6 Things Executive Leaders Should Know about Attracting and Retaining Effective Academic Advisors

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It’s nothing new. While 2022 has brought what is being termed “The Great Resignation,” advising administrators have been struggling to attract and retain qualified, effective advisors long before the COVID pandemic and its budgetary and emotional challenges.

One of the most overused, under-applied mantras in higher education is, “students first.” It sounds great, but what are you doing to achieve it? I’ve seen countless schools proudly roll out a campaign with flashy signs, social media, and t-shirts. Let’s tell our students how much they mean to us and how we are committed to their success! But, during all of these transitions, I seldom see a real commitment to ongoing, sustained support for students. Programs and personnel seemingly change with the wind as a new, student-centric trend is established.

Academic advisors are central to the mission of supporting students and providing accurate, timely assistance to them. Advisors are among the first institutional personnel that students meet, as well as the last they encounter as students transition out of the institution. Yet, contrary to the often-stated mission of “students first,” advisors often receive inadequate pay, training, supervision, and recognition, which can lead to advisor ineffectiveness and/or outright departure. By treating advisors as the professionals they are, however, the institution can more successfully align their vision of “students first” with the personnel that will be able to execute it.

There are several strategies that can help to improve the quality of your academic advising program, thus enhancing the positive contributions advisors can make in supporting your students:

1. Hire Qualified Candidates

The profession of academic advising continues to grow and refine the nature and role of advisors as they pertain to student success. Some institutions recognize the professional nature of the work and require applicants to have a master’s degree at minimum, while many others only require a bachelor’s degree. Over the years, my stomach would knot as an executive administrator or colleague would excitedly exclaim, “I have a candidate who’d be perfect for your opening. She’s bright, bubbly, and will be graduating in May.” There is a common sentiment among executive leaders that to be an effective advisor, one first and foremost simply needs to be nice and have a pleasant personality. Let’s turn the tables for a minute. Would that same executive recommend a “nice” person for a faculty position simply because they are nice? Or are there other critical skills and competencies that one must possess to be an effective faculty member? Just as a faculty member needs to be competent in knowing and explaining their content to students, advisors must be knowledgeable about the plethora of diverse curricula, policies, procedures, and protocols that exist within the institution. They must also be adept at written and oral communication, problem-solving, analytical thinking, and time-management.

2. Pay Your Advisors

Advisors have been fighting for equitable pay for years. While institutions claim that student service is a priority, associated pay scales have not reflected those sentiments. When I was hiring advisors back in 2003, the starting salary for advisors was $31,000. Although, after close to 20 years, the standard starting salary has eked its way up to about $40,000, it is still a significant detractor in hiring and retaining qualified candidates, especially if a master’s degree is required.

3. Supervise, Support, and Advocate for Your Advisors

There are several ways to deliver advising, including centralized and decentralized models, faculty and professional advisors, and paraprofessional/peer advising. Advising may take place within a self-contained center or may be located within an academic unit. As a result, there is no one way to establish a reporting and supervision structure. However, when considering who supervises advising, consider the following questions:

  • Does the supervisor have training or education in the field of student development or a related area?
  • Does the supervisor fully understand the role and function of academic advisors?
  • Has the supervisor ever served as an advisor themselves?
  • What steps has the supervisor taken to learn the demands and nuances of comprehensive advising?

Think about it this way. I have a doctorate in education and over 35 years’ experience in higher education administration. I am smart. I am nice. I am effective. Would you hire me to chair the engineering department? No. I’d therefore ask that you use this same litmus test when considering the qualifications of an advising supervisor. Institutions that rely on academic department chairs, admissions, registrar, or career services to oversee advising are devaluing the importance of training and developing a team of professional, effective advisors, and should make sure to include professional development opportunities to advisors and administrators to close that knowledge gap.

4. Do Not Hold Advisors Solely Responsible for Student Retention

Institutions have been challenged with declining enrollments, and advisors are strongly expected to play a critical role in enrolling and retaining students. We are often the first (and sometimes only) ones to receive frantic emails and directives to “call your students and get them registered.” This usually occurs directly prior to the start of a semester—a time when advisors are already overwhelmed with incoming requests for assistance, appointments, and drop-ins. To add an outbound call campaign to their packed schedule feels like an unachievable task for advisors during a time of year when they are overloaded to begin with.

By proactively monitoring enrollment patterns, considering the cycles of advising traffic, and using additional institutional personnel, executive leadership can instead help to retain and motivate their advising staff while achieving the goal of increased enrollment.

5. Assign Projects Appropriately

It is a common practice for institutions to rely on advisors for any types of student-facing projects. Residence hall visits? Send the advisors. Career fair? The advisors can help. Phone and email outreach to students? Ask the advisors. Registration reminders? Definitely a task for advising. However, while advisors can play a positive role in these efforts, administrators should consider who else might be able to assist. A faculty member who asks an advisor to “run a list of my students” or to “reach out to a student” is, to put it bluntly, simply shifting responsibility and reducing the advisor’s role to that of clerical support. Instead, if a department requires assistance from advisors, they should be strategic in the timing and scope of the request. Advisors are extremely busy much of the academic year, with the busiest times preceding the beginning and end of each semester. During those times, it is not surprising to find an advisor working 12–15-hour days, responding to emails on weekends, and working hard to ensure that their students’ needs are met. To have to add a project that is not time-sensitive or that can be done by someone else can be extremely frustrating and demoralizing to advisors and can lead to their dissatisfaction and burnout.

6. Understand and Value Your Advisors

Institutions that do not engage, value, and pay a competitive salary to their academic advisors should expect to see a revolving door of advising personnel that will negatively impact service to students. The job is difficult, demanding, and intense, yet it is all too often not understood by higher and executive administration. Advisors who are overwhelmed and feel undervalued will either leave or burn out, resulting in a gap in service either way. Forgo the polos, slogans, and prizes to show your appreciation to advisors, as they are fleeting and superficial and can make advisors feel even more demoralized. Instead, demonstrate your tangible support, commitment, and understanding of advisors as follows:

  • Pay your advisors and let them know the efforts you are taking (if any) to secure increases.
  • Be mindful of advisors’ workloads and schedules when making requests for assistance or assigning projects.
  • Ask advisors their thoughts on student needs and challenges.
  • Include advising personnel in decision-making.
  • Keep advisors informed of upcoming academic and procedural changes.
  • Provide opportunities for promotion and increased responsibility.

In my roles as academic advisor, advising administrator, and higher-education consultant, I have found that most advisors I’ve encountered want to be advisors. They have a passion for working with students and helping them navigate the college experience. They don’t want to leave but may feel forced to do so due to emotional or financial needs. In the end, by strengthening the relationship you have with your advisors and helping them to feel that they are a valuable part of your organization, institutions can attract and retain competent professionals to support their students in the long term.