Comparing Undergraduate Satisfaction with Faculty and Professional Advisers: A Multi-Method Approach

Faye L. Allard, Union County College
Sangeeta Parashar, Montclair State University

Abstract

Given that “the quality of academic advising is the single most powerful predictor of satisfaction with the campus environment,” it is disturbing to note that college students rank advising so unfavorably (Carey, 2008, p.12). Using a mixed-method approach (survey data followed by focus group interviews), this article addresses an important paradox: While student satisfaction with faculty advising is very polarized, tending to rate this kind of interaction very favorably or very poorly, students’ experience with professional advisers is less variable, receiving neither very high or very low satisfaction ratings. This article argues that these results stem from a disconnect between students’ expectations of advisers compared to what advisers assume is expected from them, and importantly, what they can realistically deliver. We conclude with a discussion about policy implications and suggestions.

Introduction

Academic advising is the “only structured activity on the college campus in which all students have the opportunity for one-on-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution” (Habley, 2004, p. 5). Engaged advisers can lead to greater student persistence toward degree completion and can help them achieve their professional goals, thereby supporting campus retention efforts and institutional financial viability, which is particularly necessary during times of economic uncertainty (Steingass & Sykes, 2008; Mastrodicasa, 2001). An often-discussed topic in the field is whether faculty advisers or professional advisers (in advising centers) are more effective in delivering effective academic advising. Using a mixed-methods approach, this paper contributes to the discussion by exploring an important paradox observed in the data: Student satisfaction with faculty advisers tends to be very polarized, i.e., rated very high or very low, with not much middle ground. On the other hand, professional advisers tend to receive ratings that do not reach the highest levels of those faculty with whom students are satisfied, but conversely also do not receive the highest levels of dissatisfaction either. We speculated that this result emerges from a disconnect between students’ perceptions and expectations of both sets of advisers compared to what advisers assume is expected of them, and importantly, what they can realistically deliver. Indeed, while results such as these are often used to strengthen the case for greater professionalization, we argue that despite opinions to the contrary, faculty advisers play a critical role in student development that professional advisers may not be able to fill.

Literature Review: The Advising Dilemma

Close student-adviser interactions can “increase the intrinsic value that students place on learning … help with adjustment to the university, with academic difficulties, and with decisions concerning academic programs and careers,” especially in the early stages of their college experience (Alexitch, 2002, p. 5). In the past several decades, academic advising models and their agents have expanded from a faculty-only system and/or prescriptive advising to decentralized, split, or satellite models (that use a combination of both faculty and full-time professional advisers) and an emphasis on a developmental approach (Habley & Morales, 1998).  On one hand, this reflects a paradigmatic shift in the definition of advising from a sporadic course-selection-and-scheduling meeting to a continuous and complex process deemed essential for students to achieve their “learning, developmental, career, and life goals” (Creamer & Creamer, 1994, p. 19). On the other hand, the rapid professionalization and specialization is a structural response to the increasing size and diversification of the student body due to the GI Bill of Rights, Morrill Acts, inclusion of women, and other policies (Allen & Smith, 2008).

With the merger of the curricular and non-curricular aspects of university education, there is a growing discussion about who serves student needs better, faculty or professional advisers. At the crux of the issue lies the need to balance specialization and consistency, a specialist or a generalist approach. Should faculty roles be reduced to cognitive rather than affective development because their multiple (teaching and research) responsibilities and disciplinary training may impede them from providing effective advising? While they account for approximately 75 to 90 percent of academic advising in American colleges and universities, they, ironically, are not formally trained for it (Habley, 2003, 2004). Additionally, the majority are not compensated, rewarded, or recognized for this work—often viewed as demanding in terms of time and effort—through promotion, tenure, and/or salary considerations (Allen & Smith, 2008; Dillon & Fisher, 2000). Or are students better advised by professionals who are specifically hired for this purpose and may be more focused, accessible, proactive, and knowledgeable about programs and career developmental issues (Lynch, 2004; King, 1988)?

While both sets of advisers have their advantages and disadvantages, the evidence about which one is more effective is mixed. In fact, in a seminal large-scale study, Habley (1994) found little variation between student ratings of both; and, surprisingly, despite the frequent allegation that faculty are uncommitted to student advising, they were rated slightly higher on thirty-one of thirty-six survey items (Lynch, 2004). Importantly, divergent trends observed in subsequent surveys contradict expectations about student satisfaction with various advisers. Notwithstanding these findings, educational institutions have moved toward greater professionalization and mixed delivery systems. Indeed, between 1979 and 2003, the percent of college campuses across the United States with advising centers dealing with general-education advising and recordkeeping increased from 14 to 73 percent (Habley, 2004).

Yet surprisingly and ironically, advising still ranks among the lowest areas of satisfaction for college students (Carey, 2008, p. 12; Keup & Stolzenberg, 2004). Perhaps reflective of this problem is a disconnect between students’ expectations of both categories of advisers, how they perceive the institutional and disciplinary-specific position occupied by them, and their desire to build personal relationships beyond prescriptive ones (Vowell, 1995). King (1988) suggested that relative to professional advisers, students feel faculty advisers regard advising as a relatively low priority and, hence, are less helpful with personal and career-development issues. However, several studies have documented a polarization in student ratings that reflect two very common situations: Diligent faculty who advise to the exclusion of other duties and responsibilities and faculty who neglect their advisees (Lynch, 2004). Indeed “the extent to which the advisor-advisee relationship moves beyond [a] prescriptive model is no doubt a function of the specific dyad” (Lynch, 2004). Additionally, irrespective of the advising approach and delivery method, relational variables and satisfaction depends more on the adviser’s interpersonal skills and style, which require time, effort, and commitment (Mottarella, Fritzsche, & Cerabino, 2004). Moreover, a recent study (Allard & Parashar, 2012) indicated that even though some students believe in a “conspiracy theory”—perceived delays in graduation brought about by an administration’s deliberately poor academic advising in order to profit from hapless students—very rarely were their frustrations directed toward faculty. Rather, they believed the university as a whole did not provide adequate faculty training or resources or placed demands on faculty’s time, thereby preventing them from providing effective advising. When faced with negligent faculty and an overburdened, seemingly unsupportive advising system, students tend to create informal networks as an academic survival strategy and relying on unassigned faculty members with whom they have built a rapport, rather than professional advisers (Allard & Parashar, 2012).

Data and Methodology

This research study, conducted in a mid-sized university of approximately 15,000 students in northeast United States, utilized a multi-method two-phased approach. During the first phase, all undergraduates were emailed a link to an online questionnaire with seven closed and five open-ended questions focusing on satisfaction with the various advising resources offered at this institution. In total, 3,331 students responded, indicating a response rate of 25.5 percent. Of these respondents, 2,923 had received advising (respondent characteristics included in Table 1). The survey data were then used to make broad generalizations about academic advising and to generate a sample of 103 students from diverse academic classes, colleges, and GPAs. These students took part in a second qualitative phase—eight different one-hour focus groups composed of eight to eighteen students. Efforts were made to ensure that gender and racial/ethnic groups were fairly represented. In terms of analytic strategy, we presented descriptive statistics highlighting student satisfaction with various advising resources utilized during the previous year. Findings from focus groups validated the observed survey results as well as highlighted and/or confirmed unexpected outcomes.

Table 1: Characteristics of Respondents Who Used Advising
Variable Number Percent
Academic Standing
Senior 1150 39.3%
Junior 854 29.2%
Sophomore 492 16.8%
First Year Student 427 14.6%
Grade Point Average
Less than 2.5 334 11.4%
2.5 – 2.99 599 20.5%
3 – 3.49 972 33.3%
Greater than 3.5 1,018 34.8%
Gender
Female 2,013 68.9%
Male 910 31.1%
Race/Ethnicity
White 1,477 50.5%
Black/African-American 275 9.4%
Hispanic 602 20.6%
Asian 195 6.7%
Other/Unknown 374 12.8%
Attendance Status
Full time 2,473 84.6%
Part time 450 15.4%
2,923 100%

Results: A Multi-Method Approach

The advising model where this research occurred splits responsibilities among various advisers and changes as students move through the institution. The responsibilities shift from generalized professional center-based advising for undeclared first-year students and sophomores to departmental faculty advising for students in declared majors. In addition to meeting with faculty or general professional advisers, specific sub-populations also meet with specialized professional advisers for Equal Opportunity Fund (EOF), health, honors, or athletics programs, all of whom are members of organizations such as the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A) and the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) and provide a full range of advising services to these populations.

Survey results indicated approximately 88 percent of students (n = 2,923) who participated in the university’s survey contacted someone for advising during their college career. Eight-seven percent felt the advising was important in helping them achieve their academic goals. Students then evaluated their experiences with all the resources they had utilized during the previous year, ranging from formal experiences, including faculty and professional advisers, to informal resources, such as unassigned faculty members, administrative staff, and peers. Of the respondents who used the formal advising system (n = 2,084), 61.2 percent reported meeting with faculty advisers only, 20.4 percent met with professional and/or specialized professional program advisers only (11.9 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively), and 18.4 percent approached a combination of both faculty and professional advisers. The rest (n = 829) reported using informal/other advising channels. In general, 61 percent were satisfied with the university-provided resources, but a sizable minority (15 percent) was dissatisfied, which may partly explain the use of multiple (formal and informal) advisers.

As Table 2 indicates, student satisfaction with faculty advising at the university was polarized, while student satisfaction rates for professional advisers in the advising center were more neutral.

Table 2: Summary Statistics and Distribution of Student Satisfaction by Academic Advising Resource
Type of Academic Advising Resource Mean Standard Deviation Very Satisfied Satisfied Neutral Dissatisfied Very Dissatisfied
Faculty Advisers 0.70 1.25 32.0% 32.2% 18.6% 8.0% 9.1%
Professional Advisers (Advising Center) 0.74 1.10 28.8% 33.4% 26.9% 5.2% 5.7%
Specialized Professional Program Advisers
EOF Advisers 0.71 1.01 29.1% 21.6% 43.7% 2.7% 3.0%
Health Program Advisers 0.51 0.94 20.3% 19.9% 53.7% 3.2% 2.8%
Honors Program Advisers 0.53 0.91 20.1% 19.3% 56.2% 2.2% 2.2%
Athletics Advisers 0.54 0.97 21.9% 19.9% 52.0% 3.1% 3.1%
Unassigned Faculty Members 1.10 0.95 39.2% 39.8% 14.9% 3.6% 2.5%

“Satisfaction with Advising Resource” coded as: 2 = Very Satisfied, 1 = Satisfied, 0 = Neutral, -1 = Dissatisfied, -2 = Very Dissatisfied
Higher mean values indicates greater satisfaction

To explicate, although both categories reflected somewhat similar means in satisfaction ratings (professional advisers were 0.04 points higher), faculty advisers had a much larger standard deviation, implying greater variability in student ratings than professional advisers received. At first glance, this data support the case for greater professionalization, but further disaggregation of the data revealed an interesting story. While there were small differences in the percentages of students satisfied with the quality of advising received from faculty (32.3 percent) and professional advisers at the advising center (33.4 percent), responses for very satisfied and verydissatisfied varied significantly. Thirty-two percent were very satisfied and 9.1 percent very dissatisfied with faculty advisers compared to 27.8 percent and 5.7 percent respectively for professional advisers. Moreover, compared to faculty (18.6 percent), a higher percent of students were neutral with professional (26.9 percent) as well as specialized professional advisers such as those in the health career (53.7 percent), honors (56.2 percent), and athletics (52.0 percent) programs. Indeed, mean satisfaction scores and standard deviations for the latter groups in general were the lowest among all adviser types. Contrary to King’s speculation (1988), these results indicate that while faculty are generally criticized because some neglect their advisory role for various reasons, those committed to this service perform extremely well but remain unrecognized.

Focus-group data indicated these divergent patterns of satisfaction ratings partially stemmed from students’ expectations of both sets of advisers, how they perceive the institutional and disciplinary-specific position occupied by them, and importantly, their desire to build personal relationships beyond prescriptive ones. Contrary to common perception, both adviser categories often demonstrated a relative lack of availability that frustrated students. However, faculty advisers’ lack of administrative support in setting up appointments and recordkeeping, which professional advisers did not face at this particular university, was perceived as a lack of commitment and acted as a further stressor:

“[Faculty] advisers should in all cases respond to phone calls and emails. … It’s extremely frustrating for the students to be disregarded and have our questions and concerns deemed unimportant.”

“I did try to reach out to my major adviser… but had no response, and so didn’t pursue getting a meeting. I also reached out to my adviser [at the advising center] at the same time. They did get back to me and we arranged a useful meeting.”

“I was very satisfied with the advising [at the advising center], but dissatisfied with the availability of the advisers.”

When students did manage to meet their advisers, several were predictably frustrated by the generalist-specialist division that was over-exaggerated by a cumbersome bureaucracy separating assigned tasks across various offices with little interaction and adjustment in roles. Students’ comments included:

“I feel that the academic adviser at the [advising] center is not aware of the requirements for my major, my adviser for my major is not aware of the requirements for education, and the education adviser is not aware of the requirements needed for my major. It would be very helpful if everyone were on the same page. The necessity to see two or three different individuals and get three different answers is very frustrating. I feel I get more information from asking other students than from the advisers.”

“My assigned [faculty] academic adviser is non-responsive to emails and phone calls. He is not available during office hours. Additionally, calling the [advising] center results in frustration, because they direct you to contact your assigned advisor …. This causes a situation where I need to rely on other sources for my academic advising needs.”

Students seemed to understand that this was the nature of a mixed or split system but sometimes felt they were let down because neither faculty nor professional advisers appeared to know where to point them when they could not answer questions outside their field of expertise.

However, students’ greatest “horror stories” (partially reflected in the high level of “very dissatisfied” survey results) at this university recounted faculty advisers’ lack of information about advising resources and general education requirements that could set back their graduation clock:

“When I visited my assigned adviser, I had more knowledge of what I needed to accomplish than he did. He had no clue we even offered American Sign Language courses, nor did he know that it would cover my language requirements. Also I was never made aware of the multicultural awareness courses in which all students are required to partake. Also, when asking my adviser if it would be possible for me to double major… he had no clue, nor did he have an answer to who he could send me to. Also when asking him about transferring credits, he was unhelpful.”

Even for those who hadn’t received inaccurate advice, simply the anticipation of getting incorrect information made them systematically double-check advice given by faculty advisers with other faculty members, online resources, and/or with peers to ensure accuracy.

Besides reflecting faculty advisers’ lack of training, episodes such as these also highlight a degree of autonomy over how well they perform—or choose to perform—this aspect of their job description. For many faculty members, there are no tangible benefits to providing effective advising, because it is not tied to remuneration, formally evaluated, or deemed essential for tenure. Additionally, there are no repercussions to providing ineffective advising, which may reduce their accountability to students and then reflects as a polarized rating rather than a neutral one. Despite these horror stories, faculty advisers’ unique institutional position gave them some credibility with students, since they advise above and beyond their teaching and research duties. Conversely, because professional advisers are specifically hired to advise, some students, as evidenced by their choice of words during the focus group interviews, perceived that professional advisers should provide services to student-customers in a market-driven educational system. Indeed, given the tuition they pay, many students indicated they should receive “much more hand holding,” “personalization.” and “guidance” than they currently do. The issue of “convenience” also came up:

“I feel more comfortable with advisers that their job is only to advise students about classes in general because their hours are more flexible. When I have questions, I know that the general advisers will have various time slots available to see me. It is more convenient for me knowing that they are available at all times.”

It is the issue of personalization that evoked considerable discussion during focus-group interviews that highlighted a strong underlying message: Students want to matter to their advisers, whether it was in basic face-to-face interaction or (disciplinary-specific) knowledge transfer. Paradoxically, despite being criticized at this university for poor advising, faculty advisers received higher satisfaction ratings than professional advisers: Those who were heavily invested in the advising process built deeper relationships with their advisees and/or had more individualized discussions:

“I believe the best advisers are the professors a student knows personally and has a relationship with. They care enough to take the time and help the student out.”

“I feel that having an adviser within your department is the most beneficial to your academic growth. This adviser knows exactly what you need and how you want to go about achieving your goals.… Because these people know my individual case I have been successful so far, where when I was meeting with the first-year student adviser, they were not helpful because I need specifics that they were unable to help me with.”

One particular student’s experience aptly demonstrated such close interactions. After he was admitted, the student’s assigned faculty adviser reviewed his course choices and helped to map out a four-year plan based on his academic interests and career aims. They met regularly, usually once or twice a semester for the entirety of the student’s college career, and he made satisfactory and constant academic progress. During the student’s last semester, his adviser helped him find jobs in his field. Other students in the focus group in which this story was shared were amazed by this example of academic advising and one participant, in fact, contacted the faculty member to ask if she could also be her advisee. Unfortunately, she declined because she had too many students and was overburdened.

Professional advisers at the university where this survey was conducted, though trained and successful in performing their jobs well, were overburdened with large caseloads that impeded building close mentoring relationships with students, particularly given the constraints of a large campus environment. While some students were very happy with the advising they received and felt that advisers are excellent at what they do and truly care about the students, others felt unimportant and rushed during the impersonal meetings. Some comments from respondents included:

“Not really an intimate advising experience but understandable given the volume.”

“I am neutral in my overall feelings about the [advising center]. The adviser answered my questions and was generally helpful.”

“The advisers [at the advising center] don’t want to be bothered helping, they just want to push you off to the website. I went to the website and decided I needed a person.”

“I feel like a number.”

These comments, particularly the last one, explain the consistent but neutral ratings that professional advisers at this university received on the survey.

In the survey, 25.3 percent of respondents reported using two advising options during the previous year and 23.5 percent used three advising options. Surprisingly, 42.4 percent (disproportionately juniors and seniors) approached unassigned faculty members compared to 56.7 percent who met with faculty advisers and 16.2 percent who met with professional advisers. In fact, as might be expected, respondents overwhelmingly reported satisfaction with the quality of advising received from unassigned faculty members they chose themselves. These unassigned faculty advisers received the highest ratings among all formal and informal advisers: 39.2 percent of respondents were very satisfied, 39.8 percent were satisfied, and only 2.5 percent were very dissatisfied (Table 2). Summary statistics were also extraordinarily high with a mean of 1.10 and standard deviation of 0.95. There were no specific patterns by academic class (i.e., first-year students were as satisfied as seniors). In focus groups, a majority of respondents attributed their use of informal faculty advisers as an alternative to an overburdened advising system that they felt was driven by unsupportive or absentee (professional) advisers with whom they could not build a rapport. Comments from respondents included:

“While my professors have been extremely helpful in answering any questions and providing career advice, my assigned adviser seems too busy to provide the personalized information talked about during orientation.”

“Academic advising should take a personal interest in students. I was very lost and made too many mistakes in my academic career.… Thank God a professor took personal interest and taught me so many things even if it was literally at the end of my time”

Many students at this university felt the current system did not meet their advising needs as they moved up the academic ladder. According to these students, informal faculty advisers (those who were not officially assigned to the student in an advising capacity but advised anyway) were very helpful with connecting them to new opportunities and providing information pertaining to internships, study abroad, and/or graduate school that professional advisers reportedly did not.

Discussion and Policy Implications

According to Chickering (1994, p. 50), “the fundamental purpose of academic advising is to help students become effective agents for their own lifelong learning and personal development.”  The advising relationship is critical to personalizing the undergraduate experience, giving students a confidence in the institution, and helping them perceive it as a supportive community (Berdahl, 1995). Yet despite universal agreement that academic advising plays a central role in the overall success of students—the building blocks of any educational institution—there is still no “one best way” heralded by educators to structure it.

During the past few decades, the use of centralized and decentralized models has decreased in favor of mixed models with an emphasis on developmental advising (Crookston, 1994; Habley, 2004; Crockett, 1985). If that is so, then the pathways between faculty and professional advisers must be further strengthened. There should be a concerted push to cultivate partnerships among various advising-related offices through training programs, workshops, regular informational meetings, and/or, in an increasingly technological society, webinars. Communication channels must be simplified to ease the transmission of up-to-date information, an issue that was particularly problematic for several students caught in the bureaucracy of paper shuffling.

Although strong interactions with caring faculty and staff are identified as the “single most potent retention agent on campus” (Crockett, 1985, p. 245), which strongly influence institutional commitment, the low satisfaction ranking accorded to advising is clearly problematic (Tinto, 1987). Given the role of advising in first-year student retention, effective advising at orientation and through first-year student seminars, residential learning communities, and early-alert systems for at-risk students is particularly important. Yet student narratives indicated that it was the personal relational aspect—the sense of mattering—that they wanted.  When catering to the Millennial Generation, advisers, particularly professional advisers with large caseloads, can use technology-aided options—clear and comprehensible degree audits, online registration systems, and email, listservs, websites, and internet chats to communicate with students—for educational planning sessions, course selection, and student–record management. This would then free advisers to establish effective mentoring relationships with students to foster their intellectual development, interpersonal growth, and success. However, academic advising is a two-way street, and an effective way to encourage students to invest in the process is by developing an advising syllabus that clearly outlines responsibilities, expectations, and the accountability of both parties, all of which they should share during mandatory meetings. Students can then understand the purpose and benefit of advising, thereby becoming active agents in their educational careers.

The polarization of student satisfaction ratings regarding faculty advisers also raises an important point: Despite any criticism to the contrary, faculty advisers play a critical role in student development that professional advisers may not be able to fill. As evidenced by students’ reliance on unassigned faculty members for advising, the administration should invest time and resources on broad-based adviser training programs focusing on institutional and curricular information and relational skills and knowledge for all faculty, not just formally appointed advisers. Importantly, if faculty advisers are expected to shoulder a bulk of advising, then their involvement should be formally compensated and promoted through extrinsic motivators (public recognition, tenure considerations, monetary compensation, or course-release time (White & Anttonen, 2012). Unsupportive administrative policies often act as powerful disincentives and send an unintended message to faculty that the advisory role is much less important than others.  This is particularly the case for untenured faculty members who have just started their professional careers. Such reinforcements are especially vital as budget cuts, coupled with a 16 percent student enrollment increase projected between 2001 and 2015 and a reduced likelihood of an “opt-in system” puts pressure on faculty (teaching and advising) workloads. Finally, faculty administrative work pressure and student complaints could be greatly reduced by providing support personnel to assist with appointments (possibly through shared online tools such as Google calendar), record keeping, and providing up-to-date information to distribute to advisees.

In conclusion, as highlighted by student experiences, universities must make advising a priority, rather than an afterthought, and support the role of advisers. A student summed it up best during the focus-group interviews:

“Some advisers are a lot better than others. They seem to go out of their way for you. When they don’t, you feel discouraged. So having a good adviser that at least seems to care can make all the difference in a collegiate career.”

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About the Author(s)

Faye Allard, Union County College

Faye Allard, Ph.D., recipient of the 2013 NACADA Faculty Advising Award, is an assistant professor of sociology at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. She can be reached at faye.allard@ucc.edu.

Sangeeta Parashar, Montclair State University

Sangeeta Parashar, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. She can be reached at parashars@mail.montclair.edu.

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