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Determining the Worth of an Advising Unit

Tom Grites, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

In tough economic times, higher education administrators are obliged to seek cost-saving measures and/or to conduct cost-benefit analyses of programs. Academic advising programs have often been the targets for such reviews. Academic advising administrators, therefore, must be prepared to respond to these challenges before they occur.

This article provides a framework for administrators of academic advising programs to demonstrate the worth of the work they do. The framework is based on an operational analysis of the advising unit—not on mere survey data that show students are “satisfied” with the services provided. Although the latter kinds of data are important in supporting the overall effectiveness of an advising unit or program, they do not demonstrate its functionality. The framework presented here is not intended to assess effectiveness; it is process-oriented.

Identification of Responsibilities

The first step in this analysis is to identify all of the actual activities (functions) that are conducted by the advising unit. This identification establishes what the advising unit actually does—how the unit’s personnel actually spend their time and effort. Obviously, they advise students, but do they serve special student populations, e.g., students on academic probation, undecided students, prospective transfer students, readmitted students, non-degree students, etc.?

What administrative responsibilities are fulfilled by the unit? Does the unit assign students to advisors? Does it process all changes of major? Does the unit have responsibilities for advisor training, to develop advising materials and resources, and/or to maintain degree audits and other computerized tools and information that are important for advisors—faculty and others? Does the unit have signatory authority/ responsibility for policy exceptions, course substitutions, graduation clearance, etc.?

Does the unit play a role in campus College Orientation programs, residence hall workshops, career planning efforts? Are there classroom teaching responsibilities, e.g., Freshman Seminar, for the unit? The list can become exhaustive, but it is critical to identify every single responsibility for the unit—no matter how infrequently it occurs—because they must all be taken into consideration in the cost analyses noted above. Those making the cost-cutting decisions or the cost-benefit analyses are not likely to be aware of the breadth of responsibilities and activities fulfilled by the advising unit unless they are clearly identified.

Analyzing Alternatives and Their Effects

The next step in the process of determining the worth of the advising unit is to review the available alternatives for each function identified. What will happen to this activity if the advising unit no longer has responsibility for it, i.e., if the unit is eliminated or suffers a significant reduction in resources—human, fiscal, or physical (space)? Who will assume the responsibility for it? What will be the impact of this shift? Will the activity be eliminated?

This aspect of the framework is likely to be the most difficult and troublesome, for two reasons. First, the advising unit is forced to look at itself as though it didn’t exist, that is, someone else can do the job. Second, the undesirable option of elimination of an activity altogether must be considered. However, this aspect should also provide the clearest demonstration of the unit’s worth to the institution. Two examples will illustrate the process.

Example 1: FUNCTION: advising special populations of students

  • Alternative 1: transfer responsibility to another office
    • Effects: new training efforts needed for different personnel; reduction of services currently provided by that office; likely delay in same level of service and/or effectiveness, which could result in higher attrition of these students
  • Alternative 2: transfer responsibility to faculty advisors
    • Effects: new training effort needed for faculty; increased student-faculty advisor ratios; decreased consistency of treatment likely more dissatisfaction of both students and faculty, thus resulting in reduced effectiveness and potentially higher attrition of these students
  • Alternative 3: eliminate this service
    • Effects: these students must assume more responsibility for their success, which would be viewed by some as a positive effect; likely more dissatisfaction of students, which could result in higher attrition

Example 2: FUNCTION: assigning students to advisors

  • Alternative 1: transfer responsibility to another office, e.g., admissions, registrar, Dean, or Department Chairs
    • Effects: additional time and clerical demands on that office—potentially less effective matching (by major, by instructor in courses, by special needs, etc.); likely less satisfaction of students, which could result in higher attrition
  • Alternative 2: computerize the assignments
    • Effects: program(s) must be written; variables used in matching are fixed at the time when the program is run, which could result in subsequent requests for changes, for which someone must be designated to respond; likely dissatisfaction of students, which could result in higher attrition
  • Alternative 3: eliminate this function
    • This is an activity for which elimination is not an option. All students need to be assigned an advisor, and some process for achieving this task in a systematic way, and the notification to students must occur.

Once all the functions are identified by the advising unit, and all are reviewed in the above manner, it should become obvious to those analyzing cost measures that the advising unit is a valuable resource that needs to be retained. In fact, the advising administrator might even be able to provide enough evidence that would warrant additional resources.

The important recommendation here is that advising unit administrators prepare their cases now and not wait for a crisis, or a threat, or an assault on the unit to occur. This functional analysis will equip them to defend their roles and responsibilities in difficult economic times.

The Next Step(s)

Although this article was not intended to address the effectiveness of an advising unit, such assessment is still an important component of demonstrating worth. Student satisfaction surveys, retention data, numbers of student contacts, etc. are also important data to collect and present. One extension of the exercise and framework presented here is to quantify, in dollars, the worth of an advising unit. This part of the process is normally presented in a workshop format at the National Conferences.

Tom Grites
Assistant to the Vice-President of Academic Affairs
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

From the President

Betsy McCalla-Wriggins, NACADA President 

Dear Colleagues,

It seems that everywhere I turn these days, there is news of another state or system that is experiencing budget cuts. And unfortunately, in many of these cases, our students are the ones who are most adversely affected when the dollars disappear.

We are very aware that you may be on a campus that is in this difficult situation.....so this is how we are trying to support you so that you can continue the good work you do on behalf of the students you serve.

The Commission on Advising Administration has compiled a list of effective budget strategies that others have found useful on their campus. Visit the Clearinghouse on Academic Advising to see a list of tips compiled by the Advising Administrators Commission.

From my own perspective, I have found another approach to dealing with a budget reduction. In the course of 28+ years in higher education, I have heard several times “your budget has been reduced” and more often “your budget will remain the same” for the next year. When I get over my frustration and all of my persuasive abilities have not resulted in any change to the bottom line, I then move into high gear with these questions: What does our mission mandate that we do? How can we do it differently and perhaps more effectively? What are we doing that we do not need to do? Why are we doing _______? What would happen if we stopped doing this or doing this a particular way? What other offices can we work with to share a responsibility? How can technology assist with ________? What additional responsibilities can student workers, interns, and graduate assistants be given to enhance their experience in our office and to assist our full-time advisors? What are other funding sources that support our mission? There are many other possible questions...but you get the idea.

Taking this pro-active approach has allowed me to feel some sense of control over the situation. If I can’t change the facts, at least I can control how I respond to the budget reduction. Many positive changes in our operation have occurred as a result of asking these tough questions.

For those of you who are lucky enough not to be dealing with budget reductions, you may find it worthwhile to begin asking the questions listed above anyway. My guess is that you will find something that could be done differently or not at all. As a result you may be able to redirect those resources to a new program or service that more effectively serves your students.

However, regardless of your current budget situation, we recognize we need to do a better job of conducting research that demonstrates the economic impact of quality academic advising. Issues of accountability and limited resources are not going away. For those of you who have developed an effective economic model, please consider sharing your expertise. Developing a proposal for either a regional or national conference, submitting an article to our journal, or writing an article for the newsletter are things that would help us all.

Thanks in advance for your willingness to share information. As has been said before, “Information is power” and with this type of information we have the potential to make an even greater difference in the lives of the students we serve.

Have a great Spring....

Betsy McCalla-Wriggins
NACADA President
Rowan University

From the Executive Office

Roberta 'Bobbie' Flaherty, NACADA Executive Director 

It is my hope to keep you all apprised of significant projects within NACADA that may impact your professional life at some point in the future. These projects may simply be “exploratory” or they may be providing the framework for a new service or understanding within the field of advising. My point is, though, that much is happening beyond what the members usually see, and that there is a multitude of volunteers diligently addressing a number of issues at any given time. Without the work of these willing volunteers, NACADA would never be able to accomplish its goals related to enhancing the development of students through effective academic advising. A BIG new year THANKS to all who have contributed (and will contribute) to NACADA’s successes!

There are several such projects underway at this time.

  • Definition of Advising Task Force—many members have sought and asked for a comprehensive, succinct definition of “academic advising”. Knowing that there are many such definitions in the literature, this Task Force has been asked to pursue the task of developing one such definition that could be endorsed by NACADA. As you might guess, with variety of expectations of advisors and advising coupled with the variety of organizational and delivery models, this will be a monumental task. Yet, volunteers have agreed to tackle this task.
  • Advisor Certification Task Force—another monumental task is the focus of this group. These very dedicated members are researching, analyzing, and building a system to recognize the competencies of advisors. Their charge includes working with the Professional Development Committee on the identification of “advising competencies” and the identification of what competencies are being addressed by current NACADA or outside professional development opportunities. Then they will propose what and how an advisor must demonstrate to earn the NACADA “stamp of approval” - be that a certificate, certification, registry listing or whatever.
  • CAS/Core Values Task Force—updating is the challenge to this Task Force. They are working to update the NACADA Core Values and working through the Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS) to review and update the standards for advising programs. These two elements are critical to the field and such attention will assure that guidelines for the conduct of advising programs remain current and useful to professionals in the field.
  • Member Career Services Task Force—reviewing and recommending! With a goal to enhance the career development of NACADA members, this group is looking at how career services can be enhanced - position searches, resume assistance, resource person, career guidance, etc. Much of what we offer to students could be offered to our members!

As you can see, a lot of folks are tackling some tough issues! We look forward to their reports and encourage members who would like to volunteer in such capacities to complete the volunteer form on our website. If there is not space available on current committees or task forces, we will keep you in mind for a later assignment. NACADA’s strength is the work of its volunteer members! And, the members benefit from discussion of the issues with colleagues who often become a national network of friends!

Roberta 'Bobbie' Flaherty
NACADA Executive Director

Leadership Opportunities 

Those interested in a leadership opportunity in the NACADA organization may want to start as a member of a commission steering committee or serve on a Commission committee. The Chair provides leadership for commission activities in support of the profession. The Chair represents the members of the commission, their needs and concerns, assists with the selection and evaluation of presentations for both national and regional conferences, and communicates with the members through the national newsletter. The Chair attends the fall Division meeting and communicates commission needs and concerns to the Division Representatives on the NACADA Council. To qualify for this elected position as Chair requires at least one year of membership in the commission and a commitment of 2 years of service.

Watch for the Sixth National Survey of Academic Advising

In mid-to-late February, The Sixth National Survey of Academic Advising will be arriving at two-year and four-year public and private colleges throughout the nation. The survey, first conducted by ACT, Inc. in 1979, has been frequently cited by members of the advising profession, and the results have been utilized as a catalyst to upgrade advising services on many campuses. NACADA will, as with the fifth survey, publish the final results of this survey in a monograph.

The sixth survey features an expanded section on technology used to support and deliver advising. And, although previous surveys drew stratified random samples of institutional types, the sixth survey will be mailed to all two-year and four-year public and private institutions.

In a pre-mailing in early February, chief academic officers will be asked to identify the individual most knowledgeable of campus advising. If the chief academic officer responds, on those campuses, the survey will be mailed to the individual identified. On all other campuses, the survey will be mailed to the chief academic officer. The results of the survey will be published in an upcoming NACADA monograph.

Writing and Publishing about Academic Advising: Are we Preaching to the Choir or Spreading the Good Word?

Mary Stuart Hunter, Director
James Gahagan, Graduate Assistant
National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition

Research and best practices in academic advising can be valuable to new and veteran advisers looking to improve their effectiveness in serving students. However, if academic advising as a profession is to realize its deserved value and status on our campuses, we must find ways to spread the good word about advising to faculty, administrators, and decision-makers beyond the existing advising community. As Richard Light, in his book Making the Most of College (2001) stated, “good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience” (p. 81). Academic advising plays an important role in student success and retention. Therefore, we must strive to collaborate and build partnerships to further research and assessment and spread the good word about academic advising to the broader higher education community.

In the academy, one of the prerequisite elements for any innovation, process, or discipline’s establishment and acceptance is that of a solid literature base. Therefore, we submit two strategies for raising the status of advising on our campuses and in the greater higher education community.

First, advisors can circulate copies of the NACADA Journal, Academic Advising New s (NACADA newsletter), and other articles related to academic advising among colleagues and administrators. Dialogue about academic advising issues with colleagues outside advising circles benefit all concerned. Campus chief academic officers receive a free paper copy of the Academic Advising News, so NACADA members may refer to newsletter articles in communicating with administrators.

Secondly, we encourage advisors to consider publishing advising related research and writing in journals and newsletters whose readership is beyond our own community of advising professionals. Thus, we offer the following information on submission guidelines for publishing in nationally disseminated periodicals that reach beyond the advising community. The information presented was gathered from the websites listed below.

Refereed Journals

Journal of Career Planning and Employment —Established in 1940, this journal speaks to both sides of the college career services and HR/staffing field. The journal, published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), is filled with current, in-depth information, articles, reports, and features.

Journal of College and University Student Housing—The journal features articles on current research and trends in the housing profession, book reviews, and other in-depth discussions of interest to Association of College and University Housing Officers—International (ACUHO-I) members.

Journal of College Orientation and Transition—Published by the National Orientation Directors Association (NODA), the journal focuses on the trends, practices, research, and development of programs, policies, and activities related to the matriculation, orientation, transition, and retention of college students. Also encouraged are literature reviews, “how-to” articles, innovative initiatives, successful practices, and new ideas.

Journal of College Student Development —Published by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), requests quantitative and qualitative manuscripts on recent original research, replication of research, reviews of research, graduate education in student affairs, or essays on theoretical, organizational, and professional issues.

Journal of Higher Education—Founded in 1930, the Journal of Higher Education is a leading scholarly journal on the institution of higher education. Articles combine disciplinary methods with critical insight to investigate issues important to faculty, administrators, and program managers.

Journal of The First-Year Experience —Designed to disseminate research findings on retention of first-year students, publish information on applied first-year programs, share methodology and results of first-year program assessments, and to examine institutional policies/programs that affect first-year students.

The NACADA Journal —Published by the National Academic Advising Association, this journal is dedicated to the support and professional growth of academic advisors and the advising profession through the publication of research, theory, practices and book reviews regarding academic advising in higher education.

NASPA Journal —The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators journal, published quarterly, provides articles written primarily for the student affairs generalist who has broad responsibility for leadership, policy, staff development, and management.  E-mail:[email protected]


FYE, Newsletter of the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition—A quarterly newsletter offering innovative and practical ideas for improving programs for first-year students, transfers, and seniors. Practical, diverse, and current examples from around the world demonstrate how effective programming can help improve a student’s academic career.

Magna Publications Inc.—Founded in 1972 by William Haight, Magna produces eight subscription newsletters in the field of higher education including, Academic Leader, Administrator, The National On-Campus Report, Perspective, and Recruitment and Retention in Higher Education.

NACADA Academic Advising News —The quarterly newsletter of the National Academic Advising Association welcomes articles and opinion pieces directed to advisors, faculty advisors and administrators.

Other Publications

About Campus —Sponsored by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), About Campus is dedicated to the idea that student learning is the responsibility of all educators on campus. Six times a year, About Campus offers a mix of articles and features designed to illuminate the critical issues faced by both student affairs and academic affairs staff working on the shared goal of helping students learn.

Change —Change is a magazine covering contemporary issues in higher learning. It is intended to stimulate and inform reflective practitioners in colleges, universities, corporations, government, and elsewhere. Change spotlights trends, provides new insights and ideas, and analyzes the implications of educational programs, policies, and practices.

The journals, newsletters, and other publications we have cited here represent a small portion of those where articles on academic advising would be appropriate. We encourage you to pursue writing and research on the importance of academic advising. Join us in spreading the good word to the rest of the higher education community.

Mary Stuart Hunter, Director
James Gahagan, Graduate Assistant
National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition

Using a Portfolio to Document Advising Effectiveness

Faye Vowell and Janet Wallet-Ortiz, Western New Mexico University

Why use an advising portfolio?

An advising portfolio provides a rich and diverse way to document advising expertise. Portfolio use is increasingly prevalent in higher education. Student portfolios are used to demonstrate that students have met the desired outcomes of a given major or program. Faculty use teaching portfolios to illustrate their mastery when they apply for promotion or tenure. Universities create portfolios for a number of purposes and audiences—such as accreditation or student recruitment. Portfolios provide flexibility; advisors can use both quantitative and qualitative measures and can customize their portfolio to fit their particular advising situation. So using a portfolio to document advising performance puts advisors in the mainstream of assessment activities which are becoming more demanding as well as more sophisticated in their call for accountability.

Portfolios can respond to a variety of needs both formative and summative. A formative portfolio documents growth; it is most often used for personal development. A summative portfolio illustrates mastery in a specified area and might be used for an annual performance review or to apply for promotion or tenure. When assembling a portfolio, it is important to know exactly who the audience is in order to assemble the most convincing evidence and to know the purpose of the portfolio.

Assembling the Portfolio

Consider including the following artifacts: an advising philosophy statement, advising goal/objective(s) to be addressed in this portfolio, advisee demographics, your specific advising responsibilities, evidence of mastery or growth in addressing these responsibilities, and a reflective essay which provides the context for the artifacts or items included.

Your advising philosophy is a personal statement growing out of your own beliefs and experience. It should fit within the institution’s mission as well as the advising mission statement of your campus. Advising goals/objectives need to be appropriate for the specific portfolio. Student demographics would address the kinds and number of your advisees. This information will probably be directly related to your advising responsibilities or job description. All of these would provide a context for the evidence of mastery or growth in meeting job responsibilities.

For example, a summative portfolio created for an annual review could have as a goal to demonstrate expertise in critical advising areas deemed important on your campus. If confidentiality and accuracy are the critical issues on your campus, you could document training in the legal and ethical procedures regarding the release of student information. You could include examples of current, dated instruments that show degree plans, general education requirements, interview questions, or special institutional forms and demonstrate awareness of procedures for each item. You could discuss your use of the advice of colleagues to keep abreast of any specific changes that may not yet be in the catalog. Accessibility and advocacy create powerful and fruitful relationships with advisees. Crucial to this relationship is helping students feel capable of succeeding (Rendon, 1994). Document what you do to make students comfortable and validated as well as help them define abilities and match them with personal, educational, and career goals.

Evidence of Advising Outcomes: Qualitative and Quantitative

Self-assessment tools using rubrics with specific concrete goals and scales can identify obstacles and measure progress in overcoming them. Timelines for projects met or deadlines delayed (and reasons why) could be recorded and submitted. The results from advising evaluations can be collected, analyzed, and presented.

Summaries of advising stories can be a focus, in addition to such things as numbers of advisees, number of times an advisor is requested, and the number of advisees retained from year to year.

Evidence of various efforts to address student needs can demonstrate concern for student validation inside the advising session. Letters of support from colleagues can attest to your willingness to “go the extra mile” to find answers for advisees. Advisors could also include copies of any training/development certificates, awards, honors, presentations and/or publications.

All of the above could be woven into a reflective statement or essay that would showcase the advisor’s baseline and subsequent growth in various specific areas used in evaluation or to demonstrate mastery in job responsibilities.


In today’s climate of increased accountability and diminishing resources, portfolios demonstrate quality advising outcomes that are flexible and can be customized to individual situations. Two large challenges exist in creating a portfolio: finding time and motivation for reflection and creating a process that is not too time consuming.

Faye Vowell
Western New Mexico University

Janet Wallet-Ortiz
Western New Mexico University

Student Retention and Persistence

Charlie L. Nutt, NACADA Associate Director

The issue of student retention and persistence has continued to grow in importance throughout the history of higher education in our country. Early studies (Astin, 1977) focused on the characteristics of those students who did not persist. Beginning in the 1970s, the research began to focus on the reasons students remained enrolled and how colleges and universities could make changes or develop programs to increase the retention of their students.

In his research, Alexander Astin (1977,1993) determined that the persistence or retention rate of students is greatly affected by the level and quality of their interactions with peers as well as faculty and staff. Tinto (1987) indicates that the factors in students dropping or “stopping” out include academic difficulty, adjustment problems, lack of clear academic and career goals, uncertainty, lack of commitment, poor integration with the college community, incongruence, and isolation. Rendon (1995) indicates in her study that two critical factors in students’ decisions to remain enrolled until the attainment of their goals are their successfully making the transition to college aided by initial and extended orientation and advisement programs and making positive connections with college personnel during their first term of enrollment. Noel (1985) stated:

It is the people who come face-to-face with students on a regular basis who provide the positive growth experiences for students that enable them to identify their goals and talents and learn how to put them to use. The caring attitude of college personnel is viewed as the most potent retention force on a campus (p17).

Academic advising is the only structured activity on the campus in which all students have the opportunity for one-to-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution. Tinto (1987) indicates that effective retention programs have come to understand that academic advising is the very core of successful institutional efforts to educate and retain students. For this reason, academic advising, as described by Wes Habley, should be viewed as the “hub of the wheel” and not just one of the various isolated services provided for students. Academic advisors provide students with the needed connection to the various campus services and supply the essential academic connection between these services and the students. In addition, academic advisors offer students the personal connection to the institution that the research indicates is vital to student retention and student success.

However, successful academic advising programs cannot be solely responsible for retention rates on a campus. As the hub, advising is one piece of the retention puzzle. Retention efforts must focus on all components of the campus and building strong and effective connections between the advising program and the various components of campus. For example, as financial concerns often affect student persistence, it is vital that advisors build strong collaborations with the financial aid departments on campus. Advisors need to be able to understand the policies and procedures that affect students’ financial aid as well as have a clear understanding of how to refer effectively those students in financial need.

Since student indecision as to major or career options is a primary factor in student persistence, advising programs should have strong links to the career services on campus as a part of any retention plan. Several institutions, for example, Rowan University, have combined advising and career services into one unit where career counselors and academic advisors are cross trained to work with students in both areas.

Residence life is another area where essential collaborations are needed with advising services in order to enhance student retention and persistence. Several institutions, such as the University of Georgia and Kansas State University, have established advising centers in residence halls to provide students with on-site advising and assistance. This model is extremely valuable in establishing a sense of community where advising is viewed as an essential part of the community.

Last, it should be clearly established that academic advising is the direct link between the academic affairs and student affairs components of a campus that can build a culture of student retention. Some campuses, such as Coastal Georgia Community College, have established committees or advisory boards for advising which represent all constituencies of the campus, including faculty, students, student affairs personnel, and staff. Often these committees report to both the Vice Presidents for Academic Affairs and Student Affairs establishing that campus-wide collaborations, with advising as the central focus, is necessary for establishing effective retention efforts.

In these times of financial cut backs, student retention, persistence, and success will continue to be a major emphasis on our college campuses. Any retention effort must clearly recognize the value of academic advising to the success of students and the necessity that advising become a central part of a collaborative campus-wide focus on the success of our students.

Charlie L. Nutt
NACADA Associate Director


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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.