More Than Getting to the Door: Non-Academic Supports to Ensure Students Graduate from College (Part 3—Institutional Knowledge Required to Navigate Higher Education Systems)

by Daniela Saucedo
January 25, 2021

Photo of confused Student at computer

Academic institutions can be difficult to navigate, especially for students who do not have college-educated parents. At 4-year institutions, first-generation students are twice as likely than students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree to leave before their second year.1 Decisions about choosing a major, knowing which classes to take, and knowing when to take those classes are all factors that contribute to completing a degree, and first-generation students can only rely on their institutions for support with these matters.

Many colleges offer counseling and advising, but not all students know how to leverage these resources. Academic integration is a measure of how often students take advantage of resources such as attending career-related events, meeting with academic advisors, or participating in study groups. First-year college students who are first-generation report lower levels of academic integration than their peers.2

Institutional Advising Strategies

Here are a few instructional strategies that schools can adopt in their advising practices to offset institutional knowledge barriers:

  • “Opt-Out” Approach: Students are more likely to take advantage of support services when they are automatically provided and students have to actively decide not to use them.3 This approach makes student services more accessible because students do not need to figure out what services are available. For example, LaGuardia Community College uses FAFSA data to “flag” low-income students in their student management system; when these students appear at mandatory advising services, they are automatically screened for eligibility to public benefit programs.4
  • Proactive Academic Advising: Academic advising is “proactive” when advisors hold the responsibility for outreach rather than students. This is critical for helping at-risk students make decisions, identify resources, and set goals. For every meeting with an academic advisor, the odds of retention increase by 13%.5
  • Guided Pathways: Guided pathways are a college-wide undertaking to provide students with clear, educationally coherent maps including specific course sequences, progress milestones, and program learning outcomes for each academic program or major.6 This approach takes the ambiguity out of deciding which course to take when for a particular major. Check out this Practitioner Packet from the Community College Research Center to learn more about how to implement guided pathways in your school!

Institutional knowledge gaps can hinder students’ ability to graduate from postsecondary institutions, especially students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. However, by implementing support strategies that help students access advising information, schools can work to combat these barriers to degree completion.


1Tym, C., McMillion, R., Barone, S., & Webster, J. (2004). First-generation college students: A literature review. Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation.
2Tym, C., McMillion, R., Barone, S., & Webster, J. (2004). First-generation college students: A literature review. Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation.
3Lumina Foundation. (2018). Beyond financial aid: How colleges can strengthen the financial stability of low-income students and improve student outcomes. Lumina Foundation.
4Lumina Foundation (2018)
5Swecker, H. K., Fifolt, M., & Searby, L. (2014). Academic advising and first-generation college students: A quantitative study on student retention. NACADA Journal, 43(1), 46–53.
6California Guided Pathways. (n.d.). What are guided pathways?

Topics: Access and equity Community colleges First-generation college students Low income Opportunity youth Transition to postsecondary Underrepresented Minorities