Lessons Learned in Centralizing an Advising Structure

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Northern Arizona University, like many others, has embarked on a journey to improve retention and student success.  Utilizing technology more efficiently and effectively, re-thinking business processes, and identifying opportunities to scale are proliferating throughout the institution.  Centralizing the advising organization is one of the more visible structural changes we have made.  Academic advisors represent an integral team of student service personnel positioned to influence student progression, choice, and resiliency.  Deliberate redesign of the advising organization will lead this specific workforce in ways that align with institutional student success metrics. 

Below are a few reflections from the first seven months of a new centralized advising unit.

Changing reporting lines raised many questions that required delicate answers

When we centralized advising, we had to address reporting lines. Some academic advisors reported within an individual academic unit and others reported within colleges.  We created a single reporting structure for all advisors, under the Provost, and retained a dotted line between advisors and their college/unit. 

These changes forced us to explore some big, thorny questions:

  • Who is part of the newly formed advising team and who is not? 
  • Will the administrative assistant who builds courses for the college and engages in academic advising for the remainder of his/her time change reporting lines? 
  • What about a transfer advisor who works with prospective transfer students on how their courses might articulate?  Will study abroad advisors be included?
  • Are there academic advisors who also do other tasks for the unit/department?  If so, where should they report?

We held conversations unit by unit, employee by employee.  In some cases, we changed titles and in others, we asked a college/department to absorb the non-advising work elsewhere, enabling the advisor to be fully deployed as such.   In each case, we tackled difficult questions about how the needs of the unit would be served in the new structure.  We defined which decisions remained the purview of the college and which did not.  Because of our commitment to keep advisors near the students and faculty of their assigned college, we did not change the physical location of the advisors.

Load balancing required compromise but provides flexibility to better support students

After identifying a concrete number of dedicated advising personnel, we began conversations about load balancing.  As expected, the number of students assigned to each advisor varied by unit.  We also quickly learned that caseload counting varied by unit: 

  • How should students pursuing a minor be accounted for? 
  • Does the work associated with international students require more time/weight? 
  • How should honors students and others who work with multiple advisors be counted? 
  • Should only students who are enrolled in any given term be counted or should all students who could enroll (admitted but not enrolled) be included?

As a team, we identified a method of counting.  We agreed to compromise. 

Our method is not perfect and certainly not a complete measure of an advising workload.  However, it creates a standardized method of referring to loads, allowing for apple-to-apple comparisons.  With defined loads across the entire institution, we can now engage in meaningful conversation about advisor allocation.  While enrollment in one college declined, another grew; however, the advising resources did not follow suit.  Thus far, we have reallocated two vacant lines from one unit to others carrying higher student loads.  Explaining this move with the support of standardized load calculations made difficult decisions more palatable.  Now when asking for new advising resources we can share how existing resources are deployed, assure leadership that new resources will be applied to the units most in need, and ensure that students get the advising support they need.

Business process alignment never ends

As a team, we continue to discuss a variety of other places where a consistent practice among all advisors is what students need.  Examples include:

  • Overrides into classes
  • How and when advisors are assigned to students
  • How holds are applied and/or removed from student accounts

Identifying opportunities and working to streamline processes will become an exercise in continuous improvement.    

Change management reminders

Our experience in navigating the change to a centralized advising structure reminded me about these common change management lessons:

  • All resources are already fully deployed and following current directives.  Introduce changes carefully without dismissing current practice—we are building from a strong foundation.
  • Adopting new technology alone is not enough.  Tools only become effective when staff are trained and uniformly using them.
  • Keep the student experience at the forefront of every conversation.
  • Meet staff where they are and bring them along.
  • Share the high-level vision, but don’t forget to consider the many micro steps to get there.
  • Expectations are changing.   Leaders must be intentional and explicit about the new expectations.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate….

Terri Hayes is the executive director of University Advising at Northern Arizona University.