Advising Strategies for Supporting First-Generation College Students: Can Technology Replace Counselors and Peers? (Part 3)

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Jennifer Brown Lerner, Deputy Director

According to research by Pew, 84% of all Americans use the internet and 97% of those ages 18-29 are online regularly. The internet is often our primary source for information. Personally, I read the newspaper online, rather than have the paper delivered daily to my home. With this access to information through technology being an ever-present aspect of our daily lives, it seems like we should consider how best to leverage it to communicate with first-generation college students. But, then again, I have to wonder if technology can replace the experience of person-to-person relationships to truly be customized to a student’s need in that moment.

Pre-College Online Advising

The Get Schooled Foundation recently published a review of almost 200 college admissions technology applications and evaluated their effectiveness in helping low-income students with college admissions. Of the key findings in the report, this one stuck with me: “There is no ‘go-to’ site that incorporates all the different milestones necessary to help students prepare for and complete the college application process.” So, evidently, technology can’t do it all, but it was clear from their extensive review of online tools and my own experience with some of these sites that online sources can be great sources of information. Yet, they simply aren’t enough to replace the people involved in the college application and admissions process who often support a student every step of the way.

Ironically, many of these sites point students in the direction of individuals who can answer their questions. Here’s some advice from one site:

How to apply. Your school guidance counselor can help you, including how to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which makes you a candidate for all federal student aid.

It is clear that technology can be a valuable source of information for incoming and aspiring college students, but cannot replace the counseling and peer relationships that my colleagues profiled in their previous posts. These personal relationships and human expertise are essential in ensuring that college is accessible to first-generation students.

Online Advising in College

Once enrolled and on campus, all students face an onslaught of new experiences and the challenge of navigating a new environment. As mentioned in previous posts, first-generation college students often do not have the resources within their family network to make sense of all the information coming their way. Here again there is an opportunity for technology to play a role in helping students make sense of the mountain of information, specifically around course selection and scheduling.

Often called the “Netflix of advising,” Degree Compass, a course recommendation system developed at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, successfully recommends courses that best fit students’ talents and programs of study for upcoming semesters. Utilizing predictive analytic techniques similar to movie recommendations that Netflix makes based on your preferences, these recommendations are based on grade and enrollment data to rank courses according to factors that measure how well each course might help the student progress through his or her program. Coupled with some student-generated data such as expected major, the program strongly recommends a course which is necessary for a student to graduate, core to the university curriculum and their major, and in which the student is expected to succeed academically. The results from this online advising system have been quite impressive, especially with Pell grant recipients. According to Austin Peay’s own analysis, a comparison of student grades before the introduction of the system with those today show a steadily increasing proportion of passing grades so that results in the fall of 2012 were almost 5 standard deviations better than those in the fall of 2010. Although Degree Compass is helping students better navigate courses to get to graduation, a student is still required to meet with an actual advisor in order to receive official permission to graduate.

Similarly, Arizona State’s eAdvisor puts the information students need about required courses within a major and their progress towards graduation online and monitors their progress with updates via the system. Yet, here again technology cannot replace the relationship with an advisor, for if a student does get off track, they cannot register for additional classes until they meet and get approval from their advisor.

Again, we see data and technology playing an integral role in helping students navigate the complex systems required to get to and through college, especially for those students who are first generation, but it is clear that personal relationships still play a necessary role. Although technology has enabled us to get information faster and more reliably into the hands of students, it appears that it is most effective when paired with traditional in-person counseling and advising.

And, just in case you were wondering, I haven’t fully given up on reading the actual print newspaper. I still get the weekend paper delivered to my home and would never pass up an opportunity to read the Comics and get my hands dirty with the colored ink!


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