Getting Prepared for the Underprepared

Robin Jones and Kimberly Becker, Nashville State Technical Institute

Student: “Uhhh, I need to get registered for some classes.”
Adviser: “Okay, do you know what you want to major in?”
Student: “Uhhh, I don't know, I just need to get 12 hours for my financial aid.”
Thus goes a classic adviser/student conversation at a community college in the United States. Our campuses reflect our culture, a true melting pot, so there are students of all ages, races, and backgrounds on these campuses. There are students of all levels on these campuses. There are students who are very determined and know exactly what they want and which classes they need to get what they want, and then there are others who know none of those answers – the underprepared.

Who makes up this group? It is truly a mix: first-generation college students, adults returning to school after many years because they need more skills, students who come to a college because they do not know what else to do, transfer students, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and minorities. The list could go on and on. Unfortunately, these are the students who so often place into remedial and/or developmental classes and who do not yet know in what direction to go. Many are academically and socially underprepared for college. Yet they sit across the desk from you, the adviser.

Underpreparedness has become a plague on community college campuses. Although there are a number of reasons (poor secondary educations, lack of guidance, high unemployment rates, etc.), a school with open admissions must simply accept these students and try to correct their deficiencies retroactively. Would these students have been here twenty years ago? Probably not – but they are here, they are not going away, and advisers must find ways to counsel these students successfully.

Why is this so difficult? It is difficult because institutions have not caught up with population changes. On a large level, it is practically impossible to continually update our strategies for dealing with the many types of students that walk through the doors everyday. We could change the education system by implementing new testing standards and tracking systems. We could influence our state government to budget more money for higher education so we could have more remedial intervention or change admission standards. We could increase spending in low-income areas so that the cycle of poverty can be reduced. But is any of this really practical for an academic adviser just trying to do his or her job? No. What is practical is change on a smaller level, our level: advising.

The change cannot start with the students or the system. The change must start with us. We have to be honest and recognize the things we cannot change. However, there are a few things we can change about our advising and ourselves. The following are seven practical things that advisers can do to help:
  1. Stop complaining. Accept these students as part of your school's population and move on. Complaining and criticizing your students can demean your morale and motivation to help those that cross your threshold. For your own sanity, keep the complaints to a minimum.

  2. Change your delivery of service. Perhaps the ways we have been taught to advise and the way things have always worked need to be revised to be successful with the under-prepared population. These students need more individualized attention, so herding them into large groups may not be effective. Use smaller groups or individual sessions to reach your advisees. If you do not have the staff to keep up with demands, try using peer advisers or recruit other staff at peak times. Also, try to use less paper and more visuals. Some students will take one of every flyer and seldom read any of the information on them. In these cases, the answers to the questions they ask are often in that stack of papers they hold in their hands. Using computers and videos may stimulate interest and help answer some questions before they are sitting across the desk from you. A simple welcome video or PowerPoint presentation may work well.

  3. Teach life skills. Since decision-making skills and self-advocacy are lacking in under-prepared students, advisers will need to take an active role in teaching these skills. If we do not, these students will be back next semester with the same questions. Give advisees all the information, but promote critical-thinking strategies to encourage them to make their own decisions. Some of us may need to dig deep to find those counselor skills, and others may need to learn them for the first time. It is essential that these students make their own decisions and have confidence in their reasoning.

  4. Be honest with students. This can be tricky and requires delicate word choice. Those students who feel pressured into coming to college for economic, social, or professional reasons and who might not be college-ready may need gentle honesty from you in deciding if college really is the right choice at this time in their life.

  5. Provide excellent hands-on training for new advisers. Do not hang the new people out to dry. Educate new employees on what you know about your school's population without criticizing the various groups of students. Try to avoid giving new advisers preconceived notions of their advisees. Remember, when we set low expectations for our students, they usually meet them.

  6. Educate yourself on these populations, their backgrounds, and the reasons that they are not prepared for college. This insight could prove to be an invaluable tool when trying to relate to and establish a connection with an advisee.

  7. And last but not least, read, read, read. Advisers must keep reading to learn new techniques and evaluations of current and future trends in academia. Whether it is an advising journal or another school's advising practices, we must stay informed.
So how would you continue with the advising session of the student in the first paragraph of this article? Would you tell the student to come back later when he/she has made more decisions? Or would you spoon-feed the information and procedures? Maybe you know the best way to deal with under-prepared students, or maybe re-evaluation of your advising is long overdue. Either way, there is always room for improvement. As advisers, we must do everything we can for all of our students, not just the ones who are easy to advise. We must become experts in adviser multi-tasking: teaching as well as counseling, being honest as well as encouraging, and being informed as well as open-minded. None of us can prevent the problems that cause underpreparedness. But we must not underestimate ourselves and must realize instead that we can effect change just by doing our jobs. And part of that job is being prepared for the underprepared.

Robin Jones is the advising coordinator at Nashville State Tech. She can be reached at 615-353-3026 or

Kimberly Becker is the ESL testing specialist/adviser at Nashville State Tech. She can be reached at 615-353-3380 or

Published in The Mentor on April 15, 2002, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
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