Academic Advising Resources


Academic Advising in Canada: Is the Canadian Advising System Really Different from the American Advising System?

Authored by: Jo Stewart



A familiar refrain in many discussions of academic advising in Canada is that Canadian academic advisors are different from American academic advisors because of our different educational systems. There is often different language used to describe our post-secondary educational institutions, the regulations about confidentiality, degree/diploma requirements, student transfers, and an abundance of other advising issues. But, just because we speak a different language, does that mean that Canadian and American academic advisors are really all that different?  Do academic advisors from the two countries have totally different perspectives? Or, are the academic advisors from these two countries more similar than different?

The Differences

In the United States (US), it appears to many Canadians that the terms “college” and “university” are used interchangeably. However, in Canada, these terms mean different things in most provinces. In the United States, there are four-year and two-year institutions as well as public and private institutions. These institutions offer a variety of educational programs to their students. In Canada, there are both public and private institutions.  There are universities that offer three-year and four-year undergraduate degree programs as well as graduate degree programs. The Canadian colleges offer one-, two-, and three-year diploma programs, as well as some four-year applied degree programs. Both the university and colleges in Canada offer certificate programs.


Course requirements and course credits are often a source of puzzlement when academic advisors from different states and provinces have a discussion. In many US schools students receive academic credit for work done in an introductory-level course that provides students with a framework for success. This introductory course is often not available to students in Canada. In the United States, course credits are often discussed in terms of “credit hours.” However, in Canada, the definition of 'credits' is left to the individual institutions. Some Canadian institutions have courses that run for a single term and grant a half-credit (towards a four-year, twenty-credit degree), while others grant 3 credits for a course of the same length. It is clear that there are differences between Canadian institutions in defining course credits, let alone differences between the two countries.


The Similarities

Confidentiality of student records is something that is a concern for institutions in both the United States (US) and in Canada. According to the US Department of Education Web site, “The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education. FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children's education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). In Canada, institutions must abide by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). This aim of this act is “to protect the privacy of individuals with respect to personal information about themselves held by institutions and to provide individuals with a right of access to that information” (Service Ontario, 2010).  In both of these pieces of legislation from the two countries, it is made clear that students at post-secondary institutions have the right to access their own educational records. It is also made clear that these records will be considered confidential with only very limited access of information to other parties (i.e., parents and other members of the public).


One issue that concerns academic advisors in both Canada and the United States is the seemingly over-involvement of parents in their adult children’s educational programming (see for example, Gibbs, 2009; Menezes, 2005; Taylor, 2006).  Although many academic advisors have been frustrated by these parents in recent years, it now seems that this is a parenting style that is here at least until the next generation of students enters our institutions. When working with these parents and their children, both Canadian and American academic advisors abide by the academic regulations of their institutions, and follow the protection of privacy legislation by which they are governed.


When students transfer between institutions, they often experience challenges in both the United States and in Canada (Thurmond, 2007; Bell, 1998). Unless there are clear articulation agreements between the institutions, the problems arise because students may not have the prerequisite knowledge needed to succeed in required courses, do not receive the transfer credits they have earned, or feel lost in a new system. Both Canadian and American academic advisors work with these students to ensure a smooth transition between the institutions and help insure students' success in their new environment.


In both Canada and the United States, there is a social justice imperative at post-secondary institutions to have accessible educational programs. This guarantees the civil rights of the students in both of these countries. As a result, academic advisors from the US and Canada often assist students who experience a wide variety of challenges. This assistance can take many forms, including (but not limited to) appropriate referrals to other departments who can help students gain access to services, space or required equipment, directing students towards peer mentor programs, developing advising materials suited to those with differing needs, and advocating for students who experience accessibility issues. Although the legislation in the two countries does differ in its language, academic advisors work to ensure that all students receive the resources they require.


Many students who attend university or college do so to advance their knowledge with the end goal of developing a career. Academic advisors in both Canada and the United States play a key role in providing students with advice about the resources available to help students set career goals (McCalla-Wriggins, 2009; Burton Nelson, 2006). Academic advisors in the two countries also provide information about course options that will help students reach their career goals. Referrals are also made by academic advisors to departments within their institutions and within the community that assist students investigating career options, resumé writing, job search, and interview skills.



In both Canada and the United States, some students hit bumps on their educational roads and need the help of academic advisors to stay on track. They may fail to declare a major, experience some distress (either related to their educational or personal lives), be adjudicated out of a current major, fail to take a required course, forget to apply to graduate, or experience any number of other difficulties. Academic advisors in both Canada and the US are often the first people students seek when they are struggling. Academic advisors in both countries help students consider their goals. They also assist students in choosing alternative programs or complete the correct form required to declare a major. Academic advisors in both countries help by making referrals to other departments within the institution or the community for those students experiencing distress affecting their education.


At first glance, the American and Canadian systems may seem very dissimilar when comparing the language used to describe the institutions and programs. But from an academic advising perspective, are the two systems really that different? Even though the language used to describe the types of institutions differs, legislation surrounding confidentiality has a different name, and different language is used to describe credits and courses, what academic advisors from the two countries actually do with the students is very similar – academic advisors from both the US and Canada aim for student success no matter what terms are used to say it!


Authored by: Jo Stewart
Administrative Officer
Faculty of Social Sciences
Brock University
St. Catharines, Ontario
L2S 3A1





Bell, S. (1998). College transfer students: A Canadian case. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 22 (1). Retrieved from 04-30-10.


  • Provides an example of the struggles of transfer students in one program in Canada.


Burton Nelson, Dorothy. (2006). Career advisors: A new breed. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website


  • This is a resource for those academic advisors wishing to learn about how to provide career advising to their students.


Gibbs, N. (2009). The growing backlash against overparenting. Retrieved from,8599,1940395-3,00.html.


  • Recently written in the popular press, this article provides general information about the overparenting phenomenon that is apparent amongst baby boomer parents and their children.  Reference to the fact that the phenomenon is noted in a wide variety of geographical locations, including Canada.


McCalla-Wriggins, B. (2009). Integrating Career and Academic Advising: Mastering the Challenge. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:


  • This article provides a resource for academic advisors who find themselves providing career advice to students.


Menezes, M. D. (2005). Academic advisors and parents: Together building stronger advising relationships. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:


  • Provides a brief history of parenting, and makes recommendations for how academic advisors can work with the parents of today to provide service to students while not excluding parents from the process.

Service Ontario (2010). Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Retrieved from


  • This is a legal document that outlines the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in Canada.


Taylor, M. (2006). Helicopters, snowplows, and bulldozers: Managing students’ parents. Association of College Unions International. Retrieved from


  • Discusses parenting styles in the 21st century, and makes suggestions for how post-secondary institutions can work with these parents to help their children succeed.

Thurmond, K.C. (2007). Transfer Shock: Why is a Term Forty Years Old Still Relevant? Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:


  • This article discusses the nature of transfer shock and what academic advisors can do to alleviate it for the students.


US Department of Education (2010). Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) .  Retrieved from


  • This is a legal document that outlines the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in the United States.

Additional resources



Cite the above resource using APA style as:

Stewart, J. (2010). Academic Advising in Canada -Is the Canadian Advising System Really Different from the American Advising System? Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:


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