NACE Journal / August 2022
The role of today’s primary role academic adviser is robust and multifaceted. Advisers must continually provide supportive outreach and engagement to address student interests, develop academic plans, and identify career paths from the time students first enroll throughout their college experience, and oftentimes, well past graduation.
This article reviews the relevant literature to illuminate the current career-advising practices of primary role academic advisers as they work directly with students and how academic advising and career services can support, complement, and integrate to serve students.
Academic Advising, Career Services, and Career Advising
Attending college often comes with a high price tag, one parents and students may be unprepared for. College affordability was listed as one of the top 10 higher education state policy issues for 2016, but the American Association of State Colleges and Universities raised the level of importance in 2020, ranking college affordability in the top three higher education state policy issues.1, 2 Yet, time to degree also plays a large role in the amount of debt students and families accrue.3 Many institutions encourage timely degree completion as a response to student loan debt; this may place undue pressure on students to make decisions quickly. Therefore, it is critical for institutions making promises of gainful employment post-graduation to empower their student support personnel with the tools and resources necessary to ensure students make future academic and career decisions that will not only lead them to careers that are both fulfilling to the individual but will also lead to personal self-sufficiency.
Career services and academic advising are two support services in higher education that vary greatly in design, mission, and programmatic offerings. Academic advisers often provide some level of career-advising services, but the role of career advising within academic advising is often left unevaluated by both individual institutions and advising organization administrators due to inconsistent practices from department to department and from institution to institution.4 Academic advisers are not typically experts in career readiness, yet there are expectations that they are able to provide students with career support.
Academic advisers work in a field that does not have its own theory, and advising practices can vary greatly.5, 6, 7 This can then lead to ambiguity in understanding the career-advising skill set of the adviser. Although some advisers may provide a level of career advising, it is unknown if all do and to what extent services are being provided to students. The NACADA Academic Core Competencies Guide outlines various conceptual, informational, and relational components that academic advisers must understand.8 Included in these competencies is the expectation that advisers will have the knowledge base to know how to locate information and make proper referrals to address student needs. However, career-specific advising is not mentioned.
Additionally, what little career-advising literature exists focuses on the undeclared or undecided student and not those who have already declared. Knowing that many traditional-age college students are still developing career interests, the majority in this age group fall under the category of late adolescence as defined by Marcia’s identity formation concept.9 At this developmental stage, students may find it difficult to articulate career decisions. Career-advising guidance then becomes a critical, paired component to academic advising.10 Thus, learning more about career-advising services and available resources advisers provide to students, along with the referral process, will provide a better understanding where potential gaps in services may exist.
Academic advising and career services were originally created on college campuses to address a communication need with students.11 Although these departments originated at different times in higher education history and with very different missions, provided services overlap owing to a shared focus on career preparation and academic goal setting.12 This overlap is due partially to the economic role played by higher education. Prior to the 1980s, a high school diploma was sufficient to secure middle-class salaries; nearly three out of four employees possessed a high school diploma or less.13 Labor market demands have evolved to where a high school diploma without additional training is no longer sufficient to attain a middle-class lifestyle.
However, wheareas those with a college education will earn significantly more thann individuals with just a high school diploma, the difference in median earnings between lowest- and highest-paid academic programs at the bachelor’s degree level is also significant. Looking at career advising from a workforce perspective reflects a critical need to ensure students make decisions regarding their future career path with accurate information and careful planning.
Career services and academic advising departments have traditionally been housed under separate organizational umbrellas, with staff trained in either advising or career services, but not typically both.14 To further examine and understand these functional areas, we will review the relevant literature focusing on academic advising, career services, and career advising. Separating by discipline allows for further evaluation by historical context, roles and responsibilities, theory, and more.
Historical context: Advising was first acknowledged in 1841 when Kenyon College required students to select a faculty member as their adviser to help them with course selection, but it was not defined as a practice until 1958.15, 16 Following a prescriptive advising approach, focus was placed on course scheduling, which remained the norm until the late 1960s when psychosocial development theories were published by Erickson, Levinson, and Piaget.17 These progressed into student development theories, based on the developmental tasks necessary for students to complete as they move into adulthood.18 Chickering’s model, one of the most popular and prominent student development theories, provided the basis for the creation of developmental advising models, shifting the advising practices away from prescriptive course scheduling.19
As the profession continued to evolve and gain momentum, additional focus was placed on the need for formalization. In 1972, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education recommended that academic advising receive additional attention in higher education; in 1977, the first national academic advising conference was held, and one year after that—1978—a formal description was given to the profession of academic advising with primary role academic advisers.20 Previously, advising was considered the responsibility of academic faculty, but there was now delineation between the responsibilities of the faculty adviser for major-specific advising and primary role advisers’ focus on undeclared students or general advising responsibilities.
As the advising role continued to gain momentum in colleges nationwide, there was also an increase in the numbers of individuals serving in these roles. To further support the needs and continued growth of academic advisers, the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) was established in 1979 with a purpose “to promote the quality of Academic Advising in institutions of higher education, and to this end, it is dedicated to the support and professional growth of academic advising and advisers.”21 Serving as a national organization dedicated to academic advising in higher education, NACADA has greatly expanded over the years in terms of membership; research; resources; professional development opportunities; and annual, regional, and state conferences.
Roles and responsibilities of the academic adviser: The daily responsibilities of the primary role academic adviser in higher education are multifaceted. Although specific functions may vary from institution to institution, academic advisers generally serve as a principal form of support, one that escorts students through a personalized journey toward graduation and beyond.22 However, the role of the adviser goes well beyond as they must support students with identification and solidification of personal values and career goals, make referrals to other services on campus, analyze student data, review academic progress, and more.23
Despite its growth over the years, NACADA has been unable to provide a singular definition of the role of the adviser. Thomas J. Grites made an attempt in a 2013 article published in the NACADA Journal, stating “the developmental academic adviser gathers information to recognize where the student stands along the educational, career, and personal dimensions of her or his life, discusses where the student plans to be, and assists the student in getting to that point as readily as possible. This approach remains at the core of every theoretical and practical approach to academic advising.”24
To further understand advising functions, a 2015 survey conducted among academic advisers at two conferences focused on adviser-specific functions.25 The results reflected variability in the manner in which responsibilities were performed but provided a baseline definition: “Academic advising applies knowledge of the field to empower students and campus and community members to successfully navigate academic interactions related to higher education” and “provides a focal point for both the person advising and those interested in the work of advising.”26
Assessment of academic advising: The assessment of adviser practices and procedures is complex and varies greatly by institution. Although many institutions do not assess advising, the University of Missouri established the Adviser Quality Survey (AQS) and administered it to students and graduates of the university in 2011. The AQS assessed three specific areas of advising—the adviser’s knowledge, availability, and level of autonomy support. Adviser autonomy was found to have the highest predictor with global advising satisfaction, but autonomous support was associated with a greater quantity of time spent by the adviser with the student during meetings. Faculty advisers were rated higher by students when compared with primary role staff advisers; one possible explanation is that the degree of attention a student receives from the faculty adviser might have significant impact.27 The study found that advisers have an immediate impact on student success from the first year until graduation, which agreed with results from an earlier study based on student experience surveys.28
Lack of common functions: Without a common definition for adviser functions, there is limited clarity on the actual role of the academic adviser within higher education. Larson, Johnson, Aiken-Wisniewski, and Barkemeyer agree with Gordon and Habley concluded the lack of definition, function, and theory may be the result of inconsistent practices and lack of regular assessment due to differences in adviser roles between institutions and even within offices.29, 30 Larson, Johnson, Aiken-Wisniewski, and Barkemeyer have discussed that a generalized definition would be helpful to reflect a common voice with advising, but also noted that the role of an adviser is simply too complex to define. In fact, they further suggested that a generalized definition may lead to negative outcomes as institutions could potentially develop job descriptions that pull away from the actual intent of working directly with students by including activities outside of advising responsibilities.31
Advising approaches: There are multiple approaches to academic advising, ranging from prescriptive relationships mimicking that of a doctor and patient to a developmental relationship where adviser and student focus on developmental tasks resulting in a learning experience.32 Regardless of the process, Crookston describes this relationship as a learning community, one with developmental undertakings fostering personal growth and development taking place both inside and outside of the classroom. Additionally, this relationship serves as a contract between the student and adviser where the outcome is learning.33
Various developmental theories help provide understanding and explanation of student behavior and provide a framework for advisers to use when working directly with students.34 While no individual theory fully describes academic advising, various theorists have laid the groundwork with a helpful set of tools for advisers to apply; as these theories change and advance over time, many overlap with blurred lines or contradictions.35 Developmental theories of Chickering and Reisser, Erikson, Kohlberg, Perry, Piaget, and others have laid the groundwork for further understanding student behavior. However, as there is no one theory that fully explains academic advising, there is also no one theory that explains human behavior, so advisers must apply the most suitable theory when working with students.36
Perhaps the most comprehensive model found that describes academic adviser function is by Terry O’Banion, who suggested the purpose of academic advising is to assist students with selecting an academic program to meet both vocational and personal goals.37 This advising model employs a system-wide, team approach to focus on five, interdependent steps, reflecting an expanded role of advising that moves well past course selection to assist the student with personal and career goals.38 This model also puts the student in the driver’s seat as the decision-maker and stresses the need for students to thoroughly experience all five steps. Finally, it provides a flexible framework for advisers to follow and create a sense of consistency while allowing for independent approaches.
However, it should be noted that both Cookston and O’Banion’s models of advising are not without criticism. Rooney, for example, notes that both models were developed were created more than 30 years ago when the student body reflected mostly white males of traditional age, but today’s college students are much more diverse with regard to gender, ethnicity, race, physical ability, academic ability, and economic background.39
In fact, O’Banion’s model was revised in 2012 to better reflect the needs of today’s students, allowing, for example, for the steps to be applied out of sequence based on student needs. In addition, the model includes the competencies an adviser should have with each of these steps. A realistic model, O’Banion outlines what should be the ideal model but also shares the practicalities and limitations within advising. Finally, his revised model focuses on a team-oriented, university-wide approach, where other departments share in the advising process. This includes the need for career services to be an active participant in the advising role.
Career Services in Higher Education
Historical context: Much like academic advising, career services in higher education has also morphed in design and evolved with functions and services over time. Starting in the early 1900s, career services were first referred to as vocation bureaus, assisting new immigrants to the United States with finding employment.40 “Vocational guidance” was the original term used to define the career services role; the terms career counseling and career development became more common in the 1950s, but it was not until 1984 when the National Vocational Guidance Association changed its name to the National Career Development Association to better reflect current trends.41
Dey and Cruzvergara reflected how the 1920s era found a shortage of teachers, leading to an active movement to recruit teachers through vocational guidance; later, the creation of GI Bill saw additional veterans on college campuses needing to find employment upon graduation, which led to the creation of job placement centers on college campuses. They also noted how the early 1970s and 1980s saw the first career planning and counseling centers established on college campuses.42
While trends in societal hiring practices reflect the services provided in higher education career centers, the historical focus has remained specifically on career preparation skills and placement. Dey and Cruzvergara further this thinking by noting how the 2008 economic depression shook previous trends in higher education with society questioning the value of a college degree. Once again, economic pressures outside of higher education led to an evolution where higher education career centers refocused transactional career preparation services as students neared graduation to one of a customized model throughout the student’s educational career. Although career preparation traditional services remained at the forefront, higher education career services refocused on student and employer connections. Previously, career services focused on students nearing graduation, and this shift in thinking brought career planning and development services to the student from entrance, through the entire college experience. Through mentoring programs, networking experiences, and other avenues, the goal became to help students develop lifelong career decision-making skills.43
Marketization of career services in higher education: Today, higher education leaders are taking renewed interest in career services. While it may be argued the marketization of career services in higher education is not a new trend, but a continued evolution of higher education, the expectations of direct placement into sustainable employment upon graduation has added pressure for career services departments.44
To remain competitive, institutions must respond through admissions, recruitment, marketing, and enticement by showcasing a connection from education to employment, as there is growing concern by students and parents alike as they want specific details on the financial return on their investment of a higher education degree in the form of gainful employment.45 States such as Minnesota, Louisiana, and Florida have responded to this by employing performance-based funding models with specific focus on career placement results. Other states now require career planning and preparation as a part of the student experience prior to graduation.46
This commercialized approach has been explained as a need to supplement dwindling federal and state funding by boosting enrollment numbers through creative approaches to recruitment.47 This evolution of higher education marketization views students as consumers and the institution as the vendor. Institutions must then continually seek out new, innovative methods to outshine each other and increase student enrollment.48 Changes in access to technology has also changed the relationship between students, the institution itself, and career services. Rather than providing generalized, transactional career information, such as jobs listings, workshops, and job fairs, career offices now provide a variety of services tailored to the individual student’s needs and interest, e.g., individual career counseling, mock interviewing, and coordinating informational interviews between the student and employer.49
Roles and responsibilities of career services professionals: The daily responsibilities of the career services professional in higher education can also vary greatly in both scope and function. Duties differ from institution to institution and may include working directly with employers, hosting career-related events, or creating employer connections. Whereas the role of the career services professional may include some direction on academic programming to help the student make career-based decisions, academic advising is typically left to the academic adviser. Career services professionals work directly with students to provide career-readiness development through a wide range of services and activities, such career assessment, individual career counseling or coaching, workshops, on-campus interview, job postings, resume referrals, and more, and assess and evaluate their services through post-graduation surveys and other measures.50, 51
Career Advising as a Practice
Today, career services and academic advising are two specific organizations found in most higher education institutions. Both have mature histories and have evolved in offerings and scope over time, yet many institutions do not link these services together; they are often left to work in silos. A lack of partnership between academic advising and career services may result in a potential gap in services, with students ultimately paying the price. Reardon and Bullock explain the differences between academic advising and career counseling: Whereas academic advising has a more specific student focus on life and future career decision making as it relates to academic and social activities, career counseling has a wider focus and extends well beyond the walls of higher education.52
Career services and academic advising employ individual approaches to assist students with making academic and career decisions to align with personal interests and goals. Reardon and Bullock suggest academic advisers and career centers develop a common, career-based terminology to use with students.53 Gordon and Habley have pointed out that academic advisers may be uncomfortable with the use of career theory and may not feel they have the expertise to engage students with career assessment instruments.54 Rather than directly assist, they may choose to refer students to career services to work with career professionals.
Career theory applied to academic advising: The use of career theory can be helpful to academic advisers by providing a career-specific framework to use with students. John Holland’s theory provides a categorization of six different codes: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional (RIASEC).55
Using a career-based assessment, such as the Self-Directed Search, which follows Holland’s theory of vocational choice, allows students the freedom of being completed, scored, and interpreted by the student. Although this can be empowering to the student, academic advisers can also discuss the results with students. In their 2014 study on the effectiveness of the Self-Directed Search (SDS) instrument, Behrens and Nauta suggest that facilitators administering the SDS should provide additional support to increase exploration of career titles with regards to making sound career decisions.56
John Holland’s RIASEC theory is specifically reviewed by Reardon and Bullock for its practical application to both career counseling and academic advising. The Self-Directed Search: Internet Versionwas used along with the Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes. Reardon and Bullock make note of how self-help instruments are designed to be used by individuals with a high degree of motivation to make career decisions. This may be very helpful with students currently undecided but ready to make a decision. The results of their review indicated that undecided students tend to have higher levels of negative career thinking, which tends to result in difficulty with choosing a major. The students in this study were also considered high risk as they reported negative thinking with perseverance in college. Reardon and Bullock suggest advisers provide interventions on negative career thoughts by providing positive feedback and encouragement to the student.57 Bullock-Yowell, McConnell, and Schedin noted this can be done by showing the student ways to make good career choices through taking steps to select a plan of action.58 Career planning courses and career assessment offerings may also provide a way to address negative career thoughts.
Results their study also suggest that although undecided students often struggle with general decision-making difficulties, they are not more or less ready or motivated to make career decisions.59 Two reported types of obstacles to decision making tend to include a lack of information and inconsistent information. Academic advisers can assist with this by sharing accurate career and academic information on a regular basis.
Although having some knowledge of career information is necessary, advisers must also understand current career trends and how these trends may impact the decisions college students make with academic and career decisions, and socially, which will influence their future aspirations.60 Additionally, advisers can help to promote career development courses, make referrals to career services professionals, and promote career-related events.
To further the need for academic advisers and career services professionals to work together through referrals and joint collaborations, a 2015 study aimed to better understand the experiences students have in initially choosing an academic major.61 The College Major Satisfaction Model, which highlights the satisfaction study participants developed with their majors, was created as a result of these experiences. The study found that, regardless of their initial choice, participants grew either more satisfied or more dissatisfied with their choice. However, having various opportunities to interact with others or spend time within their major helped to them better understand themselves and their career interests. The results also focus on academic advising and ways that advisers can help facilitate this process by encouraging students to explore career options and interests. A final suggestion for advisers is understanding that the adviser is one part of this process and should work in tandem with other support services. This can include career courses with both academic adviser and career services professional as co-teachers. Continued encouragement to explore interests and referral to others is also helpful. Collaboration of services is an important feature of career advising. While co-teaching career development courses and providing career assessment instruments is all incredibly valuable, it is also important to understand the process for how and when students typically make career decisions.
Career decision theoretical framework: Reardon and Bullock note that career assessment tends to work better with students who are ready to make career decisions, but it is important to understand how traditional-age college students tend to make career decisions.62 A 2010 study reviewed developmental changes in the identity status of adolescents and young adults and used Marcia’s identity formation concept to better understand four styles of identity: diffusion (no sense of choices or commitment), foreclosure (willingness to commit to some goal), moratorium (in crisis but exploring choices without making a commitment), and achievement (commitment to a sense of identity).63, 64
The study found that ongoing identity development is expected well past the period of adolescence. Since traditional-age college students tend to fall into the category of late adolescence and young adulthood, career guidance becomes a critical component to the student’s career decision-making process and ongoing success. As it applies to career advising, this theory provides an opportunity for career professionals and academic advisers to better understand how students are able and willing to explore and make career path decisions. Although Marcia’s identity formation concept is helpful to understanding how traditional undergraduate students may make their career decisions, there are also students who may fall into different categories with regards to choices.65 They may have difficulty articulating one academic area or they may have trouble narrowing down numerous interests. Either way, the decision-making process can be very difficult with too few or too many options.
Bloom, Tripp, and Shaffer employed Bloom’s Scanner Self Inventoryas they worked with students identified as “scanners”—students who experience extreme difficulty limiting their interests and career paths.66, 67 Scanners tend to have commonalities with high-achieving students due to being gifted in multiple areas. Since they have experienced success and encouragement in multiple academic areas, they are often reluctant to discard interests to focus on one career path.68 Academic advisers and career professionals may find these students experiencing anxiety or loss when attempting to focus on career decision making and may present similar behaviors as students who are truly undecided.
Using the results of the inventory, Bloom, Tripp, and Shaffer found that academic advisers could better understand the needs of their students who may appear to be undecided. Scanners, much like undecided students, may benefit from additional exploration of career paths and academic majors. Career professionals may also use the inventory results to choose additional career assessments that complement the needs of a scanner student. Thus, understanding these different types of student populations may be helpful for both academic advisers and career services professionals as they provide services that meet the needs of such a variety of students.
Integration of Academic Advising and Career Services
As academic advisers are continually charged with additional non-advising responsibilities, they are also increasingly pressured to move students to graduation in a timely manner. With many institutions pushing time to degree and student loan debt mounting, students may feel pressured to make major decisions quickly. In the past, advisers focused on a prescriptive approach of mostly course selection, but today’s advisers are using student development theories to address many student needs.69 Following this viewpoint, if career services and academic advising can collaborate through referrals, programming, and defined roles with individual practices, career advising can be impactful to addressing student career concerns and academic advising issues. On a larger scale, a partnership may assist with communication between offices but also assist with promoting time to degree while also addressing student career-based questions and concerns.
In fact, career advising requires the student to seek out the answers to relevant questions, such as “Where should I seek an internship?,” “What activities on campus fit my goal?,” and “What is a typical alumni career path?”70 It may be difficult for the student to ask such questions, especially if parents have specific views on career paths, leaving the student afraid to question their path.71
Regardless of how or why the student begins to ask career questions, the adviser must be well informed to assist. Additionally, the adviser must have the ability and authority to contact alumni and other industry specialists currently working in occupations. This may include using alumni services offices within an institution as a resource. Thus, through combining services, communicating with both career services along with others outside the institution, sharing information and providing referrals, both career services and academic advising can collaborate to work in tandem and provide both skill development along with career planning for a meaningful student experience.
Defining Career Advising
Career advising has become a buzzword in higher education advising literature, but research is limited and more is needed to better understand what appears to be two unique—and often separated—disciplines. While both career services and academic advising histories are well documented and ample literature is available on the individual fields, the limited literature that currently exists specifically on the blend of career advising tends to focus on the undecided or exploratory student population. However, approximately 80% of all students studying in the United States will change academic programs at least once, with an average of changing majors at least three times during their college years.72 Thus, there is a need to define the career-advising field from the primary role academic adviser’s viewpoint and better understand career-advising procedures and practices for all students.
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