Student Success Insights Blog

The evolution of academic advising—and what comes next

by Lindsay Miars

Watching Ed Venit dig into the evolution of student success like a higher education paleontologist last year, I knew academic advising would emerge as a key part of that evolution. According to Venit’s study, in the 1990s professional advisors emerged as critical frontline players in student support, and their role expanded in scope across the subsequent two decades.

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While compelling and instructive, I quickly realized this tour of the history of student success really only scratches the surface when it comes to advising. The evolution of academic advising as a profession is a larger (and longer!) story that deserves to be told.

Telling this story can help today’s advisors better understand how history has shaped their profession, and how it will affect innovation in the coming years.

400 years of advising history, in 400 words

Hilleary Himes and Janet Schulenberg explore the history of advising in the first chapter of Beyond Foundations: Developing as a Master Academic Advisor, edited by Thomas Grites, Marsha Miller, and Julie Givans Voller.

This latest publication from NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising is intended to serve as a handbook for those who have “mastered the basics of the field” and are ready to contribute to the development of advising practice and scholarship. Beyond Foundations covers various aspects of advising theory and practice—but as with any good story, it starts at the beginning. Himes and Schulenberg outline four eras of advising going back to the dawn of American higher education in 1620. Here is a quick tour:

1. The first era (1620 to 1870): Academic advising goes unrecognized

It took a while for the idea of advising to catch on. Prior to the American Revolution, relationships between students and professors were strictly formal and hierarchical. Students would only have direct contact with faculty for disciplinary reasons. The first advisors emerged in the mid-1800s, though they were more akin to tutors and often recent graduates.

2. The second era (1870 to 1970): Academic advising remains unexamined

Across this second era, more institutions established advising roles, usually filled by faculty, in response to curricular expansion and the emergence of undergraduate majors. As early as 1889, many felt that advisors were spending too much time on course and major selection and not enough time building relationships—a complaint that has persisted for 130 years. With the dawn of retention theory in the 1960s and 1970s, new structures for advising emerged, driven by a holistic focus on the student. Other challenges arose that still affect advising today—faculty disengagement and fear of coddling among them—and there was vast inconsistency across advising programs.

3. The third era (1970 to 2003): Academic advising is (slowly) examined

Enrollment in higher education increased dramatically during the 1960s to 1980s, as did attrition, which led to the continued expansion of academic advising. Familiar terms like “professional advising,” “developmental advising,” and “advising as teaching” cropped up during a new phase of scholarship that included the formation of NACADA in 1979. The rise of dedicated advisors meant more visibility and assessment, though the profession continued to be largely undervalued and underfunded.

4. The fourth era (2003 to present): The role of academic advising is actively examined

Since 2000, advising has gained significant visibility as a critical component of student success. This era brought more clarity to advising’s purpose, practice, and value. In 2003, NACADA formally defined academic advising and laid out three components of practice: Curriculum, pedagogy, and student learning outcomes. The NACADA Certification Task Force subsequently created five academic advisor competency areas and released a new Core Competencies Model in 2017.

A fifth era: Connecting theory to practice (and to technology)

“Arguably the greatest challenge facing the advising profession today is connecting theory to practice in a meaningful way.”

Across its multi-century history, thanks in large part to NACADA, advising theories and philosophies have become well established. Arguably the greatest challenge facing the advising profession today, according to Himes and Schulenberg, is connecting theory to practice in a meaningful way.

The connection between various advising theories and the day-to-day practice of individual advisors remains weak in many areas. Working with advisors, I encounter this disconnect frequently. Here are just a few examples:

  • An advisor subscribes to Developmental Advising but struggles to navigate challenging conversations with students in trouble.
  • An advisor prefers an Intrusive Advising Approach but does not have the skills or tools to manage proactive outreach in a scalable way.
  • An advisor has a robust personal philosophy of advising but does not have adequate time to build relationships with students amidst numerous other responsibilities.

In my research, I’ve found that technology can begin to bridge this gap. As advisors gain increasing access to systems for managing student success like EAB’s Campus, they can free up capacity with better caseload management, use data to inform targeted outreach, and elevate conversations with students. EAB has hosted a series of webconferences to help advisors adopt technology-enabled practices in ways that align with their chosen advising approach.

Gearing our research agenda to the challenge ahead

Looking to the future, the rate of change in higher education is set to accelerate, which will demand major innovations in advising and place the profession more firmly in the spotlight.

In a Q&A with Inside Higher Ed, Thomas Grites, one of the editors of Beyond Foundations, said “we foresee new technologies, new federal and state legislation, new modes of instruction, new ways to earn credit, new curricula, [and] new research that will affect the practice of academic advising. Further, most institutional success plans designate academic advising as the primary effort that will facilitate these successes.”

Similarly, Venit characterized the 2010s as an era of rapid change, with “advising offices transforming into student success offices.”

To realize the vision of the “student success office of the future,” many institutions will need to fundamentally change their structure and attitude toward advising. We are seeing progressive institutions explore new advising models, increasingly specialized roles for advisors, and new methods of advisor evaluation and promotion. Working with members to shape best practices that will guide evolution in these areas is a major focus of my research in 2017, which I hope will contribute to the next era of advising history.

How does your advising program stack up?

Explore the Advising Program Diagnostic One-Pager to assess how well your institution supports advising practice and growth.

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