Sept2010Cover
THE
BULLETIN
Volume 78 | Issue 5
September 2010

Student organization advisor involvement and retention

Deepti Vanguri

Current research on student organizations at colleges and universities focuses on how they impact students. Major influences on students during their involvement with student organizations include the interactions with the organization’s advisors. George Kuh’s 1995 article in the Journal of Higher Education shared his research on the out-of-classroom experience. Findings revealed that “informal faculty-student contact beyond the classroom fostered feelings of affirmation, confidence, and self-worth … and contributed to knowledge acquisition and the development of academic skills.” The informal contacts that faculty and students have, which, in some instances, are in the form of student organizations, have a tremendous impact on the student’s development. Additionally, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini’s second volume of “How College Affects Students” reported that “advising can directly affect students’ persistence and probability of graduating, or have indirect effects through grades, intentions, or satisfaction with the student role.” From these researchers, we can see that the role of faculty members as advisors can be significantly influential. However, minimal research has been done on the advisors of the organizations and how the involvement within the organization affects them.

A study conducted earlier this year at a large four-year institution in the Southwestern United States sought to find out more about why advisors of registered student organizations undertake their roles and how those experiences influence further involvement. Findings can be used to improve practice and in working toward growing the body of research on this topic.

About student organization advisors

Student affairs literature indicates there are several roles that advisors take within in their positions. Norbert Dunkel and John Schuh, authors of the book “Advising Student Groups and Organizations,” identified five essential roles that advisors must undertake: mentors, supervisors, teachers, leaders, and followers. The authors recognized that student organization advisors must understand their strongest roles and those in which they have room for improvement. According to “Advising Student Groups and Organizations,” within these roles are many challenges and rewards that student organization advisors face as they give their time, which is often voluntary, to the student group.

Challenges:

  • Managing time and not becoming overcommitted to the organization
  • Whether it is strictly voluntary or a part of the job, training is minimal
  • Challenges in finding a place within the student organization, while not trying to be too controlling
  • Ensuring the advisor is aware of the decisions that are made
  • Time and patience needed for students’ developmental process

Rewards:

  • Seeing firsthand students developing during their college experiences
  • Serving as a mentor to the students they advise
  • Creating networks and support groups with other staff members who serve as advisors
  • Participating in an organization whose purpose you enjoy

The challenges and rewards may influence advisors in their decision to become advisors, during their term, and in considering whether to retain the position.


Research on advisors

The overall purpose of this study was to look at the factors that influence student organization advisors’ involvement within the student organization and their interest in returning as advisors. The research questions addressed in this study were:

  • Why do individuals serve as student organization advisors?
  • Do the reasons to serve as student organizations advisors impact the retention of advisors from year to year?

Advisors were asked to complete a three-part questionnaire about their student organization advising experience. This mixed-method study explored the factors that impact a student organization’s advisor’s involvement and how those factors play a role in the retention of the advisor from year to year. The theoretical framework provided an opportunity to see that different advisors have varying levels of involvement within their organization.

An online questionnaire was developed and sent to 352 advisors of registered student organizations through e-mail and was open for a two-week period. These advisors were either a full-time faculty or staff member within the institution and had either been assigned or voluntarily accepted the role of advisor. Assigned advisors were those individuals who serve as a student organization advisor as a part of their job function, whereas voluntary advisors were individuals that purely volunteers in addition to their job functions within the university. Most of the participants (69 percent) reported having voluntarily accepted the position.

The questionnaire consisted of three sections: the first two focused on quantitative information while the last section focused on qualitative. The first section was a series of 12 demographical questions, the next section listed 14 statements in which the advisor were asked to identify the level of occurrence, and the final section contained 13 open-ended questions looking at their personal experiences as an advisor. Thirty-eight advisors responded to the questionnaire, providing an 11 percent response rate. The gender breakdown of the respondents was 58 percent male and 42 percent female.

Fifty-three percent identified themselves as a faculty member, while 36 percent identified themselves as a staff member and 11 percent of the respondents identified themselves as other. Of the 53 percent who identified themselves as faculty members, 45 percent said that they were tenure track and 30 percent of the respondents self-identified as an assistant professor, the remaining 25 percent of the respondents self-identified as either a tenured professor, non-tenure track, full-time professor, associate professor, or an administrative professional.

Nearly 70 percent of participants advise only one student organization, although two participants advise five or more organizations. A quarter of participants said they advise academic or professional organizations. The second largest organizational classification was fraternities/sororities (14 percent), followed by religious (8 percent) and service organizations (8 percent). The remaining participants reported advising graduate organizations, honor societies, multicultural groups, recreational clubs, residence hall associations, spirit groups, and special interest organizations.

Parallels can be drawn between experiences of advisors and students with organizations. The organization provides advisors opportunities to network, grow professionally, and interact with and develop students. From the study conducted, there are a several findings that relate to the work of Alexander Astin’s student involvement theory. Although the theory is fundamentally for college students, four of its components evident within the study provide a basis for student organization advisor involvement:

  • Investment of physical and psychological energy in various objects
  • Involvement occurs along a continuum
  • The amount of learning and development is proportional to the level of involvement within the program
  • The effectiveness of a practice is related to the potential of that practice to increase involvement

For the purpose of this study, these components were compared to the participants’ views on their student organization advisor role.

Becoming an advisor

The “investment of physical and psychological energies in various objects” with this current study can be seen as the reasons why advisors took on their roles within the student organization. Individuals in this area look at certain driving forces to become involved within the objects. For advisors, these forces are jobs, passion for the organization, and desire to help students through their college developmental process.

The first research question within this study investigated the reasons student organization advisors take on their role. In the study, participants indicated that the components they most appreciated about their position were helping students and engaging in the specific subject matter of the student organization. Student organization advisors said that serving in a mentorship role and “being there for students” to assist them in their developmental process were the most beneficial components to being an advisor. The next component was the subject matter of the student organization and being able to serve as the “teacher” to the students of the organization.

 When participants were asked in the quantitative section of the study why they took on the role as student organization advisor, 36 percent indicated that it was because of their interest in the organization. Another 25 percent of respondents indicated that the reason was because of their job, and 25 percent marked “other.” The final 14 percent said they had been a member of the organization previously. To further examine this question and what “other” meant, during the qualitative portion of the questionnaire, participants were able to explain in further detail why they chose to become a student organization advisor.

After further analysis, it became apparent that the mentorship role that Dunkel and Schuh stated was one of the main reasons that participants took on the advisor role. Being able to “challenge students to grow and learn” while getting “an opportunity to understand students” were ultimately the reasons why advisors become involved within the organization. As in the other sections of the study, student organization advisors said their purpose for getting involved was to engage with students in their developmental process while providing students with an avenue to further their leadership skills.

Another reason advisors became involved was because doing so was part of their job function or because they were assigned to the role. As one advisor said, “I was voluntold to do it.” Those individuals who served an advisor within their job still indicated a positive experience with advising because of the student interaction.

Advisor involvement

From the study findings and Astin’s student involvement theory, individuals’ reasons for being involved within organizations depend on the amount of physical and mental energy put forth within the organization. If advisors are there because they are passionate about the organization or engaged in helping students develop, they exert more of those energies into the organization. Advisors assigned to the organization because of job function may not focus as much of their energies into it. This varying level leads to Astin’s second and third areas: involvement is looked at in continuum and the amount an individual puts into the organization is proportional to involvement gains.

Astin’s 1999 Journal of College Student Development article, “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education,” addressed that involvement depends on the individual and how much that individual contributes to, in this case, the student organization. It is up to the advisors how vested and engaged they would like to be within the organization. Ultimately, how involved they would like to be leads to how much the advisor is able to gain from their organization experience. In this study, student organization advisors reported various levels of involvement, whether being an advisor on paper or an advisor working alongside students to run the organization.

In the “Advisor Involvement” portion of the questionnaire, participants indicated their various levels of involvement within their organization using a four-part Likert scale. Overall, advisors appeared to be frequently involved with their organizations. In terms of meeting attendance, 58 percent of the respondents indicated that they “very frequently” attend organization meetings, and 64 percent responded that they “frequently” or “very frequently” attended organization events and activities. Additionally, 85 percent of the respondents indicated they meet individually with the executive leaders of the organization, and 76 percent of the respondents meet with the executive boards as a group outside of the regular organization meeting.

Respondents indicated lesser involvement in fundraising components of the student organization: 35 percent said they “never” assist in fundraising efforts and 47 percent are “never” involved in the funding process that is run through the Student Government Association. However, it is important to note that almost 42 percent aide their student organization with budgetary aspects of the organization.

In examining involvement responses more closely, some other themes emerge. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents had indicated in another part of the study that what they liked most about their role as a student organization advisor was being able to help students and the relationship they formed with the students with whom they interact. In this section, advisors with that role preference indicated that they “frequently” or “very frequently” had meaningful conversations with students about the organization as well as their academic, career, and personal lives. Interestingly, in a different cross-tabulation, those advisors who said they undertook the role because it was assigned to them indicated they “never” and “somewhat frequently” attended meetings and events and “never” and “somewhat frequently” had conversations with students in regard to the organization or the their personal life.

Advisor retention

Astin’s final area looks at how involvement within an area relates to the possibility of future involvement within those areas. For this study, the majority of advisors said they would return the following year to serve as a student organization advisor. Strong, meaningful experiences with students in the organizations were shown to help increase desired participation in future years for student organization advisors.

Regardless of the student organization advisors’ reasons for being involved within the organization, they had a vested interest in their students leaders’ ability to learn and grow from their experiences. According to one participant, “Student organizations need guidance and very few faculty/staff give their time to them.” Understanding that the students need someone to support them is the main reason why many of the participants said they continue to be student organization advisors.

The student organization advisors addressed self-gratification as the most rewarding aspect of the role whereas downsides were the administrative tasks and time sometimes needed for the organization. Supervisory roles—such as enforcing university policies—were among the least desired components of the advisor role, although participants recognized such components’ value. However, some saw policies by which the  advisors needed to abide as bureaucratic. One participant said: “I have nearly resigned as advisor twice because of university policy.” Another disliked the advisory role because of “having to work through the processes of academic bureaucracy.”

While a third of participants had been student organization advisors at the university for more than five years, 22 percent had been advisors there for less than a year, 28 percent had been advisors there for one to nearly three years, and 17 percent had been advisors there for three to five years.

Some individuals who indicated they did not want to return as student organization advisors said this was because they were close to retirement, had been an advisor for long enough, and wanted to hand the role over to someone else. The study found that advisor “burnout” was another reason for not wanting to return, as participants described a need for time away from advisor responsibilities. As one advisor said, “It takes time away from my family, and there is little participation from the students.”

Inconsistency of student engagement seemed to be another challenge. One advisor disliked “needing to remind officers of org[anizational] responsibilities and deadlines. Another said: “Sometimes, students are not as responsible and responsive, which causes me frustration. I do not like having to deal with their defiance either, even though it doesn’t happen very often, it’s still very frustrating.” And finally, one participant said, “Sometimes the undergraduate students in my organization rely too much on me.”

Based on these findings, recommendations may be made for student affairs practice as well as future research.

Implications

For activities professionals who work specifically with student organizations and advisors, most of the implications from this study can be distilled into recommendations for better communication and training. It is important for student affairs professionals to understand that, as with Astin’s student involvement theory, varying investment also occurs within student organization advisors. Knowing this, clear expectations should be set for an advisor’s level of involvement and the benefits of greater involvement may be discussed.

In the study, advisors indicated they could be more effective if they better understood what resources are available to student organizations. Additionally, several of the advisors desired structured and more formalized advisor training workshops to better acclimate themselves to university policies, mediation processing, and budgeting processes. For student affairs professionals, workshops could be tailored to the advisor’s level of involvement. An example would be a 30-minute workshop for advisors who just need minimal information. On the other end, the advisors who would like more detailed content can be addressed as well through training series or longer workshops. This is to ensure that both sides of the spectrum are accommodated.

Workshops on college student development could be another way to assist advisors. These workshops could help advisors understand that the amount of student learning and development is proportional to the level of involvement within programs. Additionally, it could be an opportunity to communicate how informal faculty-student contact affects students’ development experiences. While the advisors who participated in this study were not asked if they had a higher education background, on many campuses advisors may not have knowledge of student development theory. The advisors from this study indicated they enjoyed being a part of developmental process of their students; therefore, being able to foster an environment where organization advisors could learn more would be beneficial.

Another implication of this study is the need to address the issue of advisor burnout observed in participant responses, as it could improve advisor retention. Student affairs offices that manage student organizations must be able to create a way of not only checking in with student leaders but also with the advisors. Implementing systems for such frequent communication could be time-consuming for the department that oversees the organizations; however, it has the potential to yield greater long-term benefits. Reduced advisor turnover would increase the number of well-trained advisors with strong student leader relationships.

This study attempted to examine a population on college campuses that is rarely addressed. What is most neglected is looking deeper within this population to understand how advisors’ involvement impacts their experience and then how their involvement impacts our students. Future research on student leaders and their perception of the advisor role is needed to assist student affairs professionals in providing necessary support and resources. Additionally, it is important for researchers to look at the issue of advisor burnout. From the findings of the current research, lack of time and competing priorities are causing many advisors to leave their roles. Looking at advisor burnout and its impacts on the student organization would be beneficial in further improving the out-of-class learning environment.