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Three Things about Academic Advising You May Not Know But Should

July 18, 2019 Sara Ackerson NASPA

NASPA and academic advising intersect in more ways than you may think. Would it surprise you to know that much of what we do in the functional area of academic advising centers on all the same theoretical foundations as that of residence life, student activities, fraternity and sorority life? You get the idea. All faculty and staff play a critical role in the success of a student, regardless of what budget our salaries come out of. There is even the NASPA Student Affairs Partnering with Academic Affairs Knowledge Community.

You probably see a lot of social media and articles floating around explaining that advising is about more than just registration and is a key component to student success. Most advisors are aware of this. This is not news, but I am seeing three key themes play out.

1. Advising is integrative.

Gone are the days when an advisor can use just one model (such as developmental advising) shaping their practice.

An integrated approach to working with students is critical at a time when advisors are expected to teach students not only about how their curriculum works (“yes, it is important to take Psychology as a Nursing student and no, we won’t tell you the ‘easy’ courses”), but also how to navigate the institution as a whole and understand what it means to be a college student at your particular institution. In addition to advising models, advisors need to understand basic coaching and counseling theory to ask targeted questions in order to direct students to the right resources. They must understand human learning and development and stay abreast of new research.

To be fair, continuous change is hard, but change is inevitable. As our students and their needs’ shift, so must our ways of doing.

2. Academic advisors play many roles. 

It’s often the dreaded question, “What do you do?”

Advisors are constantly educating people on what academic advising is. While it is common knowledge that advisors are busy during orientation, many believe their roles only include: course registration, removing holds, or creating schedules with students.

In fact, advisors do so much more. You can check out the #dayinSA blog series for some examples.

I often relate advising to a visit to Target. You go in with one thing in mind, and come out with nine things you didn’t know you needed but are about to make your life immensely more manageable.

Advisors are story-tellers, keepers of knowledge ranging from understanding a major, to where the closest food pantry is, and where to find interview-appropriate clothes on a student budget.

Advisors are detectives, creative problem solvers, and negotiators, sometimes all in one appointment.

Advisors are the ones delivering difficult news or congratulations, sometimes all in one day. Advisors are teaching students how to advocate for themselves, to build self-efficacy, and to be okay with failure and with success.

A survey of faculty, staff, and students would likely not show this full understanding of the advisor workload. The work of advisors should be better understood so that it can be recognized and rewarded by campus administrators, faculty, and staff alike.

3. Redefining the experience of the advisor is critical for success for students, the institution, and student affairs as a whole.

The conversation around academic advising and student success in a broader sense typically center on the student.

We ask about student engagement, retention, and graduation. I’m here to tell you a not-so-secret secret. You need to engage, retain, and reward your staff to move the mission of being student-centered forward. When staff members are feeling satisfied and appreciated, that feeling of belonging trickles down to the student.

This isn’t new information nor is it much of a secret. NASPA published a post last year by two of my colleagues, Dr. Mei-Yen Ireland and Dr. Jennifer Joslin, stating “It is critical that institutions are ready – structurally, attitudinally, culturally, and behaviorally – for the aspirational goals they are working to achieve.”  

This is also not exclusive to academic advising, but essential for the success of all of student services and student affairs.

Structurally, some institutions are building onboarding and professional development programs centered on competencies coupled with career ladders to aid in advancement. But, as we know in higher education, the best intentions can be stalled due to financial constraints and the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset.

Still, it’s a start. Advisors need to be supported by institutional leaders in their pursuit of continuous learning, particularly focused on the relational skills needed to be successful as an advisor. Advisors need to be encouraged and supported as they work through having difficult conversations. Too often, training focuses on the implementation of technology but leave out the change management piece. Technology should be viewed as an assistant, not a replacement and not as a burden. To do that, institutions need to address how to implement change, rather than just enforce it.


My name is Sara Ackerson and I was recently hired as the Assistant Director of Advising Initiatives at NASPA. My work will include working across a network of other national organizations to help institutions with advising redesign. Prior to joining NASPA, I served as a professional advisor for over twelve years working at both Washington State University (WSU) and MCPHS University, serving a diverse population of students. I also coordinated the MCPHS first-year seminar course, co-lead the WSU First Generation Abroad program, and managed the on-boarding and professional development program for the WSU system. I’ve been a member of NASPA since 2005 and was an active member of the Women in Student Affairs (WISA) and the New Professionals and Graduate Students (NPGS) knowledge communities. I have presented nationally at NASPA, ACPA, the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS), and NACADA conferences, as well as published several blogs through the Student Affairs Collective and continue to serve as a moderator for the #acadv monthly Twitter chats.