Gavin Farber, Temple University
As academic advisors, we go through different phases of our careers. We start as new practitioners learning the field, interpreting policy and procedure, and navigating the complexities of our positions. There are moments in our professional journeys when we might hit a fork in the road, requiring us to reflect on how to move forward. While not an invisible group of practitioners, it is a growing population finding its voice with support from the association through NACADA-sponsored webinars, web events, and presentations at regional and annual conferences. Learn how you can overcome your challenges to become a stronger professional who can better serve your students, staff, administration, and institution.
Who Are Mid-Level Advisors?
Rosser (2000) said mid-level higher educators were the “unsung professionals of the academy” (p. 5).
This was “unsung” because “their contributions to the academic enterprise are rarely recognized and professional because of their commitment, training, and adherence to high standards of performance and excellence in their areas of expertise,” (Rosser, 2000, p. 5). Many of these advisors are frontline workers in their advising centers and academic departments, sometimes a one-person operation serving hundreds of students and faculty. Email inboxes are always full including queries from advisees and their loved ones—often working past closing time to ensure they are getting back within a certain time frame.
Mid-level advisors are the middlemen of our industry. These professionals have a responsibility to (a) monitor and regulate policies and procedures and (b) rarely have the authority to change, adjust, and develop the regulations they enforce (Rosser, 2000, p. 8).
One of the first researchers on middle management in higher education was Robert A. Scott. During the 1970s, he served as an Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University and he identified this population as a “largely ignored” (Scott, 1975, p. 38) group on campuses. The landscape of college administration had its share of problems according to Scott including, “severe inflation, reduced revenues, affirmative action, and a concern for the retaining of teachers” (1975, p. 38).
With an advisor moving from new to mid-level, the practitioner feels more confident in their skills. These professionals understand their academic calendars, know when the busiest times of the season are, and may start to take on special projects to focus on different niche areas including orientation, peer advising and mentoring, and teaching first-year seminar courses. Some might engage and explore their professional development outside of academic advising such as serving as a conduct board administrator, study abroad representative, or faculty liaison.
Mid-level student practitioners need to “maintain . . . a balance between their supervisors’ direction and delegations and the needs of the constraints of faculty, students and public who require their support and services” (Rosser, 2000, p. 7). Mid-level advisors can be more independent and trusted to be able to do their daily tasks without having the constant assistance from their managers.
Challenges for Mid-Level Practitioners
Johnsrud and Rosser (1999) researched the mid-level administrator’s work lives. There were three challenges that came up for these professionals: (1) lack of recognition, (2) faculty vs. administration issues, and (3) limited opportunities.
The lack of recognition came from not feeling appreciated in the workplace (Rhoades, 1995). Johnsrud and Rosser (1999) discovered this group was well-educated, worked hard in demanding roles, and were going unrecognized in their efforts. Looking at the history of student services in higher education, the rise in the need for administrative offices on college campuses resulted in a lack of expertise and skills needed by professionals. This could have resulted in the poor supervisory skills among some of the first senior administrators who were first working with mid-level professionals.
Issues between faculty and administration were seen in waves beginning in the 1970s when there was a massive growth in the number of administrative roles versus faculty roles at institutions. Grassmuck (1990, 1991) cited there was a 62% increase in midlevel administration during this time. Austin and Gamson (1983) said there was resistance from faculty to include administration as part of their academic community.
Limited opportunities for mid-level leaders may mean changing institutions in search of a promotion. Sagaria and Moore (1983) said administration was not always able to remain at one institution for an entire career. These are real issues faced by NACADA members today which might involve changing regions to find their next step on the career ladder.
Barriers between functional areas of academic affairs and student affairs also prove to be difficult to find new prospects in the field. McDade (1990) discussed the lack of professional development for mid-level professionals as one reason for the challenges faced. The overall placement of academic advising on campuses can shift from institution to institution.
Retention of Mid-Level Practitioners
In 2016, a study by Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, and Lowery surveyed current student affairs professionals on their intent to leave the profession. They found in their research that 41.7% of practitioners spend less than five years in the field and another 21.7% spent 8–10 years in the field before leaving. The factors that influenced career change included: (a) excessive hours and burnout, (b) non-competitive salaries, (c) attractive career alternatives, (d) work-life conflict, (e) limited opportunities, (f) role of the supervisor and institutional fit, and (g) lack of challenge and loss of passion (Marshall et al., 2016, p. 152).
Some implications that came from the Marshall et al. (2016) study was a new professional’s understanding of the student affairs field. There are some unrealistic demands on a person’s time and energy. Those entering the profession should gain a more accurate understanding of the types of roles that one might take on within higher education (p. 157). For example, an academic advisor has many different tasks than a residence hall director.
Strong supervision was found as a key issue that participants were not getting from their bosses. Marshall et al. (2016) suggested supervisors should find a way to aid employees through offering work alternatives such as flex time, telecommuting, compressed work weeks, etc. as a way to increase job satisfaction (p. 157).
NACADA and the Mid-Level Advisor
NACADA does not have an official definition of a mid-level advisor, but it would be a professional with more than three years of advising experience per the association’s guidelines for the Outstanding New Advisor Awards (NACADA, n.d.).
Past NACADA President Amy Sannes discussed in her “Fridays with NACADA” email on May 25, 2018 how the association could help mid-level advisors. One suggestion she made was to work with the association’s Professional Development Committee and Sustainable Leadership Committee to identify appropriate venues for this population of the membership.
Regional leadership looked at this topic as well. The NACADA Region 2 Steering Committee during the 2019–2020 academic year made it a goal to engage with mid-level advisors. That resulted in a lunch and learn event in November 2019 along with a pre-conference planned for the 2020 NACADA Region 2 Conference—which was later rescheduled for 2021 Virtual Region 1 and Region 2 Conference.
In November 2020, five practitioners came together to present a NACADA webinar titled, Redefining the Mid-Level: How Can We Retain Academic Advisors? It offered members the opportunities to hear from other advisors in the profession. The presenters covered research on mid-level advisors, challenges and benefits of being this level in the profession, career trajectories (advising ladders), and engagement opportunities. The message of #Horizontal Branding was encouraged to this sector of the membership because it would provide an outlet for new personal and professional growth.
Future of Mid-Level Advisors: #HorizontalBranding
As the profession continues to transform, there will be more mid-level advisors needing support. Training and development remain an important need for this sector of the industry because learning does not stop when you get past the first three years on the job. While everyone cannot move up the advising ladder at the same time, taking the opportunity to grow professionally horizontally can not only allow the mid-level professional to keep their interest in the field, but also gain new skill sets. Avoiding burnout is another strength of the mid-level advisor, while also shifting their professional focus to what is not only best for their students, but also for themselves. The future of the advising profession is on the shoulders of mid-levels who will be the future administrators and senior-level leadership on our campuses. Thinking about the role of mid-level advisors in the future of higher education is imperative for the survival of academic advising as a field.
Center for Undergraduate Advising
Fox School of Business
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Grassmuck, K. (1991, August 14). Throughout the 80s, colleges hired more non-teaching staff than other employees. Chronicle of Higher Education, 37(48), 22.
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Cite this article using APA style as: Farber, G. (2021, December). The real mid-level advisors of NACADA: Partners in #horizontalbranding. Academic Advising Today, 44(4). [insert url here]