Academic Advising Resources


Organizational Structures for Advising
Celeste F. Pardee

Organizational structure is the framework for delivering advising services to students. As such, it is one of the important building blocks for an effective advising program, regardless of whether the program is defined at the department, college, campus, or institutional level. In an economic climate where resource allocation to student services is scrutinized, and where programs are evaluated for their contribution to student retention, the organizational structure for advising takes on new significance. If the organizational structure is not a good fit for the institution or its students and faculty, the advising program's effectiveness could be limited and student satisfaction with the service could be adversely affected. The variables that impact choice of an organizational model change over time. Thus, the structure of an advising system should be periodically assessed to make sure that students and the institution are well served.

An advising administrator or a task force assessing advising on campus should ask three questions regarding this critical campus issue: 1) Which organizational structure, with its attendant models, is more common at our institutional type? 2) What variables should we consider in selecting an appropriate organizational structure? 3) How can we determine the effectiveness of the structure? 

Which organizational structure, with its attendant models, is more common at our institutional type?

Models for delivering advising services may be categorized as one of three organizational structures:

  • Centralized: where professional and faculty advisors are housed in one academic or administrative unit
  • Decentralized: professional or faculty advisors are located in their respective academic departments.
  • Shared: where some advisors meet with students in a central administrative unit (i.e., an advising center), while others advise students in the academic department of their major discipline.

According to the Sixth National Survey on Academic Advising conducted in 2003 by ACT (Habley, 2004), more institutions use a shared model of delivering advising services (55%) than use centralized (32%) or decentralized (14%) structures. This distribution is similar to that found in 1997 when the Fifth National Survey was conducted. 

Centralized Structure
There is only one entirely centralized structure, the Self-Contained Model, which is used at 14% of all institutions. The Self-Contained, along with the Split Model (see below), are the two most frequently found at 2-year public colleges (29% and 28%, respectively). In the Self-Contained Model, all advising occurs in either an advising center or a counseling center that is staffed primarily by professional advisors or counselors; however, faculty may be assigned to advise students at the center on a part-time basis.

Decentralized Structure

By far the more prevalent decentralized structure is the Faculty Only Model where all students are assigned to a department advisor, usually a professor from the student's academic discipline. Used at 28% of all institutions, it is the model of choice at private institutions. It is found at 36% of the private 2-year colleges and 39% of the private 4-year colleges and universities. However, when considering the two most popular shared models together, 4-year private institutions using the Supplementary or Split Models (see below) slightly outnumber (at 43%) the 4-year private institutions with the Faculty Only Model (39%).

Shared Structures
The most common shared structures are the Supplementary and Split Models. In the Supplementary Model, found at 17% of all institutions, students are assigned to a department advisor. There is a central administrative unit with professional staff to support the department advisors (usually faculty) by providing resources and training. The center might serve students when they need transfer course evaluation or a degree audit. The Supplementary is the second most popular model at both 2-year private colleges (21%) and 4-year private institutions (26%).
In the Split Model, found at 27% of all institutions, advising is carried out by faculty in their departments, as well as the staff of an advising center. The latter is usually responsible for a particular subset of students (e.g., those who are undecided on a major, freshmen, those on academic probation, pre-majors preparing for a professional program). When students have satisfied certain criteria, such as declaring a major or completing prerequisites for admission to a professional program, they are reassigned to advisors in the school or department that offers their major. The Split Model is the dominant one at 4-year public colleges and universities; nearly half (46%) of these institutions are using this model.

Space does not permit an explanation of the three less frequently used, but equally valid models in the shared and decentralized structural categories. For a more detailed description of the seven organizational models, see Habley and McCauley (1987), Pardee (2000), and King (2003).


It may not be easy to identify the organizational structure and particular model in place at a large institution. The advising structure at the institutional level may be complicated by different structures (or models) that have been implemented within schools or departments, or at outlying campuses of large universities and community colleges. This discussion refers to the advising structure and associated models at the institutional level, but advising coordinators for a school or department may select a different structure and model as appropriate for the smaller unit where unique variables come into play.


What variables should we consider in selecting an appropriate organizational structure?

Each of the three structures for delivering services, with its attendant model(s), has benefits and drawbacks. How does an advising administrator or task force choose an organizational structure and model that will minimize any weaknesses and maximize its strengths? There are many variables that should be taken into account, including characteristics of the institution, the faculty, student population, scope of the advising program, and philosophy of advising. While all variables cannot be addressed in this essay, a sample will illustrate how some of the variables might impact the choice of an organizational structure. 

  • What is the enrollment at the institution? For a large college or university, an advising center, either the Self-Contained Model or one of the shared structure models, would be an efficient choice with respect to benefits from economies of scale.
  • What is the administrative structure of the institution and what is the reporting line for advising? If the provost, vice president, or dean of academic affairs is responsible for advising, then faculty will very likely be involved with advising, either through a decentralized or shared structure. (For more information regarding issues surrounding reporting lines, see Reporting through Academic vs. Student Affairs.)
  • To what extent is the faculty interested in advising and willing to devote time to it? If the faculty are recognized and rewarded for advising, a decentralized structure is feasible. It is also cost-effective, as no space or funding is needed to establish an advising center.
  • What is the nature of the institution's academic policies, curriculum, and degree programs? A wide range of academic programs, high program selectivity, and complex graduation requirements increase the practicality of a centralized or shared model. In a central office it is easier for a coordinator to train advisors, thus ensuring that complex policies and program options are understood and accurately conveyed to students.
  • What is the institution's mission, and how does academic advising relate to the mission? If the institution and its programs are oriented toward career preparation, a decentralized structure such as the Faculty Only Model would be appropriate. Faculty, as experts in their field, may be better prepared to advise students on course selection, internships, and career options.
  • What is the composition of the student body and what are their special needs? An institution with a sizeable proportion of under-prepared, undecided, or reentry students should devote financial and other resources to specialized advising that is effectively offered in a centralized or shared structure, such as the Split Model. On the other hand, if the majority of students are academically prepared and have declared majors, then a more decentralized structure would be appropriate.

There is growing recognition among advising professionals and researchers that a shared structure can incorporate the best features from the decentralized and centralized structures. An ideal shared structure would take advantage of the expertise of faculty advising in their departments (decentralized), while relying on professional advisors in a central administrative unit to meet the special needs of students, such as incoming freshmen, academically at risk students, minority students, student athletes, or undecided students.

 How can we determine the effectiveness of the structure?
 It is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the organizational structure, or satisfaction with a particular model, when it is closely bound with other components of an advising program. If problems arise with advising, those can seldom be attributed solely to the organizational structure. It is more likely that the structure is one of several components that together have led to a less than satisfactory advising system.

As part of the assessment process, an advising administrator or task force should ask the following questions to determine whether the organizational structure is supporting or hindering the institution's goals, such as promoting student learning, development, and success. 

  • Are advisors accessible when and where students seek academic guidance?
  • Are financial, personnel, and physical resources available to support and staff the structure that is in place?
  • Are reporting lines clear to all advisors? Is there a high level administrator who oversees the institutional advising system, someone to whom all college advisors are accountable?
  • Is it clear to students where they obtain advising for their various needs, such as general education requirements, the major and minor subject areas, honors courses, pre-law or pre-medicine curriculum, exceptions to policies, academic probation, graduation, etc.? If students have multiple advisors, is there a center to make advising referrals?
  • Do advisors understand the structure and their role within the larger system? If the structure is decentralized, is there an advising resource and training center?
  • If the structure is decentralized or shared, does the structure promote communication and cooperation among advisors in all units?
  • Is the structure conducive to sharing information and collaborating with other academic and student service units to create and implement policies that promote student development and success?

The last question points to the fact that academic advising does not operate in a vacuum. For a discussion on establishing an advising structure that takes into account organizational principles and strategies to foster cross-unit collaboration, see Creamer, Creamer, and Brown (2003).
The NACADA Academic Advising Survey, conducted in 2000, compared advisors' level of satisfaction and recommendations on program enhancement between respondents from centralized advising offices and those from decentralized offices (Lynch, 2002). There were no appreciable differences in the satisfaction ratings between advisors in central and decentralized offices, although both groups identified areas for program improvement unrelated to the organizational structure.
What do surveys reveal about the perceived effectiveness of the different structures? Habley and Morales (1998) approached this question with data from the ACT Fifth National Academic Advising Survey. After analyzing advisors' ratings of the seven organizational models with respect to eleven program variables, they concluded that any of the organizational models could be effective.
Ultimately, the determining factor in the success of any model is whether there is a good fit between the model and the institution, faculty, students and other variables identified in this essay. The right organizational structure for advising is so well integrated that it meshes seamlessly with other institutional characteristics, yet it is so clearly defined that advisors and students know how to effectively operate within the system.

Author: Celeste F. Pardee
University of Arizona

References and suggested readings:

Creamer, E. G., Creamer, D. G., & Brown, K. S. (2003). Applying Quality Educational Principles to Academic Advising. In G. L. Kramer & Associates (Eds.), Student Academic Services: An Integrated Approach (pp. 205-222).San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.


Goetz, J. J. (2004). Academic Advising. In F. J. D. MacKinnon & Associates (Eds.), Rentz's Student Affairs Practice in Higher Education, 3rd Ed. (pp. 89-107).Springfield,IL: Charles C. Thomas.


Habley, W. R. (November, 1983). Organizational Structures for Academic Advising: Models and Implications.  (pp. 535-540.) College Student Personnel. 24(6).

Habley, W. R. (Ed.). (2004). The Status of Academic Advising: Findings from the ACT Sixth National Survey (pp.14-26) (Monograph Series No. 10).Manhattan,KS: National Academic Advising Association.


Habley, W. R., & McCauley, M. E. (1987). The Relationship Between Institutional Characteristics and the Organization of Advising Services. NACADA Journal, 7 (1), 27-39.


Habley, W. R., & Morales, R. H. (1998). Advising Models: Goal Achievement and Program Effectiveness. NACADA Journal, 18 (1), 35-41.


King, M. C. (Ed.). (1993). Academic Advising: Organizing and Delivering Services for Student Success (pp. 47-54). New Directions for Community Colleges, No. 82.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


King, M. C. (2003). Organizational Models and Delivery Systems for Faculty Advising. In G. L. Kramer (Ed.), Faculty Advising Examined (pp. 125-143).Bolton,MA: Anker.


Lynch, M. (2002). Advising at the Millennium: Advisor Satisfaction and Perceived Avenues to Enhancement. NACADA Journal, 22 (2), 5-25.


Pardee, C. F. (2000). Organizational Models for Academic Advising. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & Associates (Eds.), Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook (pp. 192-209).San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Wilbur, F. P. (2002). Improving Academic Advising: Issues and Action Areas for Campus Leaders. In R. M. Diamond & B. Adam (Eds.), Field Guide to Academic Leadership (pp. 193-210).San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Overviews of organizational structures for advising:


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

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