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Ashley Thomas and Bradford Cunningham, Kansas State University

Brad Cunningham.jpgAshley Thomas.jpgWith the evolution of the higher education landscape, the profession of academic advising continues to gain increasing recognition (Cuseo, 2003; Tinto, n.d.).  As these changes occur, the development and implementation of structured paths for professional development and career advancement are becoming progressively more important (Troia, 2006, Kapel & Shepherd, 2004).  While there is an abundance of literature regarding the benefits of having a career ladder in place, the existence of a professional academic advising career on college and university campuses is still rare (Taylor, 2011).  Kansas State University (K-State) is one institution that lacks a formal career ladder structure for Primary Role Advisors (PRAs).  In an effort to identify essential skills and characteristics as well as provide guidance to advisors seeking advancement, the advising community at K-State developed a career ladder framework based on the recently released NACADA Core Competencies of Academic Advising (NACADA, 2017).  While this framework is under consideration at K-State, it is important to clarify that it is not the current structure.  This article seeks to share the proposed framework as well as provide explanation so that others may use it as a guide as they see fit with their individual institution.

Through collaboration with key stakeholders, the academic advising community at K-State initiated a grassroots effort to develop a framework proposal that was specific enough to identify essential skills and knowledge while also being broad enough to accommodate the diverse advising unit models across the institution.  The goal of the career ladder proposal is to provide guidance to university administrators and unit leaders when evaluating the performance of an individual advisor while providing consistency for both evaluation and hiring practices.  The proposed structure includes example behaviors, skills, and abilities considered appropriate for each tier.  This document is not intended to be an absolute checklist guaranteeing promotion, rather a set of behaviors that could indicate to a supervisor that an advisor is prepared to advance in his/her career.  The initial draft included only three tiers to mirror the career progression of faculty at K-State.  However, after consideration from stakeholders, the four-tier approach was adopted.  The early tiers reflect a basic level of knowledge and skill set while the later tiers should reflect clear indications of advancement.

Proposed Framework and Connection to Core Competencies

In 2017, NACADA released a framework to recognize the key skills, knowledge, and behaviors important for academic advising.  The NACADA Academic Advising Core Competencies Guide states that the purpose of the model is “to identify the broad range of understanding, knowledge, and skills that support academic advising, to guide professional development,” and to “promote the contributions of academic advising to student development, progress, and success” (Farr & Cunningham, 2017, pp. 3–4).  The Core Competencies Model organizes essential characteristics into three different areas: conceptual, informational, and relational.  It is only fitting that this framework be utilized to build a career ladder for PRAs to assist both individuals and institutional administrations in identifying a path of career progression.

Conceptual Component

The purpose of the Conceptual component is to develop knowledge of the history, core values, and theories relevant to academic advising (Farr & Cunningham, 2017).  Additionally, strategies and approaches are refined and advising outcomes are identified as the advisor continues to advance.  The proposed career ladder framework identifies the progression of knowledge through the four tiers.

Each of the six points presented as part of the Conceptual component describe knowledge areas specifically related to the practice of advising.  These points provide the necessary foundation to effective academic advising regardless of institution.  As parts of a career ladder, each point offers general behaviors that exhibit development of a deeper understanding of the roots of advising.  These behaviors will differ between individual advising units and so must be considered in context.  Lengthy discussion and careful consideration of each point in context of performance expectations for advisors at K-State led to descriptions that administrators can use for promotion evaluation.  Examples can be found in the Career Ladder Companion Document.

Informational Component

The Informational component focuses on institution-specific information, local resources available to support the student, as well as larger legal issues that must be mastered to effectively advise.  While it can be daunting even for experienced advisors that are changing institutions or even departments within the same institution, it offers advisors the opportunity to specialize in different areas as they are advancing through the tiers of the career ladder.  While some level of mastery in all the areas needs to be demonstrated to advise students, it would be natural for advisors to find areas in this component where they may become particularly knowledgeable about and then become a resource for other advisors.  Examples may include FERPA, specific academic support programs, academic requirements, institution admission procedures, etc.

In developing the tiers for this component, it was evident that development moves from a concrete, fact-focused orientation to a larger collaborative and network-focused skillset.  Expectations for newer advisors would be limited to the basic knowledge required to present accurate information to students.  Behaviors indicating a greater connection with, as well as contributions to, the larger advising and campus community would suggest an advisor is ready to progress through the tiers.

Relational Component

This final component, the Relational component, represents the ability to communicate effectively and to employ the knowledge gained in the other two components to connect with the student in a meaningful way.  The content areas in this component assist the advisor in planning and conducting successful interactions tailored to the unique needs of each student.  The ability to create a welcoming and inclusive environment that is conducive to open conversation between advisor and student requires careful planning and development of trust over time.

Assessment of this area could be done via various methods.  At K-State, the students complete a survey every year that asks for student feedback about their advising experience.  Comparing answers from year to year can provide clear evidence of progress as students report increasing satisfaction with their experience.  Specific questions related to inclusion, rapport, relationships, goal-setting, etc. can all be part of the survey and thus used to provide feedback to the advisor as they continue to develop their skills in this area.


The development of the career ladder and the descriptions included in this article involved extensive communication between advisors, administrators, and members of a multi-unit, university-wide committee before final approval and submission for consideration.  It was critical to first identify trusted and respected individuals representing the many different models of advising at the institution and to then provide them a space to freely discuss the differences between academic units.  Additionally, key stakeholders across the institution such as the Student Governing Association, University Advising Committee, and Faculty Senate were engaged to gain institution-wide support.

While it is understood that the framework developed by the K-State advising community could be enhanced, other institutions may be able to utilize the framework as a starting point to develop their own career ladders for academic advisors.

Brad & Ashley.jpgAshley A. Thomas, M.S.
Academic Advisor
College of Business Administration
Kansas State University
[email protected]

Bradford Cunningham, M.S.
Academic Advisor
College of Business Administration
Kansas State University
[email protected]


Cuseo, J. (2003). Academic advisement and student retention: Empirical connections & cystemic interventions. Retrieved from http://www.uwc.edu/sites/uwc.edu/files/imce-uploads/employees/academic-resources/esfy/_files/academic_advisement_and_student_retention.pdf

Farr, T. & Cunningham, L. (Eds.). (2017). Academic advising core competencies guide. Manhattan, KS: NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising.

Kapel, C., & Shepherd, C. (2004). Career ladders create common language for defining jobs. Canadian HR Reporter - The National Journal of Human Resource Management. Retrieved from https://www.hrreporter.com/article/3274-career-ladders-create-common-language-for-defining-jobs/

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx

Taylor, M. A. (2011). Professional advisor credentials, career ladders, and salaries. Retrieved from  http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Professional-Advisor-Credentials-Career-Ladders-and-Salaries.aspx

Tinto, V. (n.d.) Taking student retention seriously. Retrieved from https://www.umes.edu/assets/0/232/3812/4104/4110/bd28b4ae-e1cc-4575-9b37-535d2d2be5f1.pdf

Troia, J. A. (2006, March 1). Aligning career ladders and the company vision [Comments and Opinion]. Nature Biotechnology, 24, 363–364. doi:10.1038/nbt0306-363

Cite this article using APA style as: Thomas, A., & Cunningham, B. (2018, June). Academic advising career ladder development based on NACADA core competencies. Academic Advising Today, 41(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 June 41:2


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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.