Roberta Rea and Sara Webb, Oakland University
In the large and complex nature of higher education, academic advisors are pulled in many directions. Academic advisors hold critical knowledge about the campus, its culture, and its rules. They are also positioned to be a constant support that students have through their entire undergraduate experience (Habley, 1994). Therefore, when it comes to getting information and services to students, institutions of higher education rely on academic advisors. In addition to helping students plan, understand, and make meaning of their best path to graduation, academic advisors consistently contribute to student success beyond the advising appointment. The wide array of activities required of academic advisors directly benefits both students and the institution as a whole. It is vital for academic advisors to clearly communicate the variety of advising-related responsibilities in a way that is easily understood to all constituents across campus.
Various stakeholders understand academic advising responsibilities differently, depending on their need and perspective. Students perceive academic advisors as people who can help them determine what classes they need to take. Faculty perceive academic advisors as people who help with students’ out-of-class aspects of college. Campus colleagues perceive academic advisors as people who connect students to services in their departments. While these perceptions are largely accurate, they do not paint a complete picture of the numerous functions of a successful academic advising program.
In order to build awareness at Oakland University, academic advisors developed a visual graphic called the hierarchy of advising responsibilities. The visual graphic is based on Abraham Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s model is a useful visual because there is a common understanding of the premise of Maslow’s work. The graphic represents academic advising functions at Oakland University and is similar to Maslow’s pyramid, showing five responsibilities that are related to each other and arranged in order of priority. Working from the foundation, the responsibilities are serving current students, academic record keeping, responding to institutional priorities, proactive outreach, and improving advising impact. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy, academic advisors have a desire to achieve or maintain each of these responsibilities. Additionally, as one responsibility is adequately satisfied, the next higher function becomes the focus of attention. When academic advisors are asked to redirect energies out of order, it may be at the cost of pursuing other responsibilities in the hierarchy.
Overview of the Five Basic Responsibilities of Academic Advising Programs at Oakland University
The foundational goal of the academic advising hierarchy is to serve current students. This goal is the most visible and easily understood role of an academic advisor. The Council for Advancement of Standards explains the mission of academic advising includes, “assisting students as they define, plan, and achieve their educational goals” (2015, para. 1). Advisors assist students in these endeavors by holding academic advising appointments, responding to student emails and phone calls, and being available for drop-in advising. During peak-times such as the first week of the semester or registration, serving current students dominates the vast majority of advising energy and focus. Once this responsibility is reasonably attended to, time and energy can be dedicated to the other functions.
Academic record keeping is a less glamorous and visible duty of academic advising. However, satisfying this responsibility is of the utmost importance to the students and institution. At Oakland University, academic record keeping includes sending transfer courses to faculty for review, processing change of major forms, facilitating petitions of exception, auditing records for major standing and graduation requirements, checking for athletic eligibility, completing veterans’ verification, and documenting student interactions. Processing and maintaining accurate academic records is an ever-present goal that requires attention on a daily, weekly, and semesterly basis.
The frequency of the third level, responding to institutional priorities and changes, can depend on the culture of an institution, changes in leadership, and accreditation requirements. Over the last few years, Oakland University has undergone a change from three-digit to four-digit course numbers and from a numeric to an alphabetical grading scale. Additionally, Degree Works auditing software has launched and student financial services enacted class cancellation for non-paying students. As institution-wide changes emerge, academic advisors are often called to the table to assist with responsibilities such as correcting university documents and websites, communicating changes to students, re-training advising staff, and updating advising processes to accommodate the changes. Institutional changes are often unpredictable and can require significant time and resources from advising.
Proactive outreach, the fourth responsibility, has recently become a priority for many institutions. Proactive outreach includes identifying target populations (such as undecided students or students on probation), developing measurable outcomes for the populations, and designing outreach strategies that help students successfully complete desired outcomes. Software companies like MapWorks, SSC Campus, and Starfish have helped institutions predict the success of individual students and seek proactive solutions to improving retention, progression, and graduation. Oakland University academic advisors are quickly moving to a proactive, advisor-initiated approach instead of a student-initiated model. This change in philosophy has created more opportunity for collaboration with other student service areas and focused our attention on identifying struggling students before it is too late to help them.
Improving advising impact, the final level, is often the most challenging to tackle on a regular basis. Tasks such as strategic planning, assessment, research, and professional development help to improve advising impact. These tasks require commitment to reflection, discussion, and planning in order to be well executed. Prioritizing time for improving academic advising is most effective when all other responsibilities are fairly well satisfied. Strong leadership, adequate staff resources, and a campus-wide understanding of academic advising contribute to the ability to focus on improvements. Arguably, improving advising impact should be a high priority for all academic advisors as it is their duty to continue to shape the profession and determine ways to better serve students on their campuses.
Practical Uses for the Academic Advising Hierarchy of Responsibilities
The hierarchy of advising responsibilities was created at Oakland University as a visual representation to build awareness about academic advising activities for university leadership. Academic advisors are consistently asked to tackle many small and large tasks, often at a moment’s notice, without any regard to, or understanding of, competing demands. Often, academic advisors feel pulled in opposite directions trying to meet the needs of students and administrators. Competing priorities lead to frustration, confusion, and a lack of common direction. The use of this tool helps to demonstrate these challenges in a constructive way, showcasing the core responsibilities of advising. The hierarchy has opened the doors for meaningful dialogue about what is needed to achieve the ideal state of advising, including staff sizes, space allocation, and technology needs.
Utilization of the hierarchy can be beneficial with various stakeholders. With students, it can paint a picture that advising is broader than student appointments and can draw attention to academic advising as a profession. With faculty, the hierarchy can be used to showcase the broader range of advising activities and encourage appropriate referrals for students. With campus colleagues, it can bring clarity to the responsibilities of academic advisors which can lead to stronger collaboration. With university leadership, the hierarchy brings light to the never-ending shift in academic advising—from paperwork to student support to executing university goals. It is also a valuable tool for academic advisors as they prioritize their own work, highlighting how they each contribute to the larger picture. Students, faculty, colleagues, and academic advisors all benefit from the vivid picture of advising responsibilities displayed in the hierarchy.
Each institution is unique, having different priorities, resources, demographics, and leadership. Academic advisors are encouraged to adapt the hierarchy for effective use on their own campuses. While developing the hierarchy, academic advisors should think critically about advising core functions, ongoing responsibilities, and factors that motivate academic advisors to push higher and farther each day. Weaving these ideas into a hierarchy can help bring awareness to academic advising goals and priorities on any campus, which in turn, can help educate the campus community on how valuable the profession is to the success of students.
Director of Advising
School of Education and Human Services
First Year Advising Center
Council for the Advancement of Standards. (2015). CAS standards for academic advising programs (9th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Habley, W. R. (1994). Key concepts in academic advising. In the Summer institute on academic advising session guide (p. 10). Manhattan, KS: NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising.
Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.
Cite this article using APA style as: Webb, S., & Rea, R. (2019, June). Building awareness through the hierarchy of academic advising responsibilities. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]