Research shows that strong academic advising leads to greater student success, but that component of a student’s college experience is often lacking, as more students go online, self-advise, or never seek academic advising at all. Without consistent advisement, students often take courses that are not relevant to their majors, or struggle through a class unnecessarily. Others may miss deadlines for registration, scholarship opportunities or financial aid.
Georgia Perimeter College (GPC) – the largest associate degree-granting college and the third largest institution in the University System of Georgia – was certainly not immune to such problems. Interviews with academic advisors, staff and students revealed the inconsistent, sometimes non-existent, academic advising process. That needed to change, both for student success, and to meet a Board of Regents mandate for all University System of Georgia students to be advised at regular intervals.
Creating a new culture and process to provide effective academic advising for GPC’s 22,000-plus students across four campuses appeared to be a daunting challenge. But in less than seven months, the process was improved, without investing additional resources or adding personnel.
In the fall of 2007, GPC was invited to participate in a state-sponsored program called Rapid Process Improvement (RPI). RPI – an initiative of the Governor’s Office of Customer Service (OCS) to improve the state’s customer service response to its citizens – has been used to streamline state programs like the Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Driver Services and the Office of Child Support Services. GPC President Anthony S. Tricoli envisioned RPI as a way to improve key programs like academic advisement.
“With one of the fastest growing populations of any two-year college in the nation, we knew we needed to improve the academic advising process quickly. Using the RPI process was one way to achieve that improvement, so the college administration supported this venture one-hundred percent,” said Tricoli.
Experts from Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute provided assistance to Georgia Perimeter College in lean management, a methodology that improves customer satisfaction by promoting efficiencies and eliminating waste and non-valued added activities. Jennifer Trapp-Lingenfelter and Tara Barrett, lean specialists with Georgia Tech, worked with GPC employees Fran Mohr, customer service director, and Patrice Masterson, human resources director, to facilitate ongoing improvement initiatives at the college. Additionally, Sallie Paschal, interim dean of advising and retention, served as subject matter expert and participated throughout the RPI process.
“Some may argue that lean principles are not applicable in a non-manufacturing environment, but there are opportunities for improvement in any organization,” noted Trapp-Lingenfelter. “It may be a little more challenging to standardize the process throughout the university, but the RPI teams at GPC did an excellent job identifying and implementing solutions to help their customers, the students.”
First, the team identified stakeholders in the advisement process, including students, faculty and those working in enrollment and registration, financial aid and information technology. They then created a value stream map, a process map that reflects the current progression of students from the moment they are accepted into college until they graduate or transfer, as well as each time the college had some contact with a student. Using this map, the RPI teams targeted areas for improvement and opportunities for providing academic advising for students. Once the group targeted a “fix” on each objective, it would meet with leadership for project approval.
“It was critical to the RPI process to have support from our executive leadership,” said Mohr. “Without their buy-in, we wouldn’t have had readily-available resources and personnel and the objectives could not have been met.”
After RPI, a new standard and mandatory orientation for all new students was created and implemented on all four campuses, using some suggestions from the students themselves. The new orientation kicked off in spring 2008.
“The students we interviewed said they wanted orientation to be fun and worth their time,” said Paschal. “As a result, the most critical information is now delivered in a variety of ways during new student orientation, including videos, and a fun, interactive Jeopardy game.”
During orientation, both students and parents attend breakout sessions on numerous subjects, including financial aid, learning support and tips for academic success. While students receive group academic advisement, parents and family members attend a separate session that gives them important information on financial aid and ways they can best support their students.
Another five-day RPI project focused on standardizing the advisement for Learning Support, a program that provides a sequence of studies and academic support to assist students with developing their personal goals and appropriate curriculum plans. The tools created during this RPI week included tips on studying, a Learning Support glossary, a pamphlet that lists the collegiate classes Learning Support students can take, scripts and a video training clip to implement the new activities. The new Learning Support in-class advisement program was implemented in fall 2008.
The last RPI events focused on academic advising tools and training for faculty. In-class and online training modules were created on a variety of topics from academic mentoring to common online advisor practices.
The RPI team also addressed getting the resources together in one place for effective advising. The result: an online “Two-Click Advising Toolkit,” that pulled together all the pertinent information for academic advising, including a quick reference guide, video training tips, training resources, glossaries and a link to the programs of study. GPC Office of Information Technology devised a “Two-Click” icon that was placed on all academic advisors’ desktop computers for easy access.
“Already we’re getting positive feedback from the changes,” Mohr said.
In a year, the college will begin looking at graduation, transfer and retention rates before and after RPI. The college also plans to use the RPI process in other areas that need improvement.
“With the professional leadership and guidance of the Georgia Tech consultants, Georgia Perimeter College has gained a valuable tool – the RPI process – to use in improving its services for students and enhancing a culture of continuous improvement,” said Mohr.
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright