SMC commits to transforming academic advising
By Miranda Kozman
This article appeared originally in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Frontiers Magazine.
The campus of Spartanburg Methodist College will see major changes as the institution undergoes the process of reaffirming its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). This might sound like a bureaucratic process, but it has put exciting changes in motion that will impact SMC students, faculty, and staff.
The Impact of Accreditation
The reaccreditation process happens every 10 years and has major implications for the College. According to Dr. Ann Bowles, Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, “Accreditation is an important measure of quality for any institution. It signifies that an external body, approved by the U.S. Department of Education, recognizes that we are conducting business in ways that meet standards set by an entity outside of campus.” Without this accreditation, SMC would not be able to offer financial aid to its students, and the College would not have the same reputation for excellence in the region.
Over the past few decades, major changes have been made to the accreditation process. Institutions must now show that they are continually improving the academic experience for their students, not just maintaining the status quo. So in order to keep its accreditation, SMC must choose a specific area of the academic experience to enhance and outline the proposed changes in a document called the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP).
Academic Advising Emerges as SMC’s Focus
After a series of surveys, interviews, and town-hall meetings with faculty and staff, SMC’s QEP committee identified that improved academic advising would have the biggest impact on student learning. SMC will now focus on revolutionizing academic advising resources and facilities starting this fall.
“It was essential that the community work together to choose the focus for the QEP organically,” says Kathleen Brown, Executive Director of Quality Enhancement Programs. “We listened to ideas from our community, and then the QEP committee took the three most frequently mentioned areas back to the community for a vote. Academic advising emerged as the clear winner.”
Those who have been on campus long enough will remember that SMC’s previous QEP during the last round of accreditation focused on increasing student engagement by building Spartanburg Methodist College Pioneer Learning Communities (SMCPLC) — a program that is entering its 10th successful year. Because the program was so successful in building community and connection on campus, SMC decided to keep the learning communities in place past their original five-year window. This shows that, when done correctly, the QEP is an opportunity for long-term institutional change.
Vision for a New Pioneer Advising Center
After hearing from the community about suggested changes to the academic advising process at SMC, the QEP committee put together an ambitious plan to transform the academic advising process. SMC will open a new Pioneer Advising Center, staffed with four academic advisers dedicated to helping all incoming freshmen better understand and take ownership of the college process.
Currently, there are no dedicated academic advisers at the College. SMC’s faculty members serve as both instructors and advisers. “The result is some inconsistency in the experiences of incoming freshmen because we don’t really have a standard advising process,” notes Brown. “Some students walk away from their first advising sessions without fully understanding their degree program, their degree options, or the kind of coursework needed to complete their degree.”
Improving academic advising is especially important for first-year students. Freshmen simply need a more robust support system to navigate campus culture, map out their degree requirements, and understand transfer
plan, new students will be assigned an academic adviser who can answer their questions and help them acclimate to the expectations and responsibilities of college.
However, the ultimate goal of the new advising plan is to give students the tools and knowledge to take ownership of their own academic journey. This end goal is a high priority for the QEP committee and Brown: “With the support of the new advisers, we want students to be able to track their progress toward their degree, register themselves for classes online, and make adjustments as they move through their courses.”
Building autonomy is especially important because many of SMC’s students go on to four-year institutions where they are expected to function independently, including registering for their own courses and tracking their own degree requirements.
After the first year, SMC students will still have access to faculty advisers who will mentor them and ensure
they are on track to complete their degree. However, the community hopes students will be much more independent as they leave their first year.
A More Supportive Environment Starting on Day One
The new advising system established under the QEP also opens the door to improving the student orientation process. Brown heard from several groups on campus who were unsatisfied with the first-year orientation, so the QEP also makes improvements to those programs.
“Better advising isn’t just about giving students ownership over their own learning. It’s also about establishing better personal connections with students when they first get to campus,” says Brown.
As part of the new advising plan, students and their families will have scheduled appointments with staff and advisers when they arrive on campus. During these appointments, they will be able to take care of the onboarding process, registration, and paperwork. That will allow SMC to design a more productive agenda for the student orientation and family orientation that focuses on preparing for college success.
New Advising Plans Share Widespread Support
The community is eager to implement the changes. Dr. Kelly Neil, Director of Academic Advising, believes the new advising system will have tremendous benefits for both faculty and students.
“Because students will have dedicated academic advisers, it will allow our other faculty to spend more time mentoring students about their career and life choices more broadly. Faculty and students will develop deeper, more meaningful professional relationships. This is important because research shows that students are more likely to graduate if they have a trusted faculty member to mentor them. I can also tell you from personal experience that developing these kinds of relationships with students is what makes faculty members’ jobs so rewarding.”
Litasha Dennis, Professor of English, also sees the improvements as a way to make SMC more competitive. “This new approach to advising better aligns with what other schools are doing. In the event that our students transfer, they will have a smoother transition. And a new advising center will simply add another element that makes our campus more attractive to prospective students and families.”
High Stakes and Big Rewards
The QEP process and the larger accreditation process are nearing completion. SMC submitted the completed QEP plans to SACSCOC on August 1, 2018. Representatives from the accreditation board visited campus in mid-September to review the plans and conduct interviews. The College will receive its official accreditation status by June 2019. If the QEP is approved, a search for the new academic advisers will occur this fall, followed by the opening of the Pioneer Advising Center in January 2019.
Dr. Bowles, is especially excited about the plans. “A goal of our advising process has always been to demystify
the college experience so that students can successfully navigate the process. So the new academic advising program and Pioneer Advising Center are on point for achieving that goal.”