Academic Advising: Leverage Point for Systemic Change Initiatives?

Sean Bridgen
Kansas State University
Sean Bridgen, Pennsylvania State University-New Kensington
published Nov 29, 2017 11:39am

I am beginning my sixteenth year as an academic adviser; I have worked at large research universities, a small state college, and a small private college. My experiences and scholarly work have taught me that the day-to-day decisions academic advisers make can have a significant impact on how the university functions. Academic advising is structurally designed to include one on one conversations with students regarding the direction of their education, what their current challenges are, what they have learned, and what they want to learn in the future. As a result of this structure, advisers are uniquely positioned to have in-depth conversations about the university's mission, and why the curriculum is structured the way it is; this unique position can also allow advisers to function as a leverage point for change initiatives.

Relationship with the curriculum

Marc Lowenstein (2000, 2005), explains that academic advisers can help students to understand the logic of the curriculum. That is, advisers can and ought to help students understand why the curriculum is structured the way that it is, connecting curricular goals to the university's mission. Eric White (2015) argues that "within the context of academic advising the goals and mission of an institution can be communicated to students, the rationale and structure of the general education program can be interpreted, and students can have the opportunity to blend together all aspects of the curriculum into a meaningful experience". Lowenstein argues advisers can and should help students to make intellectual connections between courses through reflective conversations (and ideally, reflective writing). If university administrators question whether students are meeting learning goals, they can help to ensure that they are by working with advisers to empower (and resource) them to have these types of conversations.

Relationship with policy

Academic advisers help students to navigate the complexity of university policies and procedures and to understand their purposes. For example, how does academic probation work? How are students re-enrolled at the university after leaving? How are transfer students treated differently in policy than first time first year students? How do students get into competitive majors? Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of advising is that we see how policy decisions play out in the long term. One thing we know about complex social systems is that there can be very long delays in response to change. Advisers work closely with students and see the impacts of change first-hand, and they can and should inform policy decisions that affect students.
For example, slight changes in the policies regarding academic probation can have significant implications on the accumulation of student debt. I have personally worked with students who have nearly zero chance of graduating and yet are permitted to continue enrolling in courses due to loopholes in policies (e.g. allowing an unlimited number of physical education courses to count toward GPA). The percentage of students who do this is very small, but for those individuals, the impact can life changing, and the debt can be debilitating.

Relationships with students

Advisers have the ability to develop meaningful relationships with students in ways that are sometimes overlooked. By working closely with students to develop habits of mind that may lead to success (such as developing a growth mindset), advisers can help students to overcome adversity. Even the basic functions of advising, such as working with students to choose or change a major are an opportunity for advisers to help students develop the skills of thorough consideration and careful decision-making. Some of these decisions can be quite difficult and even deeply emotional. A student who began their studies with a passion for STEM may be stymied by math requirements and realize they do not enjoy studying science and math, and may need to consider other fields. Helping a student to navigate optimally these types of predicaments requires knowledge of several areas of psychology, critical theory, career development, curriculum, and policy. Advisers must integrate and apply the knowledge of these various domains using the right combination of soft skills required to meet the unique needs of a student's individual experience. These conversations can be the determining factor between a student dropping out of school or persisting toward graduation.

Systemic Challenges

About ten years ago, a high-level administrator who was trying to give me career advice asked, "Is that all you want to be? An adviser?" I know that this person was trying to be helpful, but this question revealed a deep misunderstanding and underestimation of the work that academic advisers do. The words of Richard Light (2001) rang through my mind loudly and clearly "Good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience." George Kuh (1997) similarly noted that "It is hard to imagine any academic support function that is more important to student success and institutional productivity than advising" (p. 11). I began to question, if advising is deemed important by higher education scholars, then why is academic advising so misunderstood in practice?

In an effort to find answers to that question, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree with the intention of researching academic advising. As I refined my research questions, I came to understand that systems theory would provide the tools I needed to answer them. I realized that the reason for the disconnect between the theoretical value placed on advisers, and the practice of devaluing their work is that there is an identity crisis, of sorts, surrounding the purposes of the work that academic advisers do. Through my research I learned that a primary tenet of systems thinking is that "Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals" (Meadows, 2008, p.14).

One of the major challenges in academic advising is a misperception of the work that advisers ought to do. In my research, I learned that the ways that non-advising staff talk with students about advising can greatly influence the types of conversations that occur in advising appointments. For example, if a given staff member speaks of advisers primarily in terms of course scheduling, and they make referrals to advising by saying things like "see your adviser, she'll tell you what to schedule", students may expect an advising appointment to take 5 minutes. Staff misperceptions may take hold in student minds and students may come to expect that advisers are employed to build their schedules for them, considering their personal preference, work schedule, and other factors that are not academic in nature. If advisers have large advising rosters and are pressed for time, they may feel pressure to "give the student what they want" rather than spending the time needed to engage in conversations that could result in deep, integrative learning.

A challenge with advising is that advising administrators often have very little positional power. When they are not at the proverbial table where decisions are made, the misperceptions of non-advising staff can contribute to and perpetuate misconceptions of academic advising, which can unintentionally undermine the work of advisers.

Another systemic challenge for academic advising is that advisers are often not supported or rewarded to engage in producing or even consuming scholarship. Advisers who write often do so on evenings and weekends in what essentially amounts to an unpaid part-time job. This dynamic results in a limited number of voices contributing to advising scholarship. One potential solution would be to create advising positions that have faculty rank, similar to librarians. This would be a way to support and reward research done by advising practitioners interested in engaging in such work.

Current national initiatives for change

This is an exciting time to be in the field of academic advising, as several national initiatives are underway. NACADA : The Global Community for Academic Advising, in partnership with John Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, has announced the Excellence in Academic Advising Initiative, which is "a national effort to help colleges and universities redesign academic advising." CIRTL Includes is also working to improve advising practices in STEM disciplines in particular. Efforts to improve advising are also happening in the United Kingdom through the United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring Group. In addition, ASCN has been supportive and interested in understanding the ways in which academic advising help to accelerate systemic change.

As demonstrated above, academic advising is deeply and integrated into the organizational structure of universities, and academic advisers have a unique skill set and knowledge base. Engaging the advising community in change efforts and the decision making process has a high potential for facilitating change effectively and efficiently. My hope is that this blog post will generate discussion about this topic so that higher education professionals seeking to promote change can explore these ideas. How might engaging the academic advising community at your campus be helpful in facilitating systemic change?


Kuh, G. D. (1997). The student learning agenda: Implications for academic advisors. NACADA Journal, 17(2), 7-12.

Light, R. J. (2001). The power of good advice for students. Chronicle of Higher Education, 47(25), B11-B12.

Lowenstein, M. (2005). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach?. NACADA Journal, 25(2), 65-73.

Lowenstein, M. (2000). Academic advising and the "logic" of the curriculum. The Mentor, 2(2).

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.

White, E. R. (2015). Academic advising in higher education: A place at the core. The Journal of General Education, 64(4), 263-277.

Suggested Citation:

Bridgen, S. (2017, November 29). Academic Advising: Leverage Point for Systemic Change Initiatives?. Retrieved from

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