The Challenges of Student Academic Advisor Matching

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The Challenges of Student Academic Advisor Matching

There’s a Disparity in How Student Academic Advisor Matching Occurs

During my first year of college, I would typically meet with my academic and career advisors once per academic quarter — mostly because I was required to and not because of self-initiative. I eventually learned to seek help when I needed it, but I didn’t realize the importance of utilizing these services until I saw firsthand how my peers were using them.

Working at my university’s Career Advancement office allowed me to see a huge disparity between certain students: those who regularly updated their resumes and met with their advisors several times a month, and those who met their advisors a few times in their academic life, with not much to show for the advising relationship.

Sure, the former student appears to demonstrate more initiative than the latter, but this perspective misses what could be a key factor: how compatible is the result of student academic advisor matching? Often overlooked in formal incoming or underclass student academic advisor matching programs is the actual challenge of matching these individuals.

Incoming Students Aren’t Prepared to Engage Advisors

Incoming students, especially first-generation students, likely lack deep experience in managing academic life. There’s an unspoken pressure when transitioning from high school to college to have everything under control. Students, especially first generation and low income, are especially burdened by the feeling that they have to be independent. “No one’s going to baby you,” students are told during freshman orientation. That’s absolutely true, but students still need the guidance of their advisors to be successful.

Before peer networks are established and students can seek guidance from students a year or two ahead of them, academic advisors play the critical role of helping incoming college students strike the balance between independence and seeking support. As an academic advisor, it can be frustrating to see low engagement among incoming and first year students.

Instead of interpreting the behavior as lazy or disengaged, consider that the student may never have experienced a formal advising relationship before. It may not be fair to assume that the student is aware of the expectation to utilize their freshman advisor, confident in the types of questions that are appropriate to ask the advisor, or familiar with scheduling meetings. When advisors allow themselves to get frustrated with the shortcomings of students, they miss the fact that these students are probably the ones who need their guidance the most.

Student Academic Advisor Matching is Often Misguided

Another challenge of incoming student academic advisor matching stems from a lack of clarity around how to assign these matches. Student Affairs teams often want to assign advisors to students based on the student’s academic interests. In theory, this sounds like a smart idea. In reality, most incoming students have no idea what they want to study.

Well-structured surveys can help match advisors to incoming students, even if the student hasn’t declared their major yet. This helps the student receive more pointed guidance (as opposed to the general advice an advisor delivers to the uncertain student), which can help the student make better decisions about how to structure their schedule, which classes to take, and which extracurricular activities to pursue.

The student’s academic and career (if applicable) goals should be a major factor in the advising match. Maybe the incoming student feels overwhelmed thinking about a job their first year and just wants to focus on their studies. Maybe they want to start the job search as soon as possible and establish connections within a network. While it’s easy — and important — to focus largely on helping students discover and articulate their needs, universities should also consider the advisors’ experience, strengths, and network when establishing these relationships.

Advisors with robust professional experience and networks outside of academia should be matched with students who are seeking suggestions on how to tie a college major to a career path. Advisors familiar with certain degree programs and the professors and classes in that program should be matched with students who know what they’re interested in, but not how to translate that into an academic path.

Allow for Students to Explore New Majors

What’s more, even students who are set on majoring in one subject can end up declaring a different major. Although pairing students and advisors based on major might seem like an easy solution, it doesn’t give much leverage for the student to explore different areas. Universities tend to take two approaches for solving this challenge:

  1. Assign a general advisor for first-year students. Once they declare a major, assign a program-specific advisor
  2. Assign an interest area advisor for first year students (not tied to a program). This advisor stays with the student for their full undergraduate experience

There are certainly pros and cons to each approach. Either way, the success of student academic advisor matching depends on the goals of the student and the strengths of the advisor. Your job is to find the best way to help them align.

Co-founder & President

John Knific is co-founder and President of Wisr. An entrepreneur who is passionate about what education technology can do for students, John's on a mission to tackle the big challenge of getting students connected with jobs after college by engaging alumni.

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