Melinda Roy

May is well past spring planting season in the Pacific Northwest, and I am just getting around to setting up my patio garden. I collect seeds every fall from my fruiting and flowering plants to use next year as my own version of heirloom seed development. And I try to stick to a 3-year crop rotation schedule. This year it was time to grow tomatoes in a different pot with refreshed soil. But this weekend as I cleaned out the leaf debris from my pots, I discovered twelve volunteer seedling starts from tomatoes I let rot on the vine in the pot over the winter.

Sometimes when a post-secondary institution identifies a problem with a service unit, the default solution is often to uproot the whole thing and replant it elsewhere. But like seed collection and gardening, sometimes you need to give time for the unit to adapt and evolve naturally, to get a stronger, better result. While uprooting a plant and moving into fresh soil and a new pot may see some rapid initial new growth, if you place it somewhere without adequate supports to stabilize the new growth, the whole plant may fall over as it doesn’t have deep enough roots to sustain its own weight.

In my experience, academic advising is a service unit where uprooting and restructuring the whole unit is often the default solution to a symptom of misalignment with student advising needs. Like gardening, there are times when a restructure is required. But more often than not, thoughtfully amending the current approach causes less shock and disruption, resulting in a rejuvenated rather than recovering service unit. A rejuvenated unit finds their current approach better supported through communication, data, collaboration, or technology. The changes made are understood and adopted with excitement as the expected improvement is obvious. A recovering unit finds learning their new approach exhausting, as all the previous ways they understood how communication, data, collaboration and technology were used in their program were destroyed, and the improvements seem far off under the pressure to simultaneously learn and provide services in the new structure. The new structure might look organized, just as neatly planted seedlings in fresh soil do, but the results may be unpredictable and less productive than thoughtfully supporting plants with established roots in the old soil who were tough enough to survive a winter.

I’d argue that the rotation/restructure schedule is less frequent for advising offices than many office cultural shifts, for two reasons. One, the service post-secondary institutions provide generally doesn’t change: we are all in the business of education. Two, service provision should be based on the shifting needs of the population. Generational theory proposes that cultural, social, and relation changes create distinct personas by age groups, at 20 to 25 year intervals. These generational personas are distinct in how they value, perceive, and approach post-secondary education. While there are differences between the expectations of elder-millennials and Zillennials (all part of the Millennial generation), they are not as extreme as between Generation X and Millennials, or Millennials and Gen-Z overall. If an advising office hasn’t kept up with best practices to meet the needs of their primary student base, then a full restructure might be necessary to create a service culture that matches the student culture. But if it has evolved and mostly kept up over time, there may be more strategic changes to make.

Focusing on changing one aspect of how an advising office struggles, rather than on understanding the multi-faceted aspects of students needs for their advising experience, results in internal-driven-redesign, rather than external-driven internal-responses. The solution to a struggling unit is not always a redesign; while restructuring and redesign can be an obvious way to show students you as an institution are addressing the challenges, it can be less effective than taking a more strategic, holistic approach to understanding the units’ challenges.

Strategic Enrolment Management principles tell us that communication between units and across reporting levels is fundamental to the success of any framework. And that the framework matters less when positive, proactive communication exists between enrolment management, operational, and service units. Likewise, communication between advising units and their faculty, policy, and process counterparts is key to having effective and accurate advising provided to students. Regardless of the structure, if the communication pathways are not set up, the unit will fail. Restructuring the reporting lines without repairing the relationships will not fix a communication problem.

Strategic Enrolment Management principles also tell us that every person has a role in the success of the operation. What knowledge and ideas do the academic and faculty advisors, instructors, recruiters, and admissions officers have about how the current advising model and communication could be improved or what it does well? What have they seen attempted and failed or succeeded before? How does a true sample of those involved with or impacted by an advising office compare to the assumptions held about the advising office at the leadership level, or at the student level? Both students and leadership may be able to identify symptoms of a struggling advising model, but the employees who work within it may be able to identify the root causes and offer simpler solutions with greater impact.

Strategic Enrolment Management planning often starts with a community effort to explore and understand the institutions mission, values, market, responsibility, and student needs. Likewise, before restructuring the academic advising office, the office and its relatives, should clarify the current roles, goals, and expectations for themselves and each other. Like testing the soil acidity, water retention, or mapping the sunlight of a garden space, the real problem might be identified and solved simply through reviewing and renewing the commitment to the current program. A single step in the process might be added, one policy adjusted, or an existing technology expanded. Rather than throw out the whole plant, or simply spray the yellowing branch, providing regularly scheduled fertilizer might solve the problem at the root.

What might your office be missing? What are the frequent comments heard from staff, faculty, and students about advising?

  • Lack of understanding complex program pathways to graduation?
  • Lack of updated information about program changes?
  • Lack of tools to accurately capture, retrieve, and explain program, course, and experiential learning options to students?
  • Lack of connection and referrals between units?
  • Lack of data transparency, access, or fluency to understand provided information?
  • Lack of knowledge about actual student enrolment behaviour, including retention, early-alert, program transfer, or alternative approaches to success?
  • Lack of awareness of the office services?
  • Complexity of job, role-crossover, and desire for professional development?
  • Disconnected processes, policy confusion, and inter-departmental roadblocks?

I would suggest any one of these does not require a structural redesign, but rather intentional support design, institutional investment, and communication channel cultivation within an existing structure.

The Cultivating Advising Success series will cover the following topics:

  1. Cultivating Advising Success: Should You Restructure Your Advising?
  2. Cultivating Advising Success: Theoretical Approaches
  3. Cultivating Advising Success: Structural Models
  4. Cultivating Advising Success: Advisor Types and Student Needs
  5. Cultivating Advising Success: A Strategic Approach to the Advising Review

Connect with us on LinkedIn to see when the next in the series is posted, or sign up for our Newsletter to be notified when the series is published in full.


Gordon, V., Habley, W., Grites, T., et al. (2008). Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook. (2nd edition). Jossey-Bass

Joslin, J. E. (2018). The case for strategic academic advising management. New Directions for Higher Education, 11-20.

Kollar, E.A. (2017, December). Before creating a centralized advising office at the college level. Academic Advising Today, 40(4). Retrieved from

Young, D., and Zeng W. (2021). An ecological approach to understanding the scholarship of advising practice and administration, New Directions for Higher Education, 51-64.