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Advising Redesign at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte: A Conversation With Fred Bowen

Lauren Pellegrino and Leefredrick Bowen on a video call

LeeFredrick Bowen sits at the crossroads where advisors, technology professionals, and administrators meet. As the director for academic advising systems at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he helps to ensure that the departments work together to improve advising for students.

UNC Charlotte is one of more than two dozen colleges that participated in the Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) initiative, a large, multi-year project that examined whether changing practices and implementing technologies could make advising more effective and efficient. It is also one of three iPASS colleges that participated in a randomized controlled trial designed to measure the effects of iPASS on student outcomes.

With the release of two reports on the RCT, one of which was published in mid-October and one is scheduled for later in the fall, CCRC’s Lauren Pellegrino talked to Bowen about what UNCC has learned about effective advising and how advisors there responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


Lauren Pellegrino: I’m Lauren Pellegrino. I’m a senior research associate here at CCRC. We’ve had the great pleasure of working with Fred Bowen, director of academic advising systems at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, for several years. The university has been active in iPASS work. Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been a multi-year project that enables institutions—both broad access four-year as well as two-year institutions—to implement advising redesign. UNCC has been very active over recent years with advising redesign and has recently completed a randomized controlled trial, for which we were evaluators.

Fred, if you can just tell us a little bit about what you do at UNCC and how some of that work has been going.

Fred Bowen: Thank you, Lauren. My role is actually a brand new role to the university. Director for academic advising systems came with a lot of these technologies that advisors use, things like EAB products, or Starfish or things like that, early alert systems, and notes and appointments, and all those types of things. My role is kind of in between, between advising and administrator, and also coordinating with IT. So I help lead campaigns, outreaches, anything that the university needs related to student success and advising.

Lauren Pellegrino: Great! So, it sounds like you can talk a lot of different languages across the institution.

Bowen: It’s definitely something I didn’t expect that I was going do starting off in freshman year of college.

Pellegrino: So, take us back to the beginning, the genesis of this work.

Bowen: The iPASS grant really allowed us to do this type of work, and having the recent technology—we had just acquired an early alert platform—and just kind of get the ball rolling. It’s been kind of like the wild, wild west out here with early alert systems. A lot of these universities are deploying them, but you get, like, thousands of alerts. Advisors still have a hard time figuring out, okay, what’s important, what’s not important. Because you have a 4.0 student with one alert and you have a 2.0 student with one alert, and so there’s just a lot of confusion as far as how you can make these types of things effective and efficient. We wanted to focus on early alerts, we wanted to focus on time to degree, and then we wanted to also focus on degree planning, as part of that type of project.

So definitely having iPASS, working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, really allowed us to be able to have resources at our disposal to be able to move the needle much quicker.

Pellegrino: In reflecting on some of the early phases of the work, what are some lessons that come to mind that you think would be useful for folks thinking about or starting some of this work.

Bowen: Definitely, there are a lot of lessons to be learned, but I’m just going to focus on my top three that I think that universities can benefit from. I think obviously bringing everybody to the table, not just advisors, and not just deans, but provosts, student feedback as well. Just really bringing everyone that is going to be involved in these initiatives to the table to really talk about, “Okay, what do we want to do, how do we want to do it, and how do we know if it’s going to work or not?” The next thing probably should be picking your target group. I do believe that pilots do really help. You do want to start small because it’s just a lot to take on. But you have to pick the right group.

The third one is accountability. Accountability is that you have to be able to know if people are actually doing the work that you want them to do. So, you have to send reminders to people, say, “Hey, you didn’t do this yet, can you go ahead and do it?” You want to kind of get 100% compliance on your initiatives. Make sure the faculty are doing the early alerts. Making sure the advisors have done the outreaches.

Pellegrino: I’m going to add a fourth one on you Fred, because the other really important thing that I’ve noticed, especially with you and your team at UNCC, has been the importance of your role, of having somebody really own the work. When you talk about accountability, you do a lot to ensure—acknowledging that advisors have so much on their plates—to try and make that a manageable process. And I just also want to point out, too, that one of the other things you do in your role is you really engage leadership at the institution, so that it doesn’t become that side project, right?

Bowen: So definitely being in an office where you’re right up under the associate provost, who is in charge of undergraduate education, being in that unit, it does carry a lot of weight.

Pellegrino: The other thing, too, Fred, I wanted to mention is your philosophy as an advisor has also evolved over time, just in doing this work. Can you just briefly talk about that as well?

Bowen: I think what has happened with iPASS was that I learned a lot more about, that there’s so many different things that are going on in students’ lives. And really taking the time to not just chase after an early alert and saying, “Okay, you’re missing class, go to class.” Talk about, “Why are you missing class? What is going on in your life?” And not take it so personally when students don’t tell you stuff. Even if they kind of lie a little bit, “Oh, I am going to class,” and you see Fs at the end of the semester. That kind of thing. Just not really taking that type of stuff so personally, kind of being softer in your approach, being more approachable. And I think having that philosophy has actually helped my students become more responsive to me when I do send out those emails.

Pellegrino: It sounds like a more relationship-based type of approach.

Bowen: Very much more relationship-based. There’s still a part of me that has to tell it like it is with a particular student. There is that time where you’ve done enough of the soft approach. Sometimes students really appreciate that at that time. But just not it being the first tool out of the toolbox that you’re going to use at your disposal.

Pellegrino: Can you talk a little about the student experience? I know you talked a lot about technology, and it sounds like your role has evolved and practice has changed. So, can you talk a little about how the student experience has evolved over time since you’ve been doing some of this work?

Bowen: I’ve been asking students for seven years what are your goals for the first semester, and it’s always the same four: Getting good grades, making new friends, getting involved, and finding out what I want to do with a major and career. So those haven’t really changed. What has changed is our ability to be able to recognize those things and being able to accelerate that process maybe a little bit earlier or a little bit sooner. Getting students to be able to connect with other students online through a virtual experience earlier in the summer was one of the things that we tried to do, rather than just waiting for them to come on campus for them to make those types of connections. Getting them to go ahead and do career exploration while they’re sitting at home for the summer.

There’s that desert space that happens in the summer between orientation and the first semester classes, where they used to hardly ever get any communication from the university, except just, “Can’t wait to come on campus and do your shopping,” and all that type of stuff. But now we’re asking them to do things. It may not necessarily be the overwhelming majority of students are doing it, but a good portion of them are excited about going ahead and starting to learn about the college experience. Because they still are nervous about college. So, you can kind of leverage those types of emotions to get them to be very receptive to any sort of academic coaching you want to do, any sort of programs you want them to get started in. As long as you align those with things that they care about in that moment.

Pellegrino: So, finally, then can you describe where things are today with the work, what some of the next frontiers are? And I know we certainly want to address the COVID crisis as well and how that might shift the direction that you all take in the short term. But just thinking about what’s next and how things are going.

Bowen: Stemming from our iPASS work, we still are doing our campaign outreaches, so we’re still doing returning at-risk students. We’re still doing early alerts at-risk, we’re still doing midterm at-risk, and we still do non-registered campaigns. I do kind of centralize who those students are that are the top of the risk, tag them, and then have the advisors be able to use the technology to actually outreach to those particular students—trying to make it as easy for them as possible to identify those students who are in the most need. So I still do that on the back end.

And we have seen a significant reduction in our first-year probation numbers. Now, again, I can’t necessarily claim all the work on that from just campaigns. There are a lot of other things going on at the university. But that does kind of help create a lot more buy-in, with faculty asking… I’m still getting questions about, “why are we doing early alerts? I already sent an email or I already talked to my students personally. Why should I have to put it in this system as well?” It’s not just about a one-to-one relationship between a faculty member and a student. We can determine that two or more early alerts is actually predictive of a low outcome for a student at the end of the semester.

So, we actually are using that to identify students that are going to be at risk before midterms. Because midterms could be too late for them to be able to resolve their situation. With COVID-19, we also did alerts this summer and we followed up to be able to identify what were the struggles with our students from COVID when we went remote and we made preparations for this fall to help better serve those students. And so hopefully we’ll see good outcomes of students this fall, of not having as many students struggle and end up on probation at the end of their first semester.

Pellegrino: Great, so you essentially leveraged your early alert system to have really specific identifiers or tags, ways to figure out what’s going on with students that are specific to this particular situation with moving to remote and the COVID crisis.

Bowen: Yes, exactly. We did do interviews; we had someone do analysis of the data and interviews and give us some feedback. And one of those feedback is that students would like some videos. So, I created a video this summer on something. We’ve got the Office of Academic Excellence creating videos. Not that videos weren’t a good idea anyway, but it kind of rises to the top when you see that level of feedback of how important it really is, especially in a virtual environment.

Pellegrino: That’s great. Well, we certainly wish you all the best, you and your UNCC colleagues. And thank you so much, Fred, for spending the time today. You can read more about UNCC and two other colleges that participated in the randomized controlled trial here this fall. We have Lessons Learned From Advising Redesigns at Three Institutions, that should be released in the next month or so. Thanks again, Fred, for being here. It’s great to see you.

Bowen: Thank you, Lauren. I’m glad to be here, so thanks again.

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