Academic Advising Resources


Resources for advising students at two-year colleges

Advising at the two year college:  Which hat will we wear today? 
Tim Kirkner and Julie Levinson

As the first students of the day walk into the advising office, which hat will the two-year college advisor have on?  Will it be a well-worn “how do I transfer” hat?  Perhaps it is an "I don't know what I want to do with the rest of my life" fedora? or the "how am I going to pay for my classes" beanie?  or maybe the trusty "what do I take next semester" fez? 

Advising in a two-year setting demands a flexibility of knowledge and skill, as well as the ability to seamlessly change hats as we go about the business of empowering, teaching and promoting our student's growth and development.  This versatility can be extremely rewarding and somewhat exhausting all at the same time.  The reality is that most days for advisors in a two-year setting most resemble the peddler in the children's tale, Caps for Sale (Slobodkina, 1990), going about our business while precariously balancing a stack of caps. 

In order to gain a basic understanding of the range of organizational models in existence, King’s (2002) article in the NACADA clearinghouse offers a good primer.  Anyone in this work situation will confirm the constant switching frequently leads to unreasonable expectations and conflicting or questionable demands as the work we do is easily misunderstand by others.  Not surprisingly, our own understanding of the work we do can be problematic since many two-year advisors have different professional orientations and come from varied educational backgrounds.  The toll of such uncertainty, misperception and role confusion may cause varying levels of agita, premature graying, and a host of back ailments.  It may even lead us to don a helmet instead of our favorite hats.   

Our overall sense of wellbeing in the two year advising arena is also shaped more or less by a host of external factors.  Outside influences, such as changes in the economy, shifts in employment trends, rising concerns over mental and behavioral health of our students, and increases in accreditation standards can also aggravate our maladies.  Of recent significance have been mandates for increased accountability as a result of federal and state regulations.  In response, advising services are being scrutinized and decisions are often driven by this pressure for accountability. Assessment has become job number one for many advising offices.  Done in the right way (or with the right hat), accountability, in principle, is something to be embraced.  As Robbins and Zarges (2011) point out, “assessment of all facets of higher education has become major foci of various external entities, but the real purpose of assessment should be to determine whether programmatic goals are being achieved and students’ needs and learning goals are being met.”  Unfortunately, in practice, we often see others using these outside pressures to dictate policy rather than to look at what works or has worked best for the students we serve.  

A case in point at many schools has been the national completion agenda (Nutt, 2013).  The increased attention from all directions to have students complete a degree as a measure of success has shone the spotlight on advising for many of us.  Tracking, outcomes and assessment have all emerged as buzzwords in the completion conversation causing many advisors to take cover or run for the hills.  As a result, advisors at two-year colleges may be experiencing a sense of loss in autonomy and increased pressure to impose stricter pathways to completion due to financial aid regulations and other mandates tied to the national completion agenda.  

Administrators often view advising paradoxically – playing both a critical role in retention and a potential stumbling block for students on the road to completion.  For some, completion is even viewed as the panacea to solving the work shortage in certain areas.  Some institutions have turned to prescriptive methods and cross training across student service areas in order to meet the needs of such referendum.  Sadly the ability to be creative and promote innovate advising practices can be been diminished under these circumstances.  Often leadership is quick to respond to outside constituent groups with little effort to consult or solicit input from those working on the front lines of advising.  How this ultimately plays out in terms of positively or negatively impacting the advising program depends on how institutional leadership chooses to interpret and respond to the calls for accountability on all fronts.  

For better or worse, it is clear tracking, data collection, and assessment have become a matter of central importance for evaluating the quality and effectiveness of academic advising.   With the correct understanding of the complexity of assessment in the two-year advising context, the requirements of the student, institution, accreditation body, and legislature can be achieved.  Mission statements and student satisfaction surveys (e.g., CCSSE) are no longer sufficient.  Comprehensive assessment requires a qualitative and quantitative look at many facets of the advising program.  It also requires an understanding of how to effectively implement measurable student learning outcomes that fall in line with helping diverse student populations achieve their educational goals.  With this in mind, aspirations for a one size fits all and/or prescriptive pathways for the entire student population are nearly impossible to achieve.  Such solutions often fail to take in account that many of our students are navigating complex personal life circumstances, which cause their educational goals to be a moving target.

Building and carrying out a successful academic advising program can be a daunting task.  The program priorities, organizational structure, guiding advising philosophy (e.g., prescriptive vs. developmental) and learning outcomes at a two year institution are influenced by any number of factors, such as enrollment patterns, student population, size, location, and funding sources.  The size, shape and type of hats worn by advisors are often determined by the needs of the community in which we work and serve. While some are wearing hats that get students through technical training to meet the needs of the surrounding job market, others are primarily dealing with smoothing a path to transfer.  In spite of the differences, as two year advising professionals we are most certainly bound by our common need to wear many hats.  Thankfully we do have a point from which to begin the serious conversation as to whom, how, what and why we do what we do when it comes to advising in this increasingly complex environment.  

The CAS Standards for Academic Advising provides a welcome beacon in a sea of data-driven, outcomes-oriented accountability.  CAS offers the building blocks from which advisors can ward off potentially detrimental initiatives/programs created in the name of responding to the completion agenda or other mandates.  The Standards can also serve as a roadmap for creating student learning outcomes, justifying resources and evaluating effectiveness of the advising program structure in a two-year setting.  They provide a guiding framework from which two year colleges can construct an advising program that supports student learning and development, endorses quality assurance, and promotes professional integrity (Miller, 2012). The bewildering question of professional identity is also addressed in the CAS.    

The term “advisor” can describe any number of individuals with widely varying educational background and expertise tasked to carry out advising functions in a two year setting.  Functionally, an advising team may consist of individuals with a range of commitment to the profession (Freitag, 2011).  Some may be doing advising as part of their job, while others may approach advising as a calling and approach it as such.  These individuals typically hold graduate degrees from fields such as counseling, student affairs, or related disciplines that provide the professional credentials needed to more effectively wear the many hats needed to advise students in a two year setting.  The level of professionalism at a particular institution is often determined based on practical constraints rather than best practices outlined in CAS and other NACADA documents.  Advising teams may consist of advisors with specific training or competency in how to work with a particular group or issue, while others may have a broad based knowledge and especially attuned to the developmental nature of the two-year student populations.  While it is a challenge to capture the universal experience of an advisor at the two-year college given all these permutations, change is the norm. 

As evidenced by the resources found in the two-year/community college section of the clearinghouse, the same can be said for the students with which we work.  Retention, persistence and transition are common concerns for advisors working in this context.  Trends toward cross-training across professional lines and lessening of requirements for qualifications, combined with our own long-standing role confusion, make navigating this change successfully even more difficult.  Finding the right hat in your closet in situations like this can be a struggle.  How professional advisors adapt has much to do with their personal resources, commitment to the discipline, and/or institutional understanding and support.  Of course, “each institution must determine who advises, and how effective these advisors might be, for meeting specific goals and outcomes at that institution (Self, .  With all of this in mind, our collective defense across all two-year colleges is to continue to innovate while retaining, reinforcing, and elevating the core concepts of our profession.  This means championing advising as a discipline, repeating the mantra of advising as teaching and being mindful of ever blurring professional lines.

Regardless of background, training, role …or hat, academic advising is a critical component for supporting student success.  How advising takes shape at any two-year setting depends on a host of factors and complex dynamics.  Done with conscious consideration, it is possible to design an academic advising program that responds to and serves the specific needs of the student population at a particular institution.  The following questions may help frame the inquiry of those interested in two-year college advising and the relevant resources housed in the NACADA clearinghouse suggested below.    

  • What are some characteristics/challenges that are common among advisors in the two-year setting?
  • Which advising model is best suited for the typical two-year student population?  What role should members of the institutional leadership versus professional advisors play in determining the answer to this question?
  • What can be done to evaluate effectiveness of the various advising methods/practices for the diverse student population typically found in the two-year setting?
  • How can advising services be assessed, reconfigured and/or improved?  Do the NACADA guiding principles and the CAS Standards for Academic Advising offer sufficient guidance in the two-year context?
  • What can be done to promote advising as a discipline in the two-year setting?
  • What, if any, common baseline for professional credentialing/education should be adopted for two-year advisors?
  • What can be done to assist NACADA, as well as our institutions, to respond to external mandates, such as the national completion agenda?

Suggested Reading:

Bryant, R., Chagani, A., Endres, J. and Galvin. J. (2006). Professional Growth for Advisors: Strategies for Building Professional Advising Networks. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

Freitag, D. (2011, March). Freedom to choose: Advisor classifications and internal identities. Academic Advising Today, 34 (1). Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

Hurt, R.L. (2007). Advising as Teaching: Establishing Outcomes, Developing Tools, and Assessing Student Learning. NACADA Journal. 27 (2), pp. 36-40.

King, M.C. (2002).Community college advising. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

King, M.C. (2005). Developmental academic advising. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

King, M. (2008). Organization of academic advising services. In V. Gordon, W. Habley, T. Grites, & &. Associates (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 246–247). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Koring, H. (2005). Advisor training and development. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources: See more at:

Lowenstein, M. (2005). If Advising is Teaching, What do Advisors Teach? NACADA Journal, 25(2), 65-73. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

Miller, M.A. (2012). Interpreting the CAS standards for academic advising. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

Nutt, C.L. (2013, March). From the executive director: Higher education focuses on college completion – academic advising at the center of university efforts. Academic Advising Today, 36(1). Retrieved from:

Pardee, C. F. (2004). Organizational structures for advising. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

Robbins, R. (2013). Implications of advising load. In Carlstrom, A., 2011 national survey of academic advising. (Monograph No.  25). Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

Robbins, R. & Zarges, K.M. (2011).Assessment of Academic Advising: A Summary of the Process. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

Self, C. (2013).  Implications of advising personnel of undergraduates 2011 National Survey.  Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

Shaffer, L. S., Zalewski, J. M., & Leveille, J. (2010). The professionalization of academic advising: Where are we in 2010? NACADA Journal, 30(1), pp. 66–77. - See more at:

Slobodkina, E. (1990). Caps for sale: a tale of a peddler, some monkeys and their monkey business. New York: HarperCollins.

Smith, J. (2011). Implications for administrator beliefs 2011 National Survey. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources:

Cite this using APA style as:

Kirkner, T. & Levinson, J. (2013) Advising at the two year college: Which hat will we wear today?. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web Site:

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