Ethics in Academic Advising

Matthew Church and Anthony Robinson, University of Louisville

All advisers have had situations in which they have been faced with ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas can range from the practical (Should I let this student take three physical activity courses in a semester?) to the dire (Should a student stay in this major?). The detriment of these situations is that there is a need for the academic adviser to act rapidly and on his/her own. Certain decisions must be made in a short period of time, and it is at this point that the practice and theory behind advising merge with the values. Fisher (2005) noted the need for advisers to be strong student advocates, neutral mediators, moral role models, and conscientious staff representatives. Furthering the roles of advisers, Fisher (2005) concluded that institutions need to provide advisers with the resources necessary to enhance and update ethical decision making for the sake of building and maintaining student trust. Fisher's contention prompted a further question: What is the role of ethics in advising? This question delves into the very core of advising and the National Academic Advising Association's Statement of Core Values of Academic Advising (NACADA, 2004). It is common for all student affairs personnel to face ethical decisions on a daily basis. Janosik, Creamer, & Humphrey (2004) concluded that giving greater attention and time to the field of ethics is vital to student affairs. With that conclusion in mind, this article represents an attempt to focus attention and time on the issue of ethics.

Academic advising is becoming a vital part of higher education. As the importance of academic advising increases, so does the importance of the decisions faced by advisers on a day-to-day basis. Several examples of ethical dilemmas come to mind regarding potential situations faced by academic advisers within the scope of their positions.

Ethics in Everyday Advising

Some of the questions and quandaries that confront advisers on a day-to-day basis are rooted in ethical dilemmas and merit substantial ethical reflection. Three instances come to mind: the “easy class,” the medical student, and the policy question. Each will be presented as an example and their ethical implications discussed. The test cases and the presentation of ethical ideals through examples was a method utilized by Lowenstein and Grites (1993). The answers and approaches to each differ based on certain idiosyncrasies of each case. Each example ties in several interpretations of the core values and the ethical ideals of advising.

Example 1: “Easy Class”

A student comes into an office and the adviser asks which courses he would like to take. In response, the student looks up and asks, “What is easy?” This circumstance happens more frequently than we would like to admit and produces several ethical quandaries. The adviser must not only try to do what is right but also to respect the intentions of the student. The dilemma involves fidelity, justice, and autonomy. The adviser is loyal to the student, the institution, and higher education. Most advisers will know which courses are reputed to be easy and which ones are not. Answering the student's question forces a decision. By telling the student an “easy class,” the adviser is being disloyal to the student and the educational community. If higher education is to promote a well-rounded education and a love of learning, recommending courses that offer little intellectual stimulation does not help higher education. Also, recommending an easy course may lead to lesser quality students in that course, and the adviser would also be disloyal to the faculty.

The student's side is another question. By telling the student the name of an easy course, the immediate needs and aims of the student are met and the adviser is well-liked. On the contrary, what is the long-term ramification of the recommendation? By suggesting easy courses, the adviser has established a situation where the student has learned how to find easier courses and may opt to take courses along this typology. Eschewing difficult courses will boost the student's GPA, but what does it do to the student? How does an easy course help a student prepare for life outside of college? How does taking the easy way out establish trends for life? A simple question carries many ethical implications. Fidelity mandates a dilemma since the adviser is loyal to the institution and to the student. The need for autonomy on the part of the student and adviser is involved, as are respect for person, the NACADA Core Values, and the very root value of personal responsibility.

Example 2: Medical School

Questions of justice, personal responsibility, and fidelity surround the example of an aspiring medical student. At her first meeting with an adviser, a student states her intention to become an oncologist. As the student and adviser continue to meet throughout the student's time at the institution, the goal stays the same, but the student's GPA falters. Each semester the student is closer to probation and hovers around a 2.0. She cannot get any higher than a C in her pre-medical courses and is in danger of failing out. She still insists they she going to medical school. What does an adviser do? The consideration of fidelity suggests the adviser remain loyal to the student and encourage her to keep working toward her goal. However, respect for a student implies honesty. Someone needs to advise this student to find a backup plan, such as another major or goal. Medical school admissions are quite competitive, and a 2.1 GPA will not allow the student to be competitive with other applicants. Concerns of utility suggest telling the student the reality of the situation. The student benefits because she is free to pursue something in which she may find more success. What is the proper answer? Face facts or encourage a goal most likely untenable?

Example 3: Policy Question

The last example is rather simple. A student has applied to graduate and is denied. He has neglected to finish one public speaking course, which is required by the general education requirements. The student, having already been accepted to graduate school with a fellowship, comes to the adviser seeking help. The student does not know if he will be able to get a similar financial aid package in the next year. The student needs to graduate and wants to petition. Upon being informed there is no solution, the student asks the adviser, “Don't you think the policy is unfair?” This question puts the adviser at a loss. The adviser may empathize with the student and wish that she could help the advisee go on to graduate school. The adviser also may think that the student should have been allowed to graduate. The converse is that the adviser is an employee of the institution and steward of higher education. If the adviser says the policy is unfair, she has forfeited loyalty to the institution in favor of loyalty to the student. Cases can be made for both decisions. Which is the best one?


The prior three examples demonstrate the tenuous role of ethics in current advising practice. While numerous theories can be promulgated to ideally craft the ethical adviser, the formulation of such an ideal is quite difficult. The adviser has three loyalties that must be considered: student, institution, and self. Both Kitchener (2000) and Lowenstein and Grites (1993) mentioned fidelity as one of the base considerations in ethics. While it goes without saying that fidelity is important, it is also the most dangerous ethical consideration in advising. Loyalty to the student is an imperative. Advisers go into advising out of a desire to help students and to promote education. Thus, loyalty to the student is an important consideration for any adviser. Institutional loyalty is another hallmark. The adviser must always remember that he/she is an agent of the institution and must support the policies of the institution. These two loyalties are quite prone to conflict, and there is need for a method of determining which loyalty to uphold. This situation highlights the third and most important loyalty: loyalty to self. Advisers must “walk the lines” among their loyalties as they attempt to carry out their duties. However, while it is easy to say there is need to walk these lines, the actual guidance on how to do so is lacking. The following will attempt to suggest a methodology for deciding loyalties.

The first step is to adopt an applied ethical approach to advising. The subjective nature of advising necessitates the avoidance of standardization and calls for the adviser to approach every instance on a case-by-case basis. Adopting this schema allows for constant thought on the nature of the situation and precludes errors based on habit. With a mindset focused on applied ethics, the adviser is better equipped to handle any situation and allows for the ability to think on one's feet. After this is adopted, the adviser must go through a step-by-step process for each encounter that has any ethical concerns. When a student's situation elicits ethical concern, the adviser needs to consider the various ideals discussed earlier in this piece. Beneficence should be constant in every adviser, and there should be a desire to help for the sake of the student.

The next ideal concerns fidelity. An adviser must always consider the various loyalties involved in any decision and must clearly identify these ideals.

The last concern is autonomy. The adviser needs to know that the decision is ultimately his/hers; he/she cannot go to solicit policy opinions for every question, as this would minimize their efficiency.

Now with the background ideals identified, the following will suggest a step-by-step process for resolving ethical concerns.

Method for Resolving Ethical Concerns

There are five steps involved in this method for ethical considerations in advising. The first step is to consider the issue without any external influence or consideration. The adviser should consider the issue on its own and try to identify and deconstruct the issue to allow for analysis. This can be viewed as fusion of advising with the Lockean theory of tabula rasa, starting with a blank slate. The next step involves a limited infusion of external concerns. The adviser, having broken down the issue, should look at what is best for the student and the institution. Ideally, the answers will overlap. A confluence of the interests of the student and institution allows for a cessation of the process. Unfortunately, there is often conflict between the two concerns, and this leads to the third step. The third step involves the consideration of utility. An adviser should attempt to find what action would lead to the greatest good for the greatest number. Once an adviser identifies what the utilitarian decision is, the fourth step aligns the two decisions on their respective benefit. By quantifying the positives and negatives of the situation, the adviser has a better chance of evaluating the situation. The fourth step allows for a comparison of the possible ethical good of a decision. The last step is the decision. The decision, ultimately, is made by the adviser. While consulting colleagues is feasible, the adviser has to answer to the student and decide what is best for the student, the institution, and the adviser. This brief schematic may not be universally accepted, but it does attempt to formulate a process of dealing with ethical decision making in advising.

To summarize, the following are the five steps proposed for resolving ethical concerns in academic advising.
  1. Deconstruct the issue from a blank slate.
  2. Identify what is best for the student and what is best for the institution. (If the two are the same, the process stops here.)
  3. Consider a course of action that offers the most utility.
  4. Quantify ramifications.
  5. Decide.

The preceding was intended to identify and clarify the role of ethics in academic advising. As academic advising becomes more indispensable in institutions and in the academic careers of students, the number of ethical decisions faced by advisers will grow. There is always the possibility of sticking to the existing policy, but situations oftentimes arise that policy has not addressed. In situations such as this, the adviser must make the decision. The quandary derives from the possible antagonism between what is best for the student and what is best for the institution. The NACADA Core Values statement and the ethical ideals mentioned earlier provide some guidance to this disconnect, but they do not provide any definitive steps on how to resolve each situation. Deriving from these issues, we have proposed the five-step decision-making process suggested in the latter portions of this work. The process allows for considering each issue on its own merits and attempting to draw out and address each ethical implication. While the process is by no means a panacea for all ethical dilemmas faced by advisers, it is a start. Legal issues and ethics in advising will continue to become more important as advising grows and comes into greater prominence in higher education. Advisers must be able to do their jobs confidently. We hope that, by considering the ethical implication of each issue, advisers will be able to do their jobs, do them well, and do them ethically.


Fisher, K. (2005). Ethical decision making in academic advising. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved April 27, 2005 from

Janosik, S., Creamer, D., & Humphrey, E. (2004). An analysis of ethical problems facing student affairs administrators. NASPA Journal, 41, 356–374.

Kitchener, K. (2000). Foundations of ethical practice, research, and teaching in psychology. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lowenstein, M., & Grites, T. (1993) Ethics in academic advising. NACADA Journal, 13, 53–61.

NACADA. (2004). NACADA statement of core values of academic advising. Retrieved May 22, 2006, from

Additional Resources

Buck, J., Moore, J., Schwartz, M., & Supon, S. (2001, January 9). What is ethical behavior for an academic adviser? The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 5(1). Retrieved May 1, 2005 from

Frank, K. (2000). Ethical considerations and obligations. In V. Gordon, W. Habley, & Associates (Eds.) Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 44–57). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nash, R. (1997) Teaching ethics in the student affairs classroom. NASPA Journal, 35, 3–19.

About the Authors

Matthew Church is an academic counselor senior in the College of Arts & Sciences Center for Advising and Student Services at the University of Louisville. He can be reached at or 502-852-1326.

Anthony Robinson is an academic counselor with the University of Louisville Honors Program. He can be reached at or 502-852-1536.

Published in The Mentor on May 23, 2006, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at
Privacy and Legal Statements | Copyright | © The Pennsylvania State University | All rights reserved