An Assessment of Centralized Versus Decentralized Academic Advising

Marie L. Miville and William E. Sedlacek
Research Report #8-92


The extent to which academic advising needs of students were being met by an advising program administered through one college at a large university was assessed. Of particular interest was whether there were differences in student perception and usage of the types of services offered by a central office within the college and by faculty advisors. Two samples of students were included, a random sample of students within the college as well as students using services at the central office. Of 200 mail-out surveys sent to randomly selected students, 103 were returned; 57 surveys were collected through the walk-in procedure, for a grand total of 160 students (79% male). Advising services used most frequently at both the central office and faculty advising were registration stamps and signatures, assistance with course selection, and information about requirements. There were no significant differences between departmental and central office services on the qualities of availability, concern, knowledge, and adequacy; ratings for both types of services were quite high. For a number of services, such as course selection and planning educational programs, however, students used faculty advisors more often than the central office. Implications for these findings include the need to publicize advising services more often, and increasing communication between the central office and faculty advisors in order to better complement services provided by each office.

Academic advising involves "the provision of educationally-related information and guidance to students confronted with choices and alternative paths in their education" (Trombley, 1981, p. 2) . Key components of this process include: continual contact between advisor and advisee, goal-related activity concerning academic, vocational, and personal issues, integration of academic and student professional knowledge and skills (Ender, 1983) . Essentially, the provision of information within the context of a sensitive and supportive advising relationship can allow a student to more successfully adapt to the larger institution, the university, by providing a critical human link (Groth, 1990).

In light of decreasing student enrollment and budgetary limitations, effective academic advising has become a focus for university administrators and student affairs professionals in their efforts to retain students and maintain a positive image of the university (Koerin, 1991) . However, despite this new emphasis, advising continues to be perceived as having low status, and thus low priority, particularly for faculty whose efforts in this area are not generally rewarded through the granting of tenure or increased pay (Koerin, 1991; Trombley, 1981) . Another barrier to the provision of effective advising to students is the lack of a shared definition by students, administrators, and faculty of what advising does and should entail (Koerin, 1991) or a comprehensive model for the provision of advising (Sedlacek, 1991) . A further problem exists in the lack of evaluative systems of academic advising within institutions, thus leaving advisors and administrators with little feedback as to their effectiveness or pointing out directions for change (Kramer, Arrington, & Chynoweth , 1985) .

Academic advising is a complex process that will affect whether a student progresses or does not progress within the university (Sedlacek, 1991) . Frequent contact with an advisor, for example, has been linked with student retention and persistence (Baer & Carr, 1985) . The need to assist students in planning academic, career, and life goals, even for those students who are decided on a major, has also been observed (Baer & Carr, 1985).

Advising may be provided through a number of venues: faculty, computers, groups, oneself, peers, paraprofessionals, and a central advising center either for the entire university or housed within a particular college (Gordon, 1982, in Groth, 1990). The focus of advising may also differ: informational, explanatory, analytic, and therapeutic (Potter & Shane, 1978, in Groth, 1990) ; these foci range in terms of depth of focus (eg., providing information vs. increasing self-acceptance) and length of time (eg., several minutes vs. many sessions).

A number of studies have assessed the types of advising services provided as well as the people providing these services. Groth (1990) , for example, assessed the walk-in delivery component of a central departmental advising center. She found that, for the institution studied, walk-in services were frequently utilized and aided the process of providing advising within the context of a warm, supportive environment. Kramer, Arrington, and Chynoweth (1985) evaluated academic advising as provided by a central office within each college and by faculty advisors. They noted that central offices were perceived by students, faculty, and administrators as providing information about institutional requirements and information. The primary function of faculty, on the other hand, was perceived as the association of career plans with academic goals. Students and faculty differed, however, in their perceptions of how well faculty fulfilled this function, students being the more negative in their view .

The above studies indicate the necessity of assessing the extent to which students' advising needs are being met. Of particular importance is that they demonstrate differences that can exist across and within institutions in terms of services provided; such studies also point to evaluative differences among groups of persons involved, especially between the providers and the utilizers of these services. As Kramer et al. (1985) discovered, these differences demonstrate that, despite administrators' satisfaction in the advising process, students may indeed hold a different view. Since students will be the utilizers of advising services, it is critical then to assess what their perceptions are of these services. It is important to note if students, for example, rate services provided by one office as opposed to another office differently, and also if these students subsequently use such services more often.

The current study was conducted to assess usage of, and satisfaction with, advising services provided to undergraduate students within a particular college. The assessment focused on two basic issues: whether student needs were differently served by a central advising office and departmental/faculty advisors, and whether students were well served by this division of services. Advising services were assessed in two ways: ratings and frequency of use of services.


Participants. Two samples of students were included in the study; students currently using services at the central advising office of an engineering college at a large eastern university, and a random sample of the overall student population in the college of engineering at the same university. The first sample provided information about who among students was using central office advising services and what specific services were being utilized. The second sample indicated what proportion of the student population within the college were using the central office and how their ratings compared with students who used departmental advisors.

Instrument. In order to assess student usage and satisfaction with advising services, activities being provided by advisors were identified. Counselors from the central office drew up a mission statement describing activities conducted by the office. These activities centered on providing assistance in a number of areas: educational planning, course selection, interpreting institutional policies and requirements, providing referrals, teaching time management skills, and so on.

Based upon these statements, a survey instrument was created. It contained a series of demographic items (eg., gender, race, major) designed to assess who among students was using the services. The instrument also contained items measuring frequency of use of services (1 = Never, 4 = often) at both the central office and the individual departments. Ratings of the services (1 = Poor, 5 = Excellent) were also obtained for both the central office and individual offices.

In order to make comparisons between the central office and departmental advising, similar items were created for each area. Two forms were then derived, one form to be given to students who walked in to the central office for advising, the second form to be mailed out to a random sample of students. This sample was selected to represent an equal number of students from each level (eg . , Fresh men, Seniors) . T he forms differed only slightly; the walk-in form contained an item asking if the respondent had an appointment or was a "walk-in". The mail-out form asked students if they used services at the central office, and if not, to state the reason. An open question was included on both forms to identify what further activities students might want initiated by the central office; general comments on advising were also solicited.

Procedure. Walk-in surveys were administered over a six-week period (one week on, one week off) in order to obtain surveys from students at all levels. Administration occurring during registration necessitated this procedure, 100 surveys being the goal number to be collected. Mail-out surveys were sent to 200 randomly selected students (50 students for each level). Follow-up procedures were initiated within a month to those who had not returned the survey. Data were analyzed descriptively and through Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA) and Chi-square procedures at the .05 level. Results

The results are reported under the following categories: demographic information, advising usage and ratings, centralized vs. decentralized advising differences, student status differences, and general comments about advising.

Demographic Information. Fifty-seven students returned the walk-in form and 103 students returned the mail-out form, for a total N of 160. One-hundred and twenty-seven were male (79%) and 33 were female (21%). The race of these respondents were identified as the following: 4% Black/African American, 73% White, 1% Hispanic/Latino, 21% Asian-American, and .6% Other. Thirty-six per cent were freshmen, 18% were sophomores, 24% juniors, and 2% seniors.

Percentages obtained for gender, race and major department were quite similar to the larger population within the college, the major difference being that Whites were overrepresented in the sample. Year in school of students included in the survey, however, were not proportional to level of students in the overall population; freshmen and sophomores were overrepresented and seniors were underrepresented.

Advising usage and ratings. In response to the item, "Where do you go most often to seek advising," 36% of students identified the central office, 59% a departmental advisor, and 5% other. The mail-out form also asked if students used services at the central office. Forty-nine per cent stated that they did, and 51% did not. Reasons why students did not use the central office were: department/faculty advising was adequate (54%) , were not aware of the central office's existence/location (19%) , and other (27%) . With respect to the walk-in survey, it was found that 98% of all respondents had had appointments as opposed to coming in to the Office without an appointment.

Tables 1 and 2 summarize the means and standard deviations of service use of departmental advising and the central office, respectively. Services most frequently used by students through departmental advising were registration stamp and signatures, assistance with course selection, and information about requirements.

Insert Tables 1 and 2 about here

Services least used included advising for personal issues, referrals to other services, and academic difficulties. Services used most often at the central office were the same as departmental advising: registration stamps and signatures, information about requirements, and assistance with course selection. Least used services were also mostly similar and included attending workshops, personal issues, and academic difficulties.

Students were also asked to rate advising services on the following qualities: availability, concern, knowledge, and adequacy. Table 3 presents the mean ratings of each of these qualities for departmental and central office services.

Insert Table 3 here

Ratings for both types of services were quite high, with the large majority of students rating all qualities in the Good to Excellent range.

Centralized vs. decentralized advising differences. A repeated measures MANOVA determined that there was a main effect for type of advising (department vs. central office). Paired t-tests were then used to discover which pairs of items were actually different. Four frequency of use items were found to be significantly different: course selection (department M = 2.33, central office M = 1. 98) , information about university and major requirements (department M = 2.36, central office M = 2.09), planning educational programs (department M = 2.00 , central office M = 1.71) and information about career and job opportunities (department M = 2.85, central office M = 2.13) . On all of these items, departmental advisors were used more often by students. However, no significant differences were found between these two types of advising in student ratings of service quality (i.e. , concern, knowledge, availability, and adequacy of service) .

One of the questions the instrument was also designed to answer was whether persons utilizing the central office were different from the overall student population. Using MANOVA, a main effect for form (walk-in versus mail-out) was found on a number of items. Walk-ins tended to use departmental advising for registrations and signatures less than mail-outs (M = 2.45, M = 3.07 for central office and departmental advising, respectively). Walk-ins were also significantly more likely to have used services at the central office on these items: assistance with course selection ( M = 2 . 28 , M = 1. 80 ) , assistance in clarifying educational and career goals ( M = 1. 87, M = 1. 48 ) , planning an educational program ( M = 1. 98, M = 1. 58 ) , registration stamps and signatures ( M = 2 . 43, M = 1. 97 ) , individual meetings with an advisor ( M = 2 .13, M = 1. 76 ) . These results indicate that walk-in students were more likely than the general population of engineering students to be using services at the central office.

Student status difference. Using MANOVA, a main effect for status (eg., Freshman, Sophomore) was found for a number of items. Least Significance Difference (LSD) post hoc tests were then conducted to determine which groups differed from each other. For example, freshmen were found to differ from sophomores in using departmental advisors for assistance with course selection ( M = 2.00 and M = 2.16 for freshmen and sophomores, respectively) . This indicates that freshmen did not seek out departmental advising for this item as often as sophomores did, a lower number signifying lower usage. Freshmen also were less likely than sophomores and seniors to seek information about career and job opportunities from departmental advisors (freshman M = 2.10, sophomore M = 2.56, and senior M = 2.69) . These students were additionally less likely than sophomores to obtain referrals to the central office from department advisors (freshman M = 1.23, sophomore M = 1.69) . Freshmen were again less likely than sophomores and juniors to obtain registration stamps and signatures from department advisors; seniors were more likely than all other students to use department advisors for this reason (freshman M = 2.32, sophomore M = 2.89, junior M = 3.08, and senior M = 3.62) . Seniors were also more likely than all other students to seek advising on personal issues from faculty (freshman M = 1.07, sophomore M = 1.03, junior M = 1.12, senior M = 1.37).

With respect to status differences in seeking advising from the central office, it was found that sophomores were more likely than freshmen to attend workshops (freshman M = 1.00, sophomore M = 1.33) . Juniors were also more like than freshmen to have individual meetings with an advisor in the central office (freshman M = 1.76, junior M = 2.15) .

Chi-square tests also showed status differences. Freshmen tended to go more often to the central office for overall advising and seniors tended to go more often to department advisors (X2 = 26 .17 , p < . 05) . Sophomores and juniors did not differ significantly in their preference for advising. Chi-square also revealed that freshmen tended to be categorized as Undecided, while seniors were less likely to be so designated (X2 = 44.82, p < .05) .

General comments about advising. Over half of all respondents had some comments to make about advising in general. With respect to departmental advising, a number of students focused on their concern about the unavailability of their assigned faculty advisor. Others commented specifically on an advisor and the help they had or had not received.

Similar reactions were also noted for the central office; a mostly positive note was apparent in many of these responses, students writing that they had felt well advised. One concern among students seemed to be the differing levels of quality among the advisors. This seemed to stem from whether advising had been received at the central office by a trained professional or at an orientation program by a peer. Another concern was for the need of the central office to advertise its services more often, particularly for incoming students.


This study addressed a number of questions: are there differing needs that advising services at a central office meet that department services do not meet, and vice versa; are students best served by a dichotomization of services into centralized and department services? These questions need to be viewed in the light of these results.

One of the most important findings of the survey, for example, is that students seem to be underutilizing services that are offered. For example, students rarely or never sought advising from either the central office or the individual departments for academic difficulties, personal issues, assistance with career goals, or to gain information about ,job and career opportunities. Nor were referrals generally made from one office to the other or to other services as well.

One question that may be asked is why are students not using these particular services more often? A number of reasons may be proposed. The simplest and most obvious is that underutilization may not even be an issue because lack of use may stem from students simply not needing to use these services. But given the large number of students, it is difficult to believe that this is the case, i.e., that all these individuals know exactly what they want to do, how to set goals in order get the grades or the job they want, what courses are required of them, and so on. As the general comments suggest, underutilization may result instead from students not being aware that these services were available. If this is so, publicity of available services can resolve student underutilization. Advertising may be done, for example, at different parts of the year, through different venues (eg-, hand-outs, announcements in required courses, bulletin boards) or at different points in a student's career.

A second finding was that students tended to use a number of services offered by departments instead of the central office. These included assistance with course selection, obtaining information about university and major requirements as well as career and job opportunities, and planning an educational program. One possible cause for this difference is that institutional requirements may make this necessary, particularly for upper-class students. One issue central offices may need to address is how to supplement or complement these services. For example, some activities may be more appropriately located at the central offices which employ professionally trained counseling personnel. Such activities may revolve around providing workshops on time management skills or career goal setting or working with students who have either personal or academic difficulties.

It is important to note that it was the frequency of use of services that differed between these types of advising, and not student ratings of services that were received. That is, students tended to rate the adequacy, concern, availability, and knowledge of both types of advising equally high. Students were not going to faculty advisors because they found the quality of services "better"; other causes seemed to have played a role.

A related finding to student use of services was that freshmen tended to use the central office more often, while other students, particularly seniors used departmental advising more often. This may be reflection of the structural requirements made of students at the current institution. One option that the central office may take then is to focus on identifying the special needs of entering students (these may include transfer students as well) . A survival book suggested by one student may be a strategy of addressing these students' needs.

Possible limitations of the current study point to further research directions. For example, there was only a small amount of information from the survey pointing to what needs might not be currently met (i.e., the open ended questions asking for student suggestions) . This may be an important avenue to explore, especially since the data indicate that students have never or only once used many advising services currently offered by both faculty and the central office. More open-ended questions, perhaps through structured interviews with a small number of students, may yet reveal other unmet needs. Such interviews may also reveal reasons students are not using these services (i.e., is it all a matter of publicity) .


Baer, M. L., & Carr, S. (1985) . Academic advisor -- Catalyst for achieving institutional and student goals. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal, 23, 36-44.

Groth, L. (1990) . Using a walk-in system to meet advising needs. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal, 27, 292-298.

Kishler, T . C . (1985) . Coordinating the communication and development of advisers. Journal of College Student Personnel, 26, 473-474.

Knapp, J. R., & Karabenick, S. A. (1988) . Incidence of formal and informal academic help-seeking in higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 29, 223-227.

Koerin, B . (1991) . Improving academic advising: Strategies for change. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal, 28, 323-327.

Kramer, G . L., Arrington, N. R., & Chynoweth, B . (1985) . The academic advising center and faculty advising: A comparison. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal, 23, 24-35.

Trombley, T . B . (1981) . Defining the role of academic advising in the industrial setting: The next phase. National Academic Advising Association Journal, 1_, 1-8.

Table 1
Frequency of Service Use at Department

Item Mean SD
1. Assistance with course selection 2.38 1.01
2. Information about requirements 2.38 .88
3. Assistance with career goals 1.71 .89
4. Plan educational program 2.05 .94
5. Information about job and career opportunities 1.49 .82
6. Registration stamps and signatures 2.88 1.01
7. Referrals to central office 1.42 .69
8. Referrals to other support services 1.31 .67
9. Academic difficulties 1.29 .62
10. Personal issues 1.14 .48

Note. 1 = Never, 2 = Once, 3 = Occasionally, 4 = Often

Table 2
Freq of Service Use at Central Office

Item Mean SD
1. Assistance with course selection 1.98 .83
2. Information about requirements 2.11 .90
3. Assistance with career goals 1.64 .84
4. Plan educational program 1.71 .83
5. Information about job and career opportunities 1.51 .85
6. Registration stamps and signatures 2.16 .96
7. Referrals to central office 1.48 .71
8. Referrals to other support services 1.30 .66
9. Academic difficulties 1.27 .62
10. Personal issues 1.10 .48
11. Attend workshops 1.14 .45
12. Individual meetings 1.93 .90

Note. 1 = Never, 2 = Once, 3 = Occasionally, 4 = Often

Table 3
Student Ratings of Department and Central Office Advisors

Item Mean SD
Department Advisors
1. Availability 3.51 1.12
2. Concern 3.35 1.32
3. Knowledge 3.77 1.26
4. Adequacy 3.63 1.18
Central Office Advisors
1. Availability 3.67 1.08
2. Concern 3.62 1.11
3. Knowledge 3.80 1.09
4. Adequacy 3.58 1.08

Note. 1 = Poor. 5 = Excellent


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2005 William Sedlacek