Perceptions of the Advisor/Student Relationship at a Small
Carla P. Bennett, Assistant Professor of Mass Communications
Pamela Cope, Assistant Professor of Mass Communications
Midwestern State University
3410 Taft Blvd.
Wichita Falls, Texas 76308-2099
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The professor at a small university faces an ever-increasing set of
obligations. A decreasing demographic pool from which to choose has forced
colleges to tighten budgets and become more competitive. Students today are
clients rather than students in some sense, and better ways of serving those
clients are being investigated. Small universities have a particular challenge
to give personalized attention to each student, and many times that process
begins with faculty academic advising.
Two surveys were administered at a small university to see if the duties of
academic advisor were agreed upon by faculty and students. This paper examines
the differences in perceptions of faculty and students.
Perceptions of the Advisor/Student Relationship at a Small University
Today, as higher education dollars are stretched to the breaking point,
professors at small universities are charged with an ever-widening set of
obligations. In addition to teaching, research, and public service, college
teachers also must struggle with the student who may be remediating or one who
is otherwise unprepared for college life. In decades past, many of these
students simply fell away; classes were full and times were good. However, with
retention becoming a focal point of accreditation committees, with pressure at
an all-time high to fill classes, and with an increasing number of students who
come to college without direction from involved parents, many times it falls to
the professor to counsel the student on a variety of issues. The problem of
retention is a concern for smaller schools already struggling with enrollment
numbers. Even a decrease as small as 2 percent can mean significant loss of
When a student is assigned an academic advisor at a small school, it is
understood that the advisor is a liaison of sorts--a source of support and
intercession between the "system" and the student. The professor offers
guidance in scheduling semesters and degree progression, but what other roles do
the academic advisors assume? Most professors have anecdotal stories about
occasions when they became a pivotal character in the life of a student; it is a
sobering experience, and it is one that most educators take quite seriously.
Many times that relationship begins with academic advising.
However, the defined responsibilities of an "academic advisor" appear to be left
to individual interpretation. Do faculty and students agree on which elements
comprise the advising relationship?
Hardee discussed the importance of faculty members acting as mentor and
counselor as early as 1959 in The Faculty in College Counseling. He stressed
the importance of faculty members who are willing to serve as mentors. Several
studies point to a correlation between good academic advising and retention
rates (Bron, 1986; Banning, 1989; Gass, 1990). A study by Pascarella,
Terenzini, and Wolfe in 1986 underscored the influence of faculty involvement on
student retention. Astin (1977) found that students who interact frequently
with their advisors report greater satisfaction with the college experience.
Roger B. Winston et al, reported in Developmental Academic Advising (1984)
that most students are dissatisfied with the quality of advising, and the higher
education enterprise would pay the consequences for the lack of attention to
teaching quality that characterized the mid-1950's to the early 1970's. This
dissatisfaction may come from a difference in perceptions between student and
professor. Some students may see their academic advisor as an authority figure
who should rigidly direct their undergraduate progression. Some advisors,
however, may expect students to take responsibility for their own scheduling
throughout their college career. When perceptions differ, both are unhappy.
DeCoster and Mable (1981, pp.43-44) found that academic advisors often do not
meet students' expectations. Many students are intimidated by faculty who seem
to be too busy to establish a real relationship. In a study in 1987, Boyer
found advising to be one of the weakest links in the undergraduate experience.
Kemerer (1982) reported that most small campuses realize the importance of
faculty advising but simply fail to improve quality.
As academic institutions increasingly engage in self-examination, however,
several studies have discussed the need for better faculty advising. A report
by Barry (1989) examined the need for workshops in order to inform faculty
advisors about new procedures. Clifton and Long (1992) reviewed the need for
training seminars for new faculty members as well as continued training reviews
for current faculty advisors. Two surveys, one administered at Bronx Community
College in 1992 and one at Cumberland Community College in 1994, support the
relevance of such training. Each report pointed out that the quality of the
faculty/student relationship contributed significantly to the school's retaining
power. Unfortunately, many times surveys and studies are completed, put aside,
and forgotten without bringing the needed change.
The objective of this survey was to document perceptions of students and
professors in the advisor/student relationship. These questions guided the
1. What are the respondents' perceptions regarding the
between the faculty advisor and student?
2. Do the students' perceptions of the scope of advisor
of the faculty?
The purpose of this paper is to further examine some of the expectations of
the relationship between the student and the academic advisor. In order to
explore perceptions of the relationship, a perusal of the surveyed university's
policy manual was in order. Nowhere in the faculty section of the handbook was
academic advising described or defined. However, in the student handbook that
each enrolling student receives, the following definition was given:
An academic advisor is a member of the faculty who
guides the student in the selection of courses and in
solving problems. Until the student selects a major
field of study, he[sic] will be assigned to a general
studies advisor. After the major is selected, the
coordinator of the program will appoint an advisor.
The advisor will prepare the student's degree plan and
will approve the student's schedule at each registration.
The student should feel free to consult his [sic] advisor
regarding his course of study, other interests, and problems.
In order to test perceptions, two surveys were devised to be administered to
faculty advisors and students. A pilot survey was developed and tested in a
focus group, which resulted in several adjustments to the surveys.
A small university of approximately 6,000 students was chosen to be the
survey school. The faculty survey was hand-delivered to all full-time faculty
members at the university who engage in advising activities (n=148). The
student survey was an on-site survey administered at several locations across
the university including the student center, the library, and in several core
curriculum classes. Respondents were asked to answer the one-page questionnaire
using a semantic differential scale. Both faculty and students were given room
at the bottom of the one-page survey to give random comments about the advising
relationship. Faculty surveys were picked up from their offices 72 hours later.
Several questions on the survey were taken directly from the definition given in
the student handbook. Some questions focused only on academic issues, while
some asked about personal issues that might be shared between an advisor and a
Response among faculty members was as follows: a total of 74 faculty
responses, which represents 50 percent of the advising faculty, were returned,
as were 487 student surveys, which is 8 percent of the student population of the
university. Demographic data gathered ensured that both samples were
representative of the faculty and student populations:
y Gender/Ethnicity - Faculty: 65 percent of the faculty sample
respondents were male, 35 percent female. Roughly 88 percent of the
respondents reported that they were Caucasian, with the rest reporting
that they were African-American, Hispanic, or other minority.
y Gender/Ethnicity/Age - Students: 51 percent of the student
sample respondents were male, 49 percent female. Roughly 66 percent
reported that they were Caucasian, with the rest reporting that they
were African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, or other minority. Of
the student sample, 42 percent were between the ages of 17 and 20, 39
percent were between ages 21 to 25, and the remainder were over age 26.
Tables 1 and 2 illustrate the response from faculty and
students. Four of these responses are particularly
noteworthy for the purposes of this study.
Survey Question 1 The majority [n=45] of faculty surveyed
disagreed that it is their role as academic advisor to help
the student prepare a resume (see Table 1, Item 5). In
percentage terms, 61 percent indicated that it was not the
responsibility of an advisor to help with a resume.
The student survey showed that a majority of respondents
believed an advisor should assist with a resume or they had
no opinion. A large number of students [n=207] agreed or
strongly agreed that an advisor should assist with a resume,
while a substantial number [n=177] did not have an opinion.
Survey Question 2 Respondents had a decidedly different
opinion on the issue of choosing a major. Table 1, Item 2
shows that 68 percent of the
faculty respondents believed it was their responsibility to
help the student choose a major. Only 27 percent of the
student respondents believed it was part of the advisor's
The greatest number [n=235] or 48 percent of student
respondents disagreed that an advisor should assist in
choosing a major. Only 15 percent [n=11] of the faculty
Survey Question 3 Table 2 addressed the differences in
perception regarding the effectiveness of faculty advising.
This was a point of substantial disagreement. Whereas 60
percent of the faculty respondents strongly agreed that they
had a good relationship with their advisees, only 26 percent
of students strongly agreed that they had a good relationship.
No faculty disagreed [n=0] that they had a good relationship
with their advisees. However, 13 percent [n=63] of the
student respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed
that they had a good relationship with their advisor.
Survey Question 4 A combined percentage of approximately 92
percent [n=68] of the faculty respondents strongly agreed or
agreed that they met the expectations of their advisees
(Table 2, Item 2).
By contrast, 67 percent of the student respondents either
strongly agreed or agreed that the advisor met their
Once again, no faculty advisor [n=0] checked disagree or
strongly disagree that they met the expectation of the
student. A number of student respondents [n=66] or 14
percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that their faculty
advisor met their expectations.
Additional Comments Faculty respondents noted that there is
no clearly defined reward system for good faculty advising.
One faculty member commented, "We should be thoroughly
trained for advising, but we're not." Several faculty
members were interested in the results of the survey,
saying, "I've really never thought about the pivotal nature
of the relationship." Other comments by faculty included
complaints because students didn't assume more
responsibilities, and some complained that students just
wanted a signature.
Student respondents noted that they felt as if they were an imposition at
times and wished advisors would take an active interest in the advisee's
welfare. A few students pointed out that they sought a level of friendship in
the relationship while others feared being "just a name on a page."
Comments by the faculty usually centered on the mechanics of the advising
process itself, whereas comments from the students typically addressed
One of the biggest challenges for small colleges and universities is to
accomplish the institution's mission without increasing costs. The recruiting
process in college today is very expensive. The cost would be worth it if the
student remained through graduation. However, high attrition rates cost future
revenues. While it is extremely difficult to pinpoint why students drop-out, "
[lack of] a caring attitude from an advisor" is often cited as one of the
Prior research in the area of academic advising clearly points to the fact
that strong relations between faculty and students contribute to higher
retention rates, a factor weighed by accrediting teams in assessing a program's
effectiveness. Good advising, then, is critical for colleges and universities,
especially small institutions. Several findings in this survey had relevant
implications for such universities and, although this survey was confined to a
specific campus, applicable parallels may be drawn by faculty at other small
In general terms, while many students seemed to have a vague idea of the
parameters of an academic adviser, many expressed dissatisfaction with the
relationship they currently have as indicated in Table 1. This finding would
suggest that while students are unsure of what they expect from an advisor, and
may be unaware of the definition cited in the handbook, they do not
believe they have a good relationship with their advisor. These results
support a prior study conducted where 29 percent [n=240] of the students
surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with their advising experience.
Faculty members, on the other hand, were pleased with their work as advisors
and believed they met the students' expectations. However, items in the survey
indicated that some faculty members were unaware of the definition or disagreed
with the opinion in the role of faculty advisor as given in the student
handbook. Items 1 and 3 of Table 1 illustrate this point. According to the
student handbook, "an advisor is a member of the faculty who guides the student
in the selection of courses and in solving problems." The faculty respondents
disagreed with taking an active role in the students' course selection. Of the
74 faculty surveyed, almost half did not answer affirmatively that it was their
responsibility to help in course selection. This finding supports studies cited
earlier that some students expect the advisor to be authoritarian while the
advisor expects students to assume responsibility for their own progression.
In addition, "the advisor will prepare the student's degree plan and will
approve the student's schedule at each registration." Item 3 demonstrates that
this is another point of disagreement between faculty and the clear
definition of responsibility outlined in the handbook. Even though by
definition an academic advisor should "prepare the student's degree plan," 23
percent of the faculty respondents either disagreed with or were unaware of the
Since 92 percent of the faculty surveyed believed they meet the
expectations of an advisee, it seems logical to conclude that faculty members
are not actively investigating new ways to address the needs of their
advisees. This is disturbing in light of the finding that a much lower 67
percent of students claimed to be satisfied.
In general, a sizable number of students did not share core understandings with
faculty regarding the basic responsibilities of an academic advisor. As
colleges struggle to increase enrollment by one-digit increments, it seems
ironic that a large-scale effort at retention through strong academic advisor
training is not the norm. The effort by colleges today should be on
"developmental advising," a process of assisting the student through a series of
goal-setting and goal-attainment steps, including:
y ongoing personal contact between advisor and
y addressing quality of life issues while in college
y taking primary responsibility for developing
a caring relationship
y collaborating with the student
y acting as a role model
The process of "developmental advising" could be one of the least expensive
and practical efforts incorporated by small universities to reverse high
Some colleges and universities have established strong faculty development
programs to help teachers gain new technical or computer skills needed in the
changing classroom environment. However, it appears that academic advising, one
of the most crucial functions of academe, should also be revitalized and the
importance of personal attention from faculty members should not be
As the less personal tele-registration and computer registration become more
commonplace, interaction between faculty and student could easily become less
frequent, which in turn might further widen the chasm of miscommunication in
this important area.
Additional systematic investigation is needed in the area of faculty advising
in a small institution. If one can conclude that many students attend a smaller
university for the improved personal interaction with their professors and
faculty advisor, more attention should be paid to whether those relationships
are successful. Exploring new ways of addressing student needs and expectations
could significantly improve retention rates.
The surveyed university positions itself as a small institution that attends
to the needs of the individual student, yet there were marked differences in
perceptions in the roles of the academic advisors. If faculty and students
understood the relationship better, would retention rates improve? Studies
certainly support the theory.
Further studies should investigate how developmental advising could greatly
decrease the unnecessary stress of advising experienced by many students as well
as advisors. At a time of enrollment erosion, demographic depletion and a
financial shortage in higher education, academic advisors, to a great extent,
have the ability to make a difference.
However, advising must be given higher status in the university system. The
role of academic advisor is a system where the best are punished by being given
more advisees to assist. Poor advisors are simply avoided.
A role as crucial as academic guidance and mentoring should be encouraged,
developed and rewarded. Only when administrators recognize that there are
economic advantages to an investment of time and training will advising be
perceived as a valuable use of faculty time.
Astin, A.W. "Four Critical Years." San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1977.
Barry, M. "The Training of Teachers as Advisors." Florida State Department
of Education, 1989.
Boyer, E.L. "College: The Undergraduate Experience in America." Report
of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
Teaching. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Bron, C.D. and Gordon, M.P. Impact of an orientation center on attrition.
College Student Journal, v 20, 1986.
Clifton, C., & Long, C. "The Advising Connection." A training program for
faculty in Texas: Amarillo College, 1992.
Cooper, P.J., Stewart et al. Relationship with instructor and other variables
influencing student evaluation of instruction. Communication Quarterly,
DeCoster, D.A. and Mable, P. New Directions for Student Services:
Understanding Today's Students, no.16. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,
Gass, M.A. The longitudinal effects of an orientation program on the
retention of students. Journal of College Student Development, v 31,
Gordon, Virginia Handbook of Academic Advising. Westport Connecticut:
Greenwood Press, 1992.
Hardee, M.D. "Faculty Advising in Higher Education." Educational Record,
Kemerer, Frank et al. Strategies for Effective Enrollment Management.
Washington: American Association of State Colleges and Universities,
Mertens, Marilyn "Freshman Retention Report" Midwestern State
Pascarella, E., Terenzini, P., and Wolfe, L. "Orientation to College and
Freshman Year Persistence/Withdrawal Decisions." Journal of
Higher Education, v 57, 1986.
Winston, Roger et al. Developmental Academic Advising. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1984.
The Role of a Faculty Advisor
SA A N D
1. It is the responsibility of an academic advisor to take
an active role in the
student's course selection.
Faculty 14%(10) 35%(26) 16%(12)
Student 21%(103) 35%(170) 23%(110) 15%(74)
2. It is the faculty advisor's responsibility to help the
student choose a
Faculty 15%(11) 53%(39) 14%(10)
Student 6%(31) 21%(100) 25%(121)
3. It is the responsibility of the advisor to prepare the
student's degree plan.
Faculty 43%(32) 32%(24) 5%(4)
Student 13%(63) 30%(144) 31%(149) 22%(107)
4. It is the advisor's responsibility to offer career
counseling to the advisee.
Faculty 27%(20) 51%(38) 10%(7)
Student 19%(93) 51%(249) 21%(102) 7%(34)
5. An advisor should help the student prepare a resume.
Faculty 7%(5) 15%(11) 16%(12)
Student 9%(45) 33%(162) 36%(177) 19%(92)
6. It is the responsibility of the academic advisor to make
the student aware
of job opportunities.
Faculty 11%(8) 46%(34) 14%(10) 26%(19)
Student 18%(86) 43%(208) 25%(122) 13%(62)
SA=Strongly Agree, A=Agree, N=Neutral, D=Disagree, SD=Strongly Disagree, NR=No
Total number of responses: faculty=74, students=487
Table does not =100%, NR is not included
Perceptions of a Faculty Advisor
SA A N D SD
1. The academic advisor has a good relationship with their
Faculty 60%(44) 35%(26) 4%(3) 0%
Student 26%(128) 37%(182) 23%(114) 8%(39)
2. Overall, the faculty advisor meets the expectations of the student.
Faculty 34%(25) 58%(43) 5%(4) 0%
Student 24%(116) 43%(210) 19%(94) 9%(42)
SA=Strongly Agree, A=Agree, N=Neutral, D=Disagree, SD=Strongly Disagree, NR=No
Total number of responses: faculty =74, students=487
Table does not =100%, NR is not included