Academic Success Tip: Using Customized Academic Plans to Boost Retention

Tallahassee Community College overhauled its advising model, adopting individualized academic plans that make registering for future semesters a one-click deal—and now students are now less likely to stop out.

April 4, 2023
Several students sit at a table with open laptops as part of an advising group at Tallahassee Community College.
Fall-to-spring retention is up 3.4 percent this academic year over last at Tallahassee Community College, which has revised its advising model.
(Tallahassee Community College)

A line of students out the door of the advising center, extending down the hallway to the floor below. Seven or eight advisers working furiously to help them.

That’s how academic advising at Tallahassee Community College used to look, says Pamela Johnston, dean of career and academic planning there: “Very reactionary.”

Now, Johnston sees it as more of a “balanced offensive.”

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What changed: The college overhauled its advising system, and officials are already seeing results—not just in managing the chaos but in making it more likely that students will stick to their studies: fall-to-spring retention increased 3.4 percent this academic year over last.

“We’re pretty proud of that increase,” which translates to about 500 more retained students, says Johnston. The change isn’t attributable to advising alone, she qualifies, “but we know our students are registered and registered earlier for that next semester, and that that keeps them going.”

Tallahassee started its advising remodel in early 2020, just prior to the pandemic. COVID-19, of course, complicated the project but also introduced new modes of advising, some of which the college has retained because they work so well.

The new advising model has been in place now for about 18 months.

Customized academic plans feature heavily.

The major innovation: Many institutions (including Tallahassee) have curricular maps that guide students through the various requirements of their academic programs to pre-emptively answer basic advising questions with the goal of making adviser-advisee interactions more transformational than transactional.

Individualized academic plans, meanwhile, are rarer and help students select and all but register for their classes semesters in advance. Then, when it’s time to register for classes again, students need only open up their academic plans online and press a button to make it official.

“Students can register with a click, and they can register earlier, right when the window’s open”—with no advising office visit necessary, says Johnston. “We still have the latecomers, so it’s not perfect. But when we went on [winter] break, we had over 80 percent of students already registered and paid” for the spring term.

Tallahassee Community College students generally meet with an adviser once upon enrolling to develop their academic plans, based on what they want to study and the requirements of their desired four-year transfer institution, where applicable. The plan is the blueprint for a student’s time on campus, not set in stone: adjustments can be made at any time, by the student or by the student in consultation with the adviser (Johnston recommends the former, as to avoid the pitfalls of “self-advising”).

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Eight in 10 associate of arts degree students, who make up the vast majority of Tallahassee Community College’s 11,000-student population, now have individualized plans.

Beyond individualized plans: Tallahassee’s new advising model also involves caseload management, in which students are assigned advisers who track their progress and practice proactive outreach throughout their time on campus. Students also now have multiple ways to connect with advisers: via appointments, walk-ins, a callback system for telephone advising called Eagle Q and small-group Zoom sessions.

Johnston says the advising overhaul is about “showing and getting students on the path to completion.” Even with advising caseloads upward of 500 students, “it can be done. But you have the data, you have to have the technology and you have to have this mind-set of proactive communication.”

Read an analysis of the Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse Student Voice survey on advising, which revealed that nearly half of students had not been advised on courses and course sequences required for graduation.

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