer Institute on Advising.


Lewin, Tamara. (2005) Many Going to College Are Not Ready, Report Says. The New York Times.Retrieved from


Maxwell, M. (1997). Improving student learning skills. Clearwater, FL: H&H Publishing.


McCabe, Robert. (2000). Underprepared Students. Measuring Up 2000: The State by State Report Card for Higher Education. Retrieved from

An Inteview: Robert McCabe. (2006). National Cross Talk.


McGillin, V.A. (2003). Academic Risk and Resilience: Implications for Advising at Small Colleges and Universities. In Hemwall, M.K. & Trachte, K.C. (Eds.) Advising and Learning: Academic Advising from the Perspective of Small Colleges & Universities.


National Center for Educational Statistics. (1996). Remedial education at higher education institutions in fall 1995(Report No. NCES 97-584). Washington, DC. Summary available at.


Ramaley,Judith, Leskes, Andrea, & associates. (2002). Greater Expectations: A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from


Schreiner, L.A. and Anderson, E. (2005). Strengths-Based Advising: A New Lens for Higher Education. NACADA Journal manuscript to be published in issue 25(2), Fall 2005.


Spann, M.G. Jr. & McCrimmon, S. (1998). Remedial/developmental education: Past, present, and future. In J.L. Higbee & P.L. Dwinell (Eds.),Developmental Education: Preparing Successful College Students. Columbia, S.C.: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.


Steele, C.M. (1999).  Race and the schooling of black Americans. In M.H. Davis (Ed.) Social Psychology Annual Editions.  Builford, DT: Duskin/McGraw-Hill.


Tinto, V. (July 2004). Student Retention and Graduation: Facing the Truth, Living With the Consequences. The Pell Institute


Tritelli, David. (Winter 2003) From the Editor. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from


Upcraft, M.L., and Kramer, G.L. (Ed.). (1995).  First-year academic advising: patterns in the present, pathways to the future (Monograph No. 18). University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience.


Wilkie, C. J., and Jones, M. (1994). 'Academic benefits of on-campus employment to first-year developmental education students.' Journal of the Freshman Year Experience, 6(2), pp. 37-56.


Winston, R. B., Miller, T. K., Ender, S. C., Grites, T. J., & Associates (1982). Developmental Academic Advising.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this using APA style as:

Miller, M.A. & Murray, C. (2005). Advising academically underprepared students. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web Site

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