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Dawn Coder, The Pennsylvania State University, World Campus

Dawn Coder.jpgA continuous, single digit increase in enrollments; workload issues; and a student information system (SIS) change provided an opportunity to conduct a review of the current academic advising program for online learners. The previous academic advising program model required academic advisors to assist assigned as well as non-assigned students from matriculation to graduation and during times when a student is academically unsuccessful. The restructure of an academic advising program included three areas of focus: a review of like-online institutions, process mapping by a business analyst, and subject-matter expertise from current leadership and academic advisors. 

One-on-one discussions with like institutions which offer online programming gave insights into current advising structures. An inquiry was sent through the NACADA Advising Administration Community listserv with a request to discuss current academic advising structures, centralized  and de-centralized. Several NACADA listserv members were available to meet and review current practices. A review of Marsha Miller’s (2004) article “Factors to consider when (re)structuring academic advising” provided targeted questions to ask during these meetings, as well as current needs of the advising program. The relevant questions included:

  • How many students do you have attending completely online and pursuing a degree?
  • How many online degrees do you offer?
  • What is your structure for academic advising?

In the discussion, other questions became important to understand including transfer credit evaluation, at-risk student processes, and the adult learner population. The collective information as well as the pros and cons of restructuring provided insight to the leadership team and informed the strategic planning of the current program. 

The implementation of a new student information system (SIS), resulted in academic advisors experiencing and adapting to new manual job responsibilities. In this experience, many of the expectations of academic advisors changed, and new ways of completing work while staying student-centered allowed for opportunities in process change. Through business process mapping, a business analyst diagramed current processes and the time spent in non-advising areas, such as answering a general advising line. From this data, leadership used relevant data to make decisions of how to restructure the academic advising program to exclude non-advising responsibilities. One clear example identified was the need for a new staff position to answer the general advising phone line and general email account. The academic advisors answered the phone line eight hours per week and the general email account one day per month. An equivalent of five days per month spent assisting with general questions which took away time spent with assigned students.

As mentioned, a business analyst reviewed all academic advisor processes from the time that an admit matriculated through graduation. The review found academic advisor responsibilities included approximately 55 different processes with a grouped area related to non-advising tasks. Yes, 55! Each identified process fell into one of three categories: manual/transactional, general academic advising, or specialized services. Although all three research areas were very important, identifying these categories was the most informative when deciding how to restructure.

The previous academic advising program did not provide capacity for academic advisors to be proactive, to build positive relationships, or to provide timely or high-quality services to online students, as is expected. The implementation of a Tier-Level Model is proving to meet these expectations. In this model, there are four tiers. In Figure 1 below, the first three tiers created were informed by the three categories from process mapping.

Figure 1

A Tier-Level Model for Advising

Tier graphic.jpg

Tier one is responsible for all manual/transactional tasks. An office assistant’s (tier one) responsibilities include answering a general phone line, answering the general email account, scheduling appointments for academic advisors, welcoming new and re-enrolled students, and many other general/manual tasks. All tasks were originally required by an academic advisor and included in the 55 plus processes!

Tier two includes all general academic advising responsibilities. Academic advisors (tier two) assist students to schedule; educate students on how to navigate a complex university; and build positive relationships to provide more timely, higher quality, and more in-depth services. In the tier level model, academic advisors are more attentive to new students and provide timely responses. A concern for this tier is that academic advisors will have a higher roster of assigned students due to the specialized nature of tier three.

Tier three is in the category of specialized services with a focus on working closely with students who are academically at-risk of dismissal. This role, academic advisor & liaison, specializes in working with students who are on academic warning or suspension, students who are struggling in a class (early alert), and students who need additional counseling to become motivated toward success. The assumption is that this level will contribute to higher retention and persistence rates. Additionally, this position is the liaison to external units, contributing to building positive relationships and tracking all academic requirements of curricular changes within each program of study. This tier is considered a leadership role and will allow for promotion and the development of a career ladder within this academic advising program.

Tier four is a leadership role responsible for the supervision of academic advisors and assisting the director with strategic planning for the academic advising program. Assistant directors complete upper-level leadership tasks as well as manage the responsibility for tasks in each of the tiers. The philosophy in this academic advising program is for leadership to advocate for all levels and, in order to do so, they need to intimately understand the work of each tier.

Evaluating changes and making slight adjustments early in a program restructure is important when identifying if the changes are meeting goals. Kraft-Terry and Kau (2016) state, “When considering the variety in types of data available, it is important to select the data that is most appropriate to evaluate for the proposed change or area of interest.” Three goals for the restructure of the tier level advising program are: increased staff capacity, increased proactivity in student contacts, and higher quality services for students.

For the past year and a half, results for all three areas of evaluation have shown success. Every member of the tier levels is required to track time as an evaluative method in increasing staff capacity. Staff surveys are distributed every six months focusing on qualitative data. Changed processes are reviewed after each completion time with minor tweaks based on lessons learned. A great success shown is student response times. Under the old model, it would take up to five business days to respond to a student, sometimes longer during busy times. Now, advisors respond within two to three business days, less during non-busy times. A great improvement!

The findings of the evaluation are:

  • tier two and three academic advisors spend less time on manual tasks and more time on proactive and intensive academic advising conversations;
  • overall satisfaction from the survey results shows academic advisors are supportive of the restructure; and
  • fluidity in changing new processes allows for improvements after each process is complete.

One example of fluidity in a new process is the implementation of a schedule change report. Academic advisors check student schedule changes one week from the start of the semester and during the first week of the semester. It is a proactive process that allows academic advisors to catch any scheduling errors a student makes. The first time the process was complete, it was the responsibility of tier three to check all students in degree programs of expertise. This was not as efficient as expected, because tier three members are not the assigned academic advisor: a student was hearing from a non-assigned academic advisor causing confusion. The responsibility changed to the assigned academic advisor checking when a student adds or drops a course during this time. It is more efficient, maintains positive relationships with advisor and student, and it supports persistence to degree.  

Implementation considers questions such as what must be done and who should be involved (Miller, 2004); it will create a culture of collaboration and clear expectations. The ability to plan continuously, make changes quickly, and update all resources, such as process maps, is necessary and extremely valuable as this new academic advising program becomes the new norm. Documenting expectations, best practices, and assessment is also integral in restructuring. Pardee (2004) states “Ultimately, the determining factor in the success of any model is whether there is a good fit between the model and the institution, faculty, students and other variables.” Tier model online academic advising program—a better fit? For this online institution, yes!

Dawn Coder, M.Ed.
Director of Academic Advising and Student Disability Services
The Pennsylvania State University, World Campus


Kraft-Terry, S. & Kau, C. (2016). Manageable steps to implementing data-informed advising. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Manageable-Steps-to-Implementing-Data-Informed-Advising.aspx

Miller, M. A. (2004). Factors to consider when (re)structuring academic advising. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/-Re-Structuring-academic-advising.aspx

Pardee, C. F. (2004). Organizational structures for advising. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. 

Cite this article using APA style as: Coder, D. (2020, June). A year long journey of restructuring an online academic advising program. Academic Advising Today, 43(2). [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2020 June 43:2


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.