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Voices of the Global Community


Carolyn Thomas, University of California, Davis

“As higher education across the globe acclimates to the disequilibrium caused by change, the stature and legitimacy of academic advising will rise, which will further inspire and require practitioner engagement on campus.  During this time, all academic advisors . . . will be increasingly judged on their expertise and knowledge as well as their abilities and the results of their work.”  --Craig M. McGill and Charlie L. Nutt (2016, p. 353)

Carolyn Thomas.jpgAs an academic administrator and faculty member who supports academic advising at a research university, I could not agree more with this prediction shared recently in NACADA’s Beyond Foundations: Developing as a Master Academic Advisor.  Academic advising is one of the two most important levers to pull within the university to positively impact student success (the other being creating learning-centered curriculum in the classroom).  It is academic advising that “provides perhaps the only opportunity for all students to develop a personal, consistent relationship with someone in the institution who cares about them” according to Jane Drake in her 2016 article on student persistence (as cited in Miller, 2016, p. 50-51).  And it is not only consistency and caring that are important.  It is also advisors’ abilities to help students make meaning out of their disparate experiences within the university and its curriculum, meaning-making that ultimately facilitates self-awareness, leads to the discovery of unique talents, and encourages degree completion.

Academic advising, while viewed as a unique contribution to university life since the 1970s, is now crucial if institutions are to achieve goals of persistence and timely graduation, in addition to the humane goals of student self-realization and growth.  Institutions have grown in size leading to larger courses and less frequent contact with faculty.  Students are frequently arriving with uneven preparation due to disparities in k-12 education. Tuition is rising, leading to heightened expectations of value.  Political pressure is increasing to support more students through accelerated graduation.  This context positions academic advisors to take a primary role in facilitating student and institutional success.  This cannot happen, however, until “the stature of legitimacy of academic advising” rises, providing advisors and advising-supporting administrators seats at leadership tables where key decisions about student success are made.  How, then, can advisors speed up this process?  One way is to frame—effectively and repeatedly—the goals of improving time to degree and increasing student persistence as best achieved through high quality academic advising.

It is not surprising that 80% of students change their majors.  Institutions provide very few faculty-facilitated opportunities, when you think through how the typical curriculum works, for students to ask how they like to think, how different majors support people to think, and what—then—they as unique individuals should study.  Several years ago I taught a first year seminar to students who were interested in “exploring the research university.”  In one of our assignments I asked students to talk about how people think in different disciplines. So, for a sociology major interested in justice, how would they frame questions, what materials would they consult, and what might their answers reveal?  Would this differ from how someone might look at the same issue through the disciplinary lens of anthropology, history, English, or sustainable agriculture?  Not only were students typically unable to identify the differences between fields of study, they did not know the answers for their own chosen fields of study.

Students often find their way through fits and starts.  And while some do this effectively on their own through GE coursework or campus exploration, others do not.  Many find themselves in academic difficulty because of a poor fit between their interests and talents and their choices as high school seniors.  Others try out multiple majors, rolling the dice on their own, basing their exploration on course titles or peer advice.  Without a guide in the process of first year discovery, many students take extended time to find a major that fits.  Advisors can change this.  If there are enough advisors who are trained to engage students in self-discovery and degree exploration in their first years, time to degree will improve.

Advising also can increase student persistence.  Recently, I took part in a panel presentation by faculty aimed at helping undergraduate students get involved in research.  There someone equated finding a research position with a faculty member to successfully asking someone out on a date: both require repeated persistence in the face of rejection.  The example illustrates, perhaps uncomfortably, what students know first-hand at research universities: finding opportunities frequently requires weathering adversity.  The ability to do so is something students are expected to develop and nurture on their own.  Whether it is finding a research opportunity, mastering calculus when it is taught poorly, or preparing for exams effectively when there is no rubric, students experience many things on their academic pathway that can put them into “neutral” or “reverse” rather than “drive.”

Institutions are large demanding places where students get lost.  If we created, from scratch, a university that facilitated student inclusive learning and opportunities for knowledge generation, it would not resemble the institutions in which most of us work.  Advising, as a professional field, helps students reach graduation by providing a forum and context in which individual experiences that could be confusing, discouraging, or alienating can instead be opportunities for developing self-awareness, resilience, and expertise.  This is not to abdicate to advisors the responsibility that faculty and administrators also share to create more student-centered campuses where processes make sense and learning is prioritized.  It is to say that if academic advising professionals are active, even in the midst of adversity, students can receive consistent support that helps them grow and persist.

Campuses are already realizing this.  The Reinvention Collaborative, a group of Undergraduate Education administrators from research universities, has already created an academic advising network to better integrate advising professionals, and their expertise, into high-level initiatives to improve student success (http://reinventioncenter.colostate.edu/networks/).  Many institutions are creating senior advising administrator positions to elevate the importance of academic advising across departments and colleges and to enable advisors to speak more powerfully about necessary changes on behalf of students.  It is exciting to see institutional leaders increasingly able to speak to the importance of academic advising.  A big part of this is surely the pressure on institutions to accelerate degree completion and improve persistence, and the unique capacity of academic advising to assist with both.

So we as academic advisors should ask, looking to the second element of the opening prediction, whether we are ready to “be increasingly judged on their expertise and knowledge as well as their abilities and the results of their work” (McGill & Nutt, 2016, p. 353).

In a recent review of the history of academic advising, Himes and Schulenberg found that advising practitioners have always “undertaken advising responsibilities without the necessary comprehensive theoretical base from which to inform their practice” (2016, p. 15).  Today, with increasing student enrollments and budget constraints, advisors have plenty of reasons to continue the trend by spending their time on individual appointments and triage rather than stopping to articulate clear mission statements in relation to institutional goals, ensuring staff are adequately trained to achieve those missions, and researching—and continuously improving—advising’s impact on students.  Yet this is a critical moment to do just those things.

As institutions look to academic advisors for leadership, members of the profession need to be able to articulate their value, assess their impact, and embrace the changes required to serve students better.  To do these things, advisors need time and space.  I advocate for this at UC Davis where over a hundred advisors participate regularly in stakeholder groups, facilitated by our executive director of academic advising, and professional development opportunities.  These not only strengthen advising knowledge and performance on campus, they also enable my office to represent advising’s priorities and perspectives with one voice. NACADA can also help here, and it is, especially with its recently formed Academic Advising Research Center.  This will make best practices easier to locate, thereby encouraging advisors to learn and grow in their practice.  It will also produce easy-to-digest findings on advising’s efficacy, making it easier to make the case for supporting advising even when resources are scarce.

It is a unique moment for academic advising.  The elements are aligned for its stature to rise, even as greater judgment of its work takes place.  There is no better time for us to work, in earnest, to ensure that campus leadership knows the unique contributions that academic advisors can make their institutional goals for student success.  At the same time, advisors should redouble their efforts, behind the scenes with advisor training, assessment, and support, to ensure that this value message—once heard—rings true.

Carolyn Thomas
Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education
Professor of American Studies
University of California, Davis
[email protected]


Miller, A. (2016). Building upon the components of academic advising to facilitate change. In T. Grites, M. Miller, J. Voller (Eds.), Beyond foundations: Developing as a master academic advisor (50-51). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Himes, H., & Schulenberg, J. (2016). The evolution of academic advising as a practice and as a profession. In T. Grites, M. Miller, J. Voller (Eds.), Beyond foundations: Developing as a master academic advisor (1-20). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

McGill, C., & Nutt. C. (2016). Challenges for the future: Developing as a profession, field, and discipline. In T. Grites, M. Miller, and J. Voller (Eds.), Beyond foundations: Developing as a master academic advisor (351-362). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.


Cite this article using APA style as: Thomas, C. (2017, March). Academic advising and institutional success. Academic Advising Today, 40(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2017 March 40:1


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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.