Advising Nontraditional Students: The Big Bang or Another Universe?

William E. Sedlacek, University of Maryland

In academic advising, as in other areas of scholarship or science, we regularly face the question: Should we expand and develop the models (theories, etc.) we have or do we need completely (or apparently) new conceptions to deal with new ideas and information? The purpose of this issue of the Journal is to answer this question. The purpose of this article is to answer the question in a more specific form. Can we use the models developed by Crookston (1972) and O'Banion (1972) to successfully advise nontraditional students, or must we develop new models to accomplish the task? Here nontraditional students are defined as those who have not had the typical experience of White middle/ upper middle class males in the U.S. (see Sedlacek, 1993).

Scientists and practitioners alike have a tendency to reinvent and relabel whenever new information is presented to us. This has the advantage of allowing us to focus on newer issues (e.g., nontraditional students) and to stress their importance. For example, Helms (1990) has generated some important ideas on how the racial identities of "visible racial/ethnic groups" (VREGS) develop. She feels that a person moves through stages of denial, confrontation with one's identity, immersion in issues related to one's group, eventual emersion and acceptance of the realities of being a member of a particular racial/cultural group.

Sedlacek (1993) has shown that noncognitive variables are useful indicators of academic success for nontraditional students. Making positive and accurate self assessments, handling racism, setting goals, having a supportive community and individual mentors, and showing leadership and learning from nonacademic experiences have all been shown to relate to the academic success of nontraditional students.

Both the Helms (1990) and Sedlacek (1991; 1993) approaches seem to provide useful information for academic advisors. However, must we abandon the earlier work of Crookston and O'Banion or can we build on it? Let's examine that further.

Crookston's Model

Crookston proposed a developmental view of advising which requires a great deal of interaction, negotiation, collaboration and trust in order to succeed. These all seem compatible with the ideas of Helms and Sedlacek discussed earlier. Helms' model is developmental and suggests that individuals of all races and cultures must go through an understanding of their own racial identities and learn to deal with those implications in order to achieve understanding and be successful in any area. The high level of trust required in Crookston's model is a difficult barrier when the advisor is from a traditional group with power (e.g., White male) and the advisee is from a nontraditional group (e.g., African American female). Westbrook and Sedlacek (1989) noted that a lack of trust in the system, or of those in power who represent the system, is a characteristic of many nontraditional students.

Here we can apply Sedlacek's noncognitive variable model to Crookston's work. The nontraditional student must learn to handle the racism in the system in order to understand his/her potentialities, be active and striving, receive rewards and grow and mature as suggested by Crookston in his developmental model. In addition, Sedlacek suggested that nontraditional students need a mentor to help accomplish this. Thus, several key noncognitive variables seem to require trust from both parties in the advising relationship.

Both advisor and advisee are included here since it has been shown that when individuals in powerful roles (e.g., advisor) show prejudice, and are uncomfortable in a given role, they will likely be less trusting and advisors might tend to use Crookston's prescriptive style to avoid close contact (see Sedlacek in press).

Some of Sedlacek's other noncognitive variables such as making realistic self appraisals, showing leadership, having a good self concept, nontraditional learning, and setting long range goals, all appear compatible with Crookston's ideas, although they are generally not directly stated by Crookston. Having a strong support community, often based on race or culture, may be outside the realm of what Crookston discussed but could be seen as necessary for the advisor to evaluate the advisee and required for the advisor to understand the role of other advising resources (e.g., peers, family).

In summary, it appears that more recently developed thinking about racial and cultural issues as stated by Helms and Sedlacek could be added to Crookston's model of developmental advising with some advantage.

While Crookston did not appear to incorporate "nontraditionality" in his model, doing so may increase our understanding of the advising process.

O'Banion's Model

O'Banion suggested a process which requires a counseling function (in the life goals and vocational goals steps), an instructor function (in the program choice and course choice steps) and a scheduling courses function which he feels could be handled by a student peer.

While O'Banion does not directly deal with any racial or cultural variables, he does make the point that the "philosophy of the institution" is more important than actually who does the advising. The ideas of both Helms and Sedlacek could be seen as being particularly required in the first two stops when advising nontraditional students. Without a sense of the racial identity of advisor and advisee, as discussed earlier, or of knowledge of how to handle racism, one's self concept as a nontraditional student, setting goals, learning in nontraditional ways etc., one could not expect good advising to take place for nontraditional students.

It should be added that these same issues are relevant even if the advisee, and advisor are from the same racial/cultural/gender group. The advisor must still understand his/her own racial identity and how that interacts with the racial identity of the advisee. The advisor must also understand all the other noncognitive variables impinging on the student. So, simply presuming that a match of advisor and advisee on racial/culture/gender variables won't work without a deeper understanding of the knowledge, attitudes and behavior that would be needed by both parties to make the advising successful.

O"Banion's raising the issue of the context of the advising through the philosophy of the institution and the idea that the model could be applied both two and four year schools allows for some newer ideas to be raised.

Handling racism, the need for community, and understanding the differences in how the institutional climate may differ for traditional and nontraditional students and what their advising needs are in that context can be considered.


It appears that both Crookston and O'Banion have set forth some ideas that are worth considering as an expanding universe for academic advising. Our tendency to feel that nothing from the past is useful as we "discover" new truths may not serve nontraditional students well. If we assume that all past knowledge and practice must be abandoned in favor of new ideas, several things may occur. First, most advising probably won't change. Most of us have developed our conceptions and behaviors over time and are not inclined to change. If however, new information can be seen as building on what we already know, it is more likely to be incorporated by some advisors. It also allows us to think developmentally as we expand our work as advisors as Crookston would hope. Nontraditional students are not seen as in another universe, but as part of a more sophisticated view of our own universe. It is then also easier to include new ideas and new groups in our models in the future, rather than to constantly develop new models.

Sky and Telescope magazine ran a contest to rename the "Big Bang" theory for the development of our universe (Chronicle of Higher Education, 1994) which included the "Blast from the Past" and the "Spark in the Dark" as possibilities. Whether we think O'Banion and Crookston were there at the beginning or not, I feel we should try to continue the impetus they gave us. Incidently, Sky & Telescope decided that the "Big Bang" was still probably the best name for the event. Let's go back in 20 more years (ideally less) and see how the ideas discussed in this issue are holding up.


Chronicle of Higher Education. (1994). Footnotes Jan 26, p. A8.

Crookston, B. B. (1972). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. Journal of College Student Personnel, 13, 12-17.

Helms, J. E. (1990). Black and White racial identity: Theory, research and practice. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

O'Banion, T. (1972). An academic advising model. Junior College Journal. 42, 62, 64, 66-69.

Sedlacek, W. E. (1991). Using noncognitive variables in advising nontraditional students. National Academic Advising Association Journal, 11 (1), 75-82.

Sedlacek, W. E. (1993). Employing noncognitive variables in admissions and retention in higher education. In Achieving diversity: Issues in the recruitment and retention of underrepresented racial/ethnic students in higher education. National Association of College Admission Counselors, Alexandria, Va, pp. 33-39.

Sedlacek, W. E. (in press). An empirical method of determining nontraditional group status. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development.

Westbrook, F. D., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1988). Workshop on using noncognitive variables with minority students in higher education. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 13, 82-89.


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2005 William Sedlacek