Transitioning to a new advising structure at Northern Arizona University

How Northern Arizona turned several systems into one cohesive management platform to improve its advising offerings

Transforming advising in support of student success with purpose, commitment, and technology that can support better sharing of data across multiple units has been the focus of Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) work in the Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) grant program through EDUCAUSE, with financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NAU has approached the work in phases with a very deliberate student-centered approach and most notably has focused on enabling advisors to be successful in the new roles they are being asked to play.

On any campus, efforts to improve student success bring about significant change, purposefully touching many if not most departments of an institution. This process of change forces long-established processes to be changed, new communication across departmental boundaries to happen more transparently, and radically increased amounts of data to be shared, understood, and taken into account in order to guide and support students completing their degrees.

Ambitious goals for student success and retention are nothing new at NAU. A decade ago, a first-year advising center served a subset of students. But there were many other advisors throughout the campus working within the disparate schools and academic units. They recognized the value of working together informally and had a working group—and no formal system that would have enabled a consistent student experience.

As is most often the case at four-year institutions, students who had declared a major were transferred to advisors or the faculty of their major department, and those advisors had no defined relationship to the advising center, a student’s former advisor, or one another. In considering how to improve its retention rates, NAU brought in a retention consultant, who led them to recognize the advantages of a more formal structure for advising. An essential underpinning for this organizational change was a formal structure that would ensure uniform adoption of some of the new technologies being introduced at the institution. Thus, ensuring that the technologies and tools were adopted by all advising units, not only those who were eager to participate.

Northern Arizona made the decision to leverage the funds from a student success grant to bring in a new enterprise-wide platform to replace the various independent student information systems including academic advising notes, student affairs records, faculty alerts, and a curriculum planner. They implemented a customer relations management (CRM) software to host all of this information in a single system with the capacity to inform staff and faculty and empower them to coordinate advising interactions with students.

Beginning in early 2016, a nine-month period of developing and testing a new CRM platform marked the first step in the transition from many disparate systems into a single new platform. Recruiting, admissions, advising, mentoring, financial aid, and other student service offices all needed to be incorporated, their requirements considered, and their users trained. By the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year, academic advisors began taking their notes in Salesforce, the new CRM, while advising notes taken in the legacy system were imported to maintain continuity of the record.

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