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Brett McFarlane, University of California–Davis

Brett McFarlane.jpgEach year the question of whether or not to implement mandatory advising seems to surface across a variety of venues and mailing lists.  Those asking the question seem to be looking for a determination of good versus evil, or helpful versus damaging.  Is mandatory advising the secret missing ingredient?  Should campuses do it or not?  Will it actually help students?  In many ways, it parallels the ever-elusive and mysterious advisor/student ratio, debates of centralized versus decentralized advising structures, and discussions of faculty versus staff advising for students.  All cases innocently seek simple answers to what are, in actuality, very complex questions.

Campuses that initially take a binary approach to the question of mandatory advising fail to address a more important question: “What vehicle does the campus have for helping students meet desired advising outcomes?”  In addressing this question, campuses must be able to answer other questions about how they meet student needs.  How do faculty and staff help scaffold the complexity of the institution with concrete tools, guidance, and support delivered at appropriate intervals?  How do institutions help students make a personal and consistent connection with a staff or faculty member who cares about their success throughout?  How do campuses ensure that students are being connected to appropriate resources, experiences, and mentors appropriate to their chosen goals at appropriate times?  Of course, these questions will vary based upon specific desired campus advising outcomes which need to be determined before discussing the broader question of operationalizing these outcomes, but the idea remains the same.

When campuses pose this essential outcomes-based question, they strengthen their ability to conceive the most integrative and holistic solutions for ensuring that students can achieve desired advising outcomes.  Some campuses, for example, have highly integrative first-year curricular offerings for all students where faculty and primary role advisors work together to spark intellectual curiosity, make important connections, provide tools and reflective experiences to improve academic skills, and introduce advisors as key educators to help students navigate a highly complex and multifaceted journey involving curricular and co-curricular components.  Other campuses have a required introductory general education course that has discussion components specifically focused on achieving advising outcomes.  Others have found success by embedding advising outcomes across several first-year course sequences.  Some have approaches that combine coursework, specific mandatory check-in points, and data analytics to help identify students in transition.  These few examples illustrate some potential approaches to integrating advising learning beyond the dualistic mandatory context frequently presented.

While some campuses have the capacity to implement highly integrative approaches, many have structural limitations to an integrative first-year sequence or other delivery vehicle for students to achieve essential advising learning and outcomes.  A mandatory advising approach may, in fact, be the best option for a particular campus to achieve campus designated outcomes.  Research can serve to provide guidance.  One comprehensive study found that students favor required academic advising.  Conducted across multiple institutions and institutional types (n=22,300 students), the study used a 6-point Likert-type scale where 1 represented “strongly disagree” and 6 represented “strongly agree” to collect responses to the statement, “There should be mandatory academic advising for all students.”  The mean was over 4 from students who currently receive no advising and over 4.5 from those regularly advised (Smith & Allen, 2014).  Students who have never been advised say there should be mandatory advising and those who have been advised say it even louder.

Research also points to having students meet with advisors regularly, and seemingly, the more frequently the better.  One study found that students who report speaking with an advisor either “sometimes” or “often” had significantly higher persistence rates than those who did not (Klepfer & Hull, 2012).  Another study found the number of advisor meetings to be a significant predictor of persistence for first generation students where each meeting with an advisor increased the odds of persistence by 13% (Swecker, Fifolt, & Searby, 2013).  The more frequently a student meets with an advisor, the higher a student’s self-efficacy, study skill utilization, and perceived level of institutional support (Young-Jones, Burt, Dixon, & Hawthorne, 2012).  Similarly, students with more frequent advisor meetings report increased satisfaction with advising and the institution as a whole, as well as higher self-reported levels of learning across a variety of advising learning functions (Smith & Allen, 2014).  This pertinent research indicates that positive student outcomes result from regular meetings with advisors.

Mandatory advising is one of several vehicles likely to produce positive outcomes for students; however, within the context of an institution’s existing structure, curriculum, and ecosystem, there may be much more powerful and creative ways to meet students “where they are.”  I would encourage a full exploration of possibilities before embarking on the complex and potentially expensive decision to implement mandatory advising—and to do so by considering the question, “What vehicle does the campus have for helping students meet desired advising outcomes?”  As the saying goes, “students ‘don’t do’ optional,” and if there is no curricular or co-curricular vehicle to ensure students are able to access crucial advising learning, then based upon the limited research to date, it would certainly appear that mandatory advising should at least be considered as one potential vehicle.  Now, how to effectively implement mandatory advising can be an even more complex question.

If your campus is wrestling with some of these decisions, I would encourage the many NACADA resources available to your campus including the NACADA Consultants and Speakers Bureau, the NACADA Clearinghouse, and the many NACADA institutes where specific teams from your campus can work with NACADA experts on tackling these difficult questions.

Brett McFarlane, Ed.D.
Executive Director of Academic Advising
Office of the Vice Provost & Dean for Undergraduate Education
University of California–Davis


Klepfer, K., & Hull, J. (2012). High school rigor and good advice: Setting up students to succeed. Retrieved from http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Staffingstudents/High-school-rigor-and-good-advice-Setting-up-students-to-succeed  

Smith, C. L., & Allen, J. M. (2014). Does contact with advisors predict judgments and attitudes consistent with student success? A multi-institutional study. NACADA Journal, 34(1), 50-63.

Swecker, H. K., Fifolt, M., & Searby, L. (2013). Academic advising and first-generation college students: A quantitative study on student retention. NACADA Journal, 33(1), 46-53.

Young-Jones, A. D., Burt, T. D., Dixon, S., & Hawthorne, M. J. (2013). Academic advising: Does it really impact student success? Quality Assurance in Education, 21(1), 7-19.

Cite this article using APA style as: McFarlane, B. (2017, December). Mandatory advising, yes or no?. Academic Advising Today, 40(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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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.