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Determining the Worth of an Advising Unit
Authored By: Tom Grites


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 is 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 processof 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: 

advising special populations of students

Alternative 1: transfer responsibility to another office


  • 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


  • 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 


  • 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 Chair

  • 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    


  • 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.

Author: Tom Grites
Assistant to the Vice-President of Academic Affairs
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
[email protected]

Cite the above resource using APA style as:

Grites, T. (2003). Determining the worth of an advising unit. The Academic Advising News, 26(1). Retrieved -insert today's date- from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources 
web site: [insert url here]

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