Academic Advisors: The front line of higher ed.

When I went to my first graduation - most of the grads were looking for their academic advisor. It made sense, because their advisor was their first call or email when they needed help. Can’t register for a course because the school’s student portal was acting up? Call your academic advisor. Trouble with an instructor? Call your academic advisor. For a while I worked closely with an advising team on new student on-boarding and system implementations - and what I saw made it clear. Academic advisors are the front line in higher ed. They are assigned a cohort of stuents and support them through a broad range of issues from simple to complex.

Academic advising is a well researched field. The National Advising Association (NACADA) was created in 1977, has over 13,000 members, organizes local and national conferences, and publishes the NACADA Journal to “advance scholarly discourse about the research, theory and practice of academic advising in higher education”. In 2023, they'll hold 8-regional conferences in addition to their annual conference in October.

What does an academic advisor do?

Academic advisors help students plan and achieve their academic goals. While it varies by school, most of the time academic advisors help students select their upcoming courses or provide academic planning for upcoming terms. A typical meeting with an academic advisor will also include strategies for being successful in school, taking responsibility for learning and getting involved academically. An advisor's day-to-day responsibilities are broad - and it's common for institutions to require their advisors to - interpret policies, facilitate access to university resources, process transfer credit evaluations, support admissions or participate in on-campus events.

Academic advisors have a big impact on persistence rates, which improves the institution’s retention and graduation rates. This excerpt from the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education sums it up well;

Academic advising is an essential contributor to the success and persistence of postsecondary students (Klepfer & Hull, 2012; Kot, 2014; O’Banion, 2016). While the organization and delivery of academic advising reflects an institution’s culture, values, and practices (Habley, 1997), academic advisors translate and directly influence personal, institutional, and societal success through their practice.

Persistence, retention and graduation rates...and why they matter.

Persistence rates measure student progression or continuation over a period of time. Persistence rates can be measured by something like - subsequent term enrollment. i.e. Identify a cohort of students who were enrolled in the Fall I Term - that subsequently enrolled in the Spring I Term. The institution or the program may even refine the analysis by looking at the student’s enrollment status (Full Time, ¾ Time, ½ Time etc..), or number of credits taken.

Retention rates measure student progression over longer periods of time - and most importantly, start to give better visibility into potential graduation rate. US News & World Report publishes Freshman Retention Rate - students enrolled in the same institution for their sophomore year. The Department of Education’s College Navigator narrows their Retention Rate definition further - they publish the retention rate of first time students seeking a bachelor’s degree. These terms are typically defined by the institution, but also by the institution or program’s accrediting body.

Graduation rates measure the number of graduates from an initial cohort of students, over a period of time. The length of time is determined by the length of the program. It’s become common to see institution’s measure graduation rates by using program length and at 150% of the program’s length. Take undergraduate students pursuing a four-year program - 

  • The Department of Ed’s National Center for Education Statistics publishes the institution’s 6-year graduation rate.

  • Arizona State University publishes the institution’s 4-year and 6-year graduation rates. 

  • Rutgers University has published its 4-year, 5-year and 6-year graduation rates. 

I tend to view this from two perspectives - Requirements and Return on Investment;

  • Institutional and programmatic accrediting bodies require institutions to achieve minimum retention and graduation rates to maintain accreditation. Typically, this is monitored through annual reporting.

  • Persistence, Retention, Graduation Rates directly impact student life-time value and cost per enrollment.

    • Higher Persistence = More Courses Taken = More Revenue.

    • Higher Persistence = Better Retention & Graduation Rates = Better "Rankings" = Better Marketing = Lower Cost per Enrollment.

So, what does an academic advisor actually do?

Academic advisors build relationships and earn the trust of their students. Steve Schaffling, from Syracuse University wrote an article for Academic Advising Today that demonstrates common factors between psychotherapy and academic advising -

  • Alliance: The student and advisor work together to achieve their goals. 

  • Empathy: Understanding the student’s situation and identifying with their feelings. 

  • Goal Setting: Advisors would approach each student meeting with the intention of establishing a goal.

  • Allegiance - A deep belief that when advising theories are put into practice students can have better outcomes. 

According to a 2020 NACADA survey, during a typical advising session advisors would most often - help students select courses for an upcoming term, create academic plans for future terms, perform degree audits and work with students to select their major. I’ve sorted the data from a recent NACADA survey to emphasize what topics advisors are covering with students most of the time.





Most of the time

Course selection for the upcoming term





Academic planning for future terms





Review of degree audit





Academic major choice





Relevant academic policies





Personal goal setting





Career options





Review of transfer credit





Implications for changing majors





Financial planning





Source: NACDA’s 2020 Survey The “Typical” Advising Session: An Exploration of Consistency

One of the reasons that financial planning is the least covered topic with academic advisors is because its heavily regulated - and requires distinct training. In my experience, finance conversations are referred to a Financial Aid or Student Finance team that is trained on the available payment methods and their requirements. i.e. Federal Student Aid, Military Benefits, scholarships, grants etc...

Academic advisors also monitor academic progress. Education technology and specifically learning management systems (LMS) have helped advisors become more proactive. When students enroll in online courses - the LMS tracks students participation, attendance, grades and a lot more in real-time. This allows advisors to manually review activities or run reports that will help identify at-risk students. 

The earlier an advisor can intervene with a student who is struggling, the more likely the student is to have a better outcome - which leads to better persistence rates. If the student continues to struggle - they may end up violating specific policies for good academic standing or be placed on academic probation. At that point, its common for their to be a mandatory advising session to establish an academic plan for the student’s upcoming term(s). Each institution has their own policy for good academic standing and strategies for how to intervene to best support students who are struggling.

Supporting students with disabilities...

Federal laws, such as Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act were created to protect students with disabilities from discrimination. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights provides guidance, manages complaints and conducts investigations related to the treatment of students with disabilities. Here's a statement taken directly from The Department's website -

At the postsecondary level, the recipient is required to provide students with appropriate academic adjustments and auxiliary aids and services that are necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in a school's program. Recipients are not required to make adjustments or provide aids or services that would result in a fundamental alteration of a recipient's program or impose an undue burden.

If an advisor is going to create a strong relationship and set appropriate educational goals with their student they would need to be aware of their student’s accommodation(s). Academic advisor involvement in managing accommodations, or academic adjustments, varies by institution. The College Foundation of North Carolina has provided some examples of academic adjustments;

  • Reduced course load

  • Extended time on tests

  • Note-takers

  • Screen readers

  • Voice recognition

  • Recording devices

  • Adaptive software

Here’s a few examples of this in the wild;

  • Marquette University created a guide for their students on how to use the screen reader, JAWS,  in their learning management system (Brightspace, by D2L). 

  • Eastern Illinois University also created a guide to advise students on how to use the screen reader, NaturalReader, in combination with their proctoring software, Respondus LockDown Browser, and learning management system, Brightspace, by D2L. 

How many academic advisors are there? 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a category for School and Career Counselors and Advisors and reports 336,000 jobs in 2021. However, the majority of those jobs at are the K-12 level. I was able to use their reporting tool to isolate postsecondary education and came up with the following chart representing over 100,000 academic advisors as of May 2021 -

Occupation (SOC code)


Junior Colleges (including private, state, and local government schools) (611200)


Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools (611300)


Educational Support Services (611700)


Technical and Trade Schools (611500)


Other Schools and Instruction (611600)


Business Schools and Computer and Management Training (611400)




Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics Query System. Date Pulled: March 20, 2023. Release Date: May 2021

How much does an academic advisor make?

I’m actively tracking academic advising jobs across higher education and I’m happy to see that most job postings include a salary range. I’m seeing salaries starting from $38,894 for entry level and coordinator roles to as high as $120,000 for director level positions - with major variance by sector and location. Additionally, I’ve used the same BLS data tools to analyze advising pay at postsecondary institutions -

Occupation (SOC code)

Annual mean wage(2)

Annual 10th percentile wage(2)

Annual 90th percentile wage(2)

Junior Colleges (including private, state, and local government schools) (611200)




Business Schools and Computer and Management Training (611400)




Educational Support Services (611700)




Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools (611300)




Other Schools and Instruction (611600)




Technical and Trade Schools (611500)




Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics Query System. Date Pulled: March 20, 2023. Release Date: May 2021