Now more than ever, quality academic advising is lauded as essential to undergraduate student success. According to Hossler and Bean, “no student service is mentioned more often in research on student persistence than academic advising” (as cited in Brown, 2008, p. 309). Considering this, it is not surprising that many institutions purport to value the work of academic advisers. Unfortunately, few institutions actually formally recognize the achievements of these professionals. When they do, too many offer only trite or meaningless rewards. This lack of substantive recognition of excellence within the field does a great disservice to the professionals serving within it, as well as to the students they advise. This article will discuss how formal recognition of excellence can improve advising services and job satisfaction.
How Advisers Impact Students
Over the years, advising responsibilities have grown increasingly more complex and demanding. Jayne Drake, the past president of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) and the current vice dean for academic affairs at Temple University addressed the complexity of the advising role and the influence it wields on students, when she said “advisers teach students to negotiate the higher education maze, to make effective and thoughtful decisions about their futures, to adapt their life skills to the new academic world, and to cultivate the academic skills and knowledge needed to succeed” (2011, p. 11). Today’s advisers have moved beyond prescriptive advising that focuses on knowledge of degree plans and specific course content. While advisers are still meeting those needs, the focus has expanded to include developmental advising duties, such as providing students with encouragement or helping them develop their academic skills. Fox (2008) explains this shift in duties as follows:
So the expertise of today’s academic advisor has to include facilitation of information and not just possession of it. This means a likely change of role from a repository of data to an agent of facilitation. One who takes the data and makes them interesting, useful, and personalized for the student is the key to meaningful academic advising. (p. 352)
Further, efforts within the discipline to have it recognized as an independent field within education have meant an increase in other responsibilities meant to legitimize it, such as the publishing of scholarly research by practicing advisers and the creation of a culture of evidence by assessing advising effectiveness. The revolution of the academic adviser’s job description, intended to improve academic advising and in turn better serve students, has also meant a considerable increase in workload and responsibility.
Why reward excellence in academic advising?
Excellence in academic advising deserves recognition not only because the field has increasingly become more complex, but also because it is essential to the academic success of students. Peter R. Jones, senior vice provost for undergraduate studies at Temple University, expanded on the value of academic advising by explaining how it gives students a voice, explaining “academic advising essentially provided the conduit for students telling us, ‘These are the things that are stopping us from getting through in six years’ ” (Ensign, 2010, p. A15). Academic advisers, as the ears that listen to students and record their feedback, can help to foster change for the better at their institutions. Temple University leaders believed so strongly in the ability of academic advisers to help to improve graduation and retention rates that they doubled the university’s advising staff during a period of five years. The administrators at Temple University are not alone in their belief that academic advising can produce results like this. In a review of academic advising literature, Alexitch (2006) found that academic advising has been associated with increased student retention, greater student satisfaction with college, better academic performance, and students’ perception that a college education is important. Simply put, high-quality academic advising works. Recognizing the importance of advising via formal awards is a way for institutions to put their money where their mouths are. If they truly value higher retention and graduation rates, then they should demonstrate, with tangible rewards, an appreciation for those advising services that are so integral to higher student performance.
According to NACADA, however, there is little in the way of rewards or recognition currently attached to the successful delivery of academic advising. This is a mistake, because “good advising, like good teaching, or publication or research, needs to be recognized” (NACADA Executive Office, 2012a). Institutions laud their accomplished authors and principal investigators, and so too should they praise their high-achieving advisers. According to Thomas Kerr, “extrinsic rewards are important for both the individual adviser and the institution, because they make visible the importance of academic advising as an integral component of the infrastructure of the institution” (2001, p. 5). As an advocate and voice for the academic advising profession, NACADA recommends that institutions provide wider support and recognition for academic advising, because, ultimately, the outcome of such reinforcement will be improved advising services for students. Jayne Drake supports this notion, stating that such recognition “signals the value an institution places on advising services, and it helps to improve overall delivery of such services by motivating advisers to reach a higher level of performance” (2008, p. 396).
Types and frequencies of rewards for excellence
In 2007, a survey was distributed to nearly 9,000 NACADA members, asking them about current training and recognition practices in place for the advisers on their campuses; 1,969 advising professionals responded. When asked which rewards and recognition were most important to them, 74 percent said that support for professional activities, such as reimbursement for memberships to professional organizations or conference registrations, was very important; 56 percent cited merit pay as very important; and 45 percent felt a cash award was very important (Drake, 2008, p. 404). What they valued, however, was too often not what they received, as the same survey established that only 40 percent received support for professional activities, only 24 percent received merit pay, and only 20 percent received a cash award.
The same survey revealed the types of recognition that advising professionals find least important, which tended to be those forms of recognition carrying no monetary value, namely: certificates of appreciation, plaque, trophies, news releases, and preferential parking (p. 404).
While advising professionals may not always receive their preferred forms of recognition, recognition in general has increased with some frequency. In 2000, fewer than one in three campuses recognized or rewarded academic advising (Kerr, 2001, p. 5). Drake’s previously mentioned survey showed improvement in prevalence of recognition, however, with only 29 percent of professional academic advisers and 30 percent of faculty advisers surveyed reporting receiving no recognition (2008, p. 406). Similar results were found in a survey conducted by Donnelly in 2009, in which academic advisers were asked to respond to the survey question “my contributions are formally recognized;” 33 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement (p. 12).
What makes an academic adviser truly outstanding?
If excellence within the field of academic advising deserves recognition, how does one define excellence? Institutional criteria for identifying excellence in academic advising vary widely in both specificity and focus from institution to institution. Based on those divergent criteria, there is no one right way to define excellence. In an effort to overcome ambiguity and create a standard everyone can look to for inspiration, the criteria for the annual Outstanding Adviser Awards issued by NACADA will provide the definition of academic excellence in this article. NACADA created a list of criteria for its annual awards, which it uses to celebrate the work of advisers around the country who have been nominated by their peers. The criteria list serves as a starting point for nominators when considering how to qualify the excellence of their candidates for nomination. What follows is an excerpt from the awards guidelines web resource (NACADA Executive Office, 2012b):
The Selection Committee will evaluate nominations on the evidence of qualities and practices that distinguish the nominee as an outstanding academic adviser or faculty adviser. Such evidence may include:
- Strong interpersonal skills
- Availability to advisees, faculty, or staff
- Frequency of contact with advisees
- Appropriate referral activity
- Use and dissemination of appropriate information sources
- Evidence of student success rate, by adviser or department
- Caring, helpful attitude toward advisees, faculty, and staff
- Meeting advisees in informal settings
- Participation in and support of intrusive advising to build strong relationships with advisees
- Monitoring of student progress toward academic and career goals
- Mastery of institutional regulations, policies, and procedures
- Ability to engage in, promote, and support developmental advising
- Evidence of working in an academic advising program that supports NACADA's Core Values
- Evidence of working in an advising program that reflects the standards of good practice in the CAS Standards and Guidelines for Academic Advising
- Participation in and support of adviser development programs
- Perception by colleagues of nominee's advising skills
- Institutional recognition of nominee for outstanding advising
This lengthy list of qualities reflects the breadth and depth of academic advising. While it might be unrealistic to expect every adviser to embody all of these traits, it is not unreasonable for advising professionals to be inspired by this list and strive to master it.
Why standardize advising?
The criteria to earn recognition for excellence in the field of academic advising, specifically the NACADA criteria, should serve as the standard or best practices for the profession. Why do we need standards or best practices? According to the 2012 National Survey of Student Engagement, 39 percent of college seniors rated the quality of academic advising they received as “good” and 35 percent rated the quality as “excellent.” This means only 74 percent of students are receiving top quality advising services (The Trustees of Indiana University, 2012, p. 15). What is 74 percent? Well, if it were a grade assigned to the profession as a whole, it would be a C, and a C is just average. On the whole, professional advisers today are better than average. They care more and do more than these numbers reflect. If there are issues of quality, it is possible that the cause is not lack of effort but rather an absence of standards across the field to guide advisers in meeting students’ needs.
Ned Donnelly, in his 2004 research on the effect of standards use on Academic Adviser Job Satisfaction, found that most responses to his survey tool indicated adviser appreciation for the role of standards in contributing to job satisfaction. His work with a focus group netted similar results, with one participant stating:
Things that add to job satisfaction are achievement, recognition, challenge, responsibility, growth and development. Consider that (sic) standards that address these things and you will see the direct link! In contrast, job burnout is linked to high case loads, inadequate training, lack of tools to do the job, lack of positive feedback and recognition, lack of role clarity … see how the standards could help? (Donnelly, p. 38)
Role ambiguity can be a key cause of job dissatisfaction. When workers are unclear how to accomplish certain responsibilities or even who should accomplish them, they can quickly become frustrated. A way to address this is to provide them with proper direction, training, and resources (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012). Rewards criteria have the potential to be invaluable when reformatted as best practices, because they remove the ambiguity regarding job expectations and standards.
The many and varied efforts of academic advisers help to increase student retention and graduation rates. If institutions of higher education value improved student performance, they should demonstrate their support for excellence in the field with tangible and meaningful rewards. Rewarding excellence will motivate advisers to aim ever higher, will increase job satisfaction among professionals, and will make their work more visible. Using the criteria for the NACADA Outstanding Advisor Award not only can help institutions identify excellence among staff members, but also provide the profession with best practices that serve to inspire.