Karyn M. Plumm, University of North Dakota
Brittany K. Borgen, University of North Dakota
Historically, academic advising at the University of North Dakota (UND) has been done by faculty members within the discipline of the student’s major. This practice worked well when students tended to choose a major, stick with that major throughout their undergraduate career, and pursue career and advanced degree opportunities related to that major after graduation. When higher education saw shifts in this experience, such as higher rates of students transferring across institutions, higher rates of changes to major programs, and a need to focus on transferable skills across majors, the advice being sought by students did as well. Faculty were now being asked to provide advice on careers outside of their field of training, to know changes occurring across campus in the general education program, to understand degree requirements of other majors in support of students seeking a major change, and to provide general advice on being a college student. Although faculty members are certainly capable of learning and providing this advice, it has never been their primary reason for holding a faculty position. In addition to these shifts in student needs, navigating the university system has grown more and more complex for students. As transferring among institutions, rapid changes in career fields, advances in technology, and growth in representation of online and non-traditional students at the institution all increase both the complication and variance among students, so too do their advising needs (Hart-Baldridge, 2020).
Although the advising structure at UND needed to change to meet the new needs of student, the institution had some fantastic faculty members whose interactions with students and support for them improved both their academic success and personal development. Those faculty members quickly became the go-to for advising questions, leaving them less and less time to devote to their other efforts. Relying on faculty advisors who were already busy with many other responsibilities also limited the extent to which approaches to academic advising on campus could grow and integrate best practices in the field. Faculty were doing what they knew well, but they did not have the capacity (nor was it their role) to expand their advising skills as rapidly as was needed.
In an effort to ensure that the needs of all students were being met and that faculty had the time and ability to do their jobs well, leaders at UND started to consider utilizing professional academic advisors and the various advising models being discussed by organizations like NACADA and used at other institutions. Perhaps, professional academic advisors, with their broad knowledge of UND’s academic programs and student life, could help meet diverse student needs and provide robust support, while faculty advisors could continue to work with students on curriculum and discipline-specific questions. Some leaders were interested in central advising, others wanted to keep advising strictly within the program itself. Central advising had the advantages of consistent training and expectations among advisors, ideally resulting in consistent positive experiences for students working with academic advisors. However, there was the disadvantage of moving students away from the department/program and potentially away from working directly with UND faculty members. Siloed advising within academic departments would keep advisors closely connected to the programs and faculty they served, giving them deeper knowledge of the programs, but would not help advisors serve the broad needs of students moving among programs across the university. Neither central nor siloed advising alone offered the kind of support UND wanted to provide for students (White, 2015).
Developing the Academic Core Advisor Model
As discussions of professional academic advising circled the campus, UND ultimately wanted to create a model that would provide the most benefits to student success. Specifically, some of the goals for any newly adopted model would include close connections with the departments and programs advisors serve, improved communication across campus, a set of similar expectations for advising, an increase in the service to students, consistent training and development opportunities for all advisors, and the creation of a professional community of advising across campus. Many of these could be attained through a central advising model but some of them could not. So, why not do both? A comprehensive approach to academic advising that involves faculty, academic colleges, and professional academic advisors had the potential to meet the changing student needs and department expectations (Joslin, 2018).
The model UND implemented was envisioned as a hub-and-spoke model that consisted of a central team of Academic Core Advisors (ACAs), each serving the colleges or schools across campus as the central point of communication, training, development, and basic advising expertise on campus. ACAs work with UND’s academic colleges and departments to support academic advisors who directly advise students rather than having caseloads of students themselves. UND’s campus houses eight academic colleges or schools: the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Education & Human Development, the College of Engineering & Mines, the College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, the Nistler College of Business & Public Administration, the School of Law, and the School of Medicine & Health Studies. As the model first started, each college or school had the option to retain supervision of their academic advisors or move that responsibility to the ACA assigned to their college or school. Faculty mentoring of students was still encouraged but could now focus less on the day-to-day registration and program progress discussions and more on the development of students and professional program or career pathways. Two of the eight colleges chose to shift to the ACA model right away. To the benefit of the model, these two colleges had the largest number of advisors and undergraduate students served. Other colleges and schools were more skeptical of the idea and chose to wait and see.
Academic Core Advisors at UND
ACAs continue to work as a team to frame academic advising culture at UND. They lead teams of academic advisors and identify and remove barriers for students. ACAs collaborate closely with all departments and now provide direct supervision in five of our eight colleges and schools. However, all ACAs work closely with all advisors regardless of supervision line. The flexibility of this structure helps to ensure engagement from all colleges and schools and highlights the advantages of professional academic advising for those colleges and schools that have been hesitant to join the model. Recently, UND’s School of Law and John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, two colleges previously not affiliated with the core team, requested to partner with Academic Core Advisors to support their students and college initiatives.
As a team focusing on general barriers to student success, the ACAs have done some tremendous work for the entire campus. They have submitted proposals to the campus at-large to require automatic course waitlists for students, for campus-wide use of undergraduate student-specific permission numbers to reduce registration barriers, to streamline general education waivers for transfer students, and to include advising and mentoring language in the student and faculty handbooks. All of these proposals have gone through UND’s governance process and been approved. ACAs are currently working on changing language across campus from “probation” to “alert,” updating institutional advising technology tools, and advising faculty on sticking points for students within curricula. Additionally, ACAs worked to develop a team that connects advising and career exploration, called the Academic & Career Exploration (ACE) team. The ACE team, comprised of an ACE coordinator, two ACAs, and one academic advisor, works with students who are interested in changing their major or who are unsure of the major options for the career paths they are interested in. ACE encourages and supports our students’ exploration by reaffirming that students can develop useful skills, achieve success, and find fulfilment with any of UND’s academic programs, thereby promoting retention.
The ACA model overall has been successful. UND boasted an increase in undergraduate retention following the first full year of implementation from 78.39% to 81.39% (University of North Dakota University Analytics & Planning, 2021). Unfortunately, this was followed by a global pandemic, and we were unable to see if the increase would continue to hold. That said, retention is coming back up swiftly, currently back up to 78.87%. There is every reason to believe the ACA model impacts our student retention and it is predicted that our retention rates this fall will be even higher. Other campus-wide surveys show our advising structure to be robust. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) ratings from first-year students for interactions with advisors rose from 53% (NSSE, 2019) indicating high positive rating to 59% following the implementation of this model (NSSE, 2021). A recent satisfaction-priorities survey (University of North Dakota University Analytics & Planning, 2022) conducted in Spring 2022 also saw students across campus indicating advising as both “high importance” and “high satisfaction.” With the shifts to more direct supervision of advisors across campus, UND is also seeing some tremendous improvements in advisor’s work. The advisors that report to an ACA are more likely to be involved in student engagement activities. For example, they are more likely to use targeted outreach for students with early (94%) and midterm (100%) concerns than those who do not report to an ACA (44%; 50%). Advisors reporting to an ACA are also more likely to include advising notes for student appointments (91.5%) than those who do not report to an ACA (70%).
As UND staff and administration, we believe this model has also helped to improve staff satisfaction. The ACA team meets regularly to discuss how support can be provided not only to our students but to our growing advising community on campus as well. They host development sessions three times per year that focus on the academic year toolkit (e.g., advisors learn about changes that have occurred over the previous year to prepare for the upcoming academic year each August); diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility (e.g., advisors learn from student affairs partners how to best support all advisees and about resources available to students each September); and advising models and case studies (e.g., advisors learn how to manage a variety of student cases they may experience each February). ACAs help advisors to support one another during sick or annual leave, professional development leave, peak advising time (i.e., many drop-in advising requests), and issues that affect all advisors during regularly held meetings. They help provide unit-wide events to celebrate the work our colleagues are doing by hosting a summer picnic during orientation week, a fall potluck, a winter break celebration, and a spring soiree. Finally, each year during the UND Founder’s Day Award ceremony, Outstanding Academic Advising Awards are awarded to advisors nominated by students and/or colleagues for their work.
The Future of Advising
As changes to educational programs, employment opportunities, and cultural views about work continue to occur, the way students approach and engage in higher education will likewise shift. It will be important for academic advisors to have support at their institutions in order to navigate ever-changing student needs and institutional climates. These rapid changes will require advising staff to be flexible, thoughtful, and efficient lifelong learners. The role of an advisor will become more demanding, resulting in the need for lower caseloads and more responsibility. When institutions are unable to decrease caseloads, this will likely result in higher rates of burnout. The good news is that this profession carries a lot of meaningful impact and interaction. For those graduates who want to be in a helping profession, advising might be the perfect fit.
Advisors in the future will rely on one another and the skills of being a good advisor more so than discipline-specific knowledge. Technology tools created for advisor use will help students keep track of degree requirements on their own, with scheduling of courses, and with course selection. Advisors therefore will be relied on more for their resource connections across campus and for helping students to understand the importance of their academic program as it relates to their development as a person and their career goals. Proactive advising and recognizing early warning signs that assistance is needed for individual students will be the way of advising in the future. Our ACA model is ready to support this shift at UND as we develop efficiencies in advising and better ways to know what kind of advising each student needs.
Hart-Baldridge, E. (2020). Faculty advisor perspectives of academic advising. NACADA Journal, 40(1), 10–22. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-18-25
Joslin, J. E. (2018, Winter) The case for strategic academic advising management. New Directions for Higher Education, 2018(184), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.1002/he.20299
National Survey of Student Engagement Snapshot. (2019). https://und.edu/analytics-and-planning/_files/docs/_files/nsse-2019-snapshot.pdf
National Survey of Student Engagement Snapshot. (2021). https://und.edu/analytics-and-planning/_files/docs/_files/nsse-2021-snapshot.pdf
University of North Dakota University Analytics & Planning. (2021). Retention, continuation, and cumulative graduation rates for first-time, full-time degree seeking freshman [Power BI Report]. https://und.edu/analytics-and-planning/_files/docs/retention/retention-continuation-cumulative-graduation-rates.pdf
University of North Dakota University Analytics & Planning. (2022). Satisfaction-priorities survey. https://und.edu/analytics-and-planning/rnl-sps-2021-22.html
White, E. (2015). Academic advising in higher education: A place at the core. The Journal of General Education: A Curricular Commons of the Humanities and Sciences, 64(4), 263–277. https://doi.org/10.5325/jgeneeduc.64.4.0263