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Advisor Career Ladders

Professional Advisor Credentials, Career Ladders, and Salaries
by Mark A. Taylor

The advising profession, particularly professional advising, has continued to gain credibility, new members, and momentum in recent years. Through their commitment to their students, accessibility, and expertise, academic advisors contribute to retention, timely degree progress, and student success. The work of professional advisors is most appropriately viewed in the context of their efforts in relation to key institutional objectives rather than their degrees earned and annual income. By offering data about their educational attainment, opportunities for advancement, and compensation, however, the 2011 NACADA National Survey of Academic Advising provides valuable insight into the progress of and institutional support for the work of professional academic advisors across the United States.

Educational Credentials
According to Part 4 of the Council for the Advancement of Standards and Guidelines for Academic Advising Programs (CAS), “Professional staff members must hold an earned graduate or professional degree in a field relevant to the position they hold or must possess an appropriate combination of educational credentials and related work experience” (2011, p. 10). Although the language appears to allow for hiring experienced advisors without graduate degrees, it nonetheless sends a strong message about the value of an advanced degree in the advising profession.

Approximately two thirds of survey respondents indicated that a master’s degree was the most common credential earned among professional advisors at their institution. However, fewer than one fifth identified a bachelor’s degree as the most common credential, and one fifth did not respond to the question.

Advanced degrees understandably garner respect within the world of higher education, and they may be prerequisites for involvement with and access to certain roles and responsibilities, including course instruction, committee leadership, and advising administration. A master’s or doctorate degree may be especially valuable for advisors who work in academic departments and in close proximity to the faculty.  

Often a reflection of a respected advising program and strong institutional support, the expectation for a master’s degree for new hires and advanced degrees among current advisors may enhance the perception of advisors among key decision makers and increase the prestige of the institution’s professional advising presence. Advertised credentials also convey a message to potential candidates; those with a graduate degree, for example, may hesitate in applying for positions requiring a bachelor’s degree for fear of being overqualified regardless of the responsibilities associated with the position.

Although two thirds of respondents indicated that a master’s was the most common degree among professional advisors, only two fifths identified a master’s degree as the minimum credential required for professional advisors, with a comparable number reporting a bachelor’s degree as the highest necessary degree for potential employment. Hiring officials at times may identify higher educational and professional qualifications than the minimums formally established by the institution. The gap between the minimum and most common credentials may also reflect the growth of the advising profession and graduate programs in higher education and related disciplines, resulting in highly qualified applicant pools that have outpaced educational expectations on many campuses.  

This growth suggests an opportunity to reevaluate formal hiring criteria and potentially raise minimum expectations. As the number of candidates with graduate degrees pursuing advising opportunities grows, more institutions that previously had identified a master’s degree as a preferred qualification may now require it. Official advisor classifications and titles also become antiquated as advisor roles and responsibilities evolve, and advising administrators should update position descriptions to better align with increasingly complex and expansive portfolios.  

Despite the value of an advanced degree, survey results make clear that a bachelor’s degree nonetheless remains the minimum and a common credential on many campuses. Numerous factors influence educational expectations, including campus culture and institutional history.  

Minimum educational requirements reflect, in part, an institution’s values and should be viewed in conjunction with other stated qualifications for the position. An institution that, for example, requires a bachelor’s degree and six years of experience in higher education may place more value on the amount and nature of a candidate’s work experience than on educational attainment.

Practical considerations related to financial resources and the regional job market also affect the credentials employers expect from candidates. Positions requiring a master’s degree oftentimes command a higher salary such that an employer without the financial resources necessary to support those expectations may maintain lower degree qualifications. In areas with a job market in high demand or with highly populated regions, employers may enjoy a strong applicant pool of master’s degree earners; however, requiring a graduate degree in certain regions of the country may result in a shallow hiring pool in terms of the number and diversity of candidates.

Academic advising programs should pursue “recruitment and hiring strategies that encourage individuals from under-represented populations to apply for positions” (CAS, 2011, p. 9). Institutional efforts to ensure a diverse applicant pool and staff may influence minimum credentials and other qualifications, and leaders of advising units also may wish to attract or allow for a particular type of candidate. An institution with a robust peer advising program, for example, may identify a bachelor’s degree as the minimum credential to allow its undergraduates to transition into entry-level advising positions following graduation.

Career Ladders
Career ladders provide a formal pathway for advancement through an infrastructure of tiered job levels comprised of distinctions in titles and pay. Criteria for promotion typically include education, experience, and achievement.

Although the majority indicated that a master’s degree was the most common credential held by professional advisors, just over 10% of respondents reported the existence of a career ladder for professional advisors on their campus. The lack of a career ladder was the norm regardless of the size of the institution, advising situation, and institutional type.

These results align with those from an earlier NACADA survey (Axio Survey, 2008) indicating that only 12% of respondents utilized a formal career ladder in their advising operation. Although three fourths of Axio Survey respondents (N =1,009) viewed career ladders as beneficial to advisors and advising administration on their campus, the findings from both 2008 and 2011 suggest that little has changed in the field.

In addition to strengthening the profession, the promotional opportunities associated with a career ladder benefit individual advisors, the institution, and students. The development of a career ladder can enhance the visibility and professionalism of advising on campus; improve the understanding of the role of academic advisors; address salary deficiencies and inequities; and trigger a healthy examination of job titles, descriptions, and functions (Taylor, 2011).  

Advancement opportunities offer institutions a competitive edge in recruiting new advisors. The professional and financial recognition that accompanies promotional opportunities contributes to advisor satisfaction and retention. Advisors grow in the profession without feeling compelled to move to another position or leave higher education to advance. That upward mobility and reward encourage a commitment to the institution, innovation, and continuous improvement. The retention of experienced advisors benefits students due to the continuity in student service, strengthening of advising relationships, and growing advisor expertise (Taylor, 2011).

The existence of an advisor career ladder suggests that credentials and salaries have been subject to scrutiny, perhaps resulting in alignment across campus. A career ladder does not necessitate a master’s degree as the minimum qualification; in fact, some institutions may require a bachelor’s degree for the first rung of the ladder both to expand access at the entry level and to allow room for growth among current advisors.

The median starting salary for full-time professional advisors was reported as $36,000, while the median top salary was $50,000. The $17,000 range among top salaries reported by the middle 50% of respondents was significantly greater than difference of $8,000 in reported starting salaries. A variety of factors, including merit increases and promotions, that affect an advisor’s pay over time may explain the disparity in salary gaps.

The 2012 annual report of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, offers additional perspective. According to the Association’s survey results, the median salary, up $441 from the previous year, for academic advisors across all institutions was $40,963, with minimal variation based on the type of institution: $41,757 at doctoral; $41,666 at 2-year; $41,329 at baccalaureate; and $40,449 at master’s institutions (Fuller, n.d.). Although these figures cannot be compared directly with the NACADA survey results that reflect starting and top annual salaries, they nonetheless provide recent benchmarking data across institutional types.

The regional market and cost-of-living considerations necessarily should inform not only pay determinations but also analyses of salary data. Therefore, one might expect that the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Pacific regions show higher starting salaries ($40,000) than the other seven NACADA-defined regions.

An institution’s financial health impacts advisor salaries, and staff furloughs and the lack of pay increases in recent years have negatively affected compensation levels for advisors and colleagues throughout higher education. A positive correlation generally exists between a position’s minimum credentials and the salary associated with that position, and funding available for hiring an advisor may affect the qualifications employers can expect of candidates.

Salaries often vary within an institution depending on the advising unit and its funding sources. Although variable advisor salaries on one campus can negatively impact morale, such disparities also may provide an argument for raising the base salary across campus. A career ladder may ensure not only greater continuity in advisor salaries but also higher salaries due to an elevation of the salary floor during implementation and ongoing promotional pay increases.

Base salaries or salary ranges for each advisor position (e.g., assistant, associate, and senior academic advisor) should be reevaluated regularly to avoid stagnation. Increases in starting salaries should be matched by comparable salary increases among current advisors to minimize salary compression, resulting in little, if any, difference in pay between new advisors and current advisors with more seniority at the institution.

Salaries should reflect the ever-expanding scope and complexity of advisor responsibilities. Although professional advising roles largely involve direct service to students, many also include significant project leadership, programming, and even supervisory responsibilities. More robust advisor portfolios provide justification for higher salaries, and variations among advisor roles necessitate appropriate distinctions in pay.

Further discussions about advisor educational credentials, career ladders, and salaries should recognize the relationship between the three. The much-needed expansion of promotional opportunities for professional academic advisors will require a nuanced appreciation for institutional expectations regarding educational attainment and compensation. Ongoing communication with colleagues in human resources and an understanding of expectations for similar positions at benchmark institutions and comparable advising operations are essential.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of recruiting and retaining exceptional academic advisors, leadership must continue to connect the work of advisors with the top priorities of the institution. The following questions may be helpful in considering the implications of these survey results and in advancing the efforts of professional academic advisors:  

  • What are the minimum and most common credentials for comparable student and academic affairs positions on your campus and for academic advising positions at benchmark institutions?
  • What are the current barriers to developing a career ladder on your campus?
  • Do academic advisors have opportunities to advance at your institution in the absence of a career ladder?
  • What job titles are associated with academic advising roles on your campus?
  • Does a common position description exist for all academic advisors at your institution?
  • Do the position descriptions accurately reflect the responsibilities performed by academic advisors?
  • What are your institutional advisor turnover rates? If they vary across campus, what are the characteristics of those advising operations with higher advisor retention?
  • What are the starting and top salaries for comparable student and academic affairs positions on your campus and for academic advising positions at benchmark institutions?

Axio Survey. (2008). Career ladders for professional advisors [Survey]. Retrieved from

Council for the Advancement of Standards of Higher Education (CAS). (2011). Academic advising programs: CAS standards and guidelines. Retrieved from

Fuller, A. (n.d.). Facts and figures: Almanac of higher education 2012. Retrieved from

Taylor, M. A. (2011). Career ladders and performance evaluations for academic advisors. In J. E. Joslin & N. L. Markee (Eds.), Academic advising administration: Essential knowledge and skills for the 21st century (Monograph No. 22.) (p. 133–144). Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association.

Other resources:
Elevating the advising profession, Education Advisory Board, 2014

Institutional Career Ladder examples:
Auburn University
NC State (contains links to other school's career ladders)

Cite this resource using APA Style as:

Taylor, M. A. (2011). Professional advisor credentials, career ladders, and salaries. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web Site:

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