Josh Whiting and Susan Poch
In 2011, Washington State University (WSU) was in a financial crisis. As a result of declining state revenues for higher education, WSU lost more than 50% of its state funding in three years, and in 2011-12 the resident undergraduate tuition rose by 16% (WSU, 2013). Budget cuts seemed inevitable. While academic advising is mandatory at WSU, there was no institutional evidence that advising was essential to persistence and retention, so it was important to quantify the worth of the central advising unit and demonstrate that worth to university administrators.
The purpose of this case study is to describe how one central advising office did an economic analysis of its functions and to provide other academic advising offices the tools needed to do a similar study.
Based largely on information gained at a NACADA Administrator’s Institute, and informed by Grites (2003), an economic analysis strategy was used to examine the unit’s worth by measuring time spent on activities. The examination helped determine where and how much time was devoted to advising, and how to analyze the time spent advising. Grites’ article served as a foundational backdrop each step of the way.
The economic analysis provided insight on more than just the “cost” of advising. It also helped determine if the unit’s activities were aligned with its stated mission. Additionally, the economic analysis was used to look at program efficiency. Programmatic efficiency can be determined by the analysis of the costs expended compared to resources available (dollars, materials, and/or time); it can be measured by student contacts per year, cost expended per student, or student contact with advisors (Troxel, 2008). In this study the cost expended per student, as measured by time spent on advising activities, was the most relevant item.
Each staff member in the central advising unit prepared a detailed list of all activities performed throughout a calendar year and provided an estimation of the time involved for each activity. Staff members were encouraged to list and account for as many items as possible. Activities were grouped together by similarity: Advising, Administrative, Career Courses, Internal Programs, Outreach, Meetings, Professional Development, Reinstatement, Special Programs, Supervision, Technology, and University Service.
A key component of the analysis was a formula created to calculate time spent on activities. The formula also made it possible to know what each activity “cost” the unit and, by extension, the University.
The formula, below, calculates the percent of time spent each week on an activity. To extrapolate the percent of time each week to an annual rate, simply multiply the hours spent per week by 50 weeks (assuming vacation, holiday and furlough days). The analysis in this study was based on annual percentages.
The chart below shows how different activities in the central unit were combined to get a total percentage of advising and advising-related time.
Further, the formula above can be applied to any activity within an advising unit to help advisors (or other staff) see how their time is spent. Because advisors wear many hats, the chart below shows how this central unit’s advisors accounted for their time (in aggregate). The list accounts for 88% of advisors’ time in common unit activities.
- 33% Advising
- 9% Reinstatement
- 8% Administrative duties
- 7% University service
- 7% Meetings
- 6% Professional development
- 6% Outreach activities
- 5% Teaching academic courses
- 3% Internal program
- 2% Technology
- 1% Supervision
- 1% Career related activities
The time analysis showed that advisors spent an average of 33% of their time in advising and advising-related activities. Additionally, the unit tended to be meeting-heavy, sometimes spending more time in meetings than outreach activities (7% total time annually was spent on meetings, 6% in outreach).
Remarkably, advisors reported that just 1% of their time was spent on career-related activities, not including career advising. This was identified as an area to be addressed because the unit was designed as an integrated career and advising office.
For simplicity’s sake, because the staff was paid very similarly, salaries for the ten advisors were averaged so that there was one salary figure used in the formula. For this study, the measure of “cost” of each activity was represented by advisors’ time, consistent with the program efficiency model above. The calculated total cost per year of advisors’ time spent on advising activities (33%) was $134,557 annually.
- $40,775 average annually salary X 10 advisors = $407,750 total annually salary
- 33% of time 10 advisors engaged in advising activities/ $407,750 = $134,557 annually
From a larger perspective, the advising unit’s total annual budget is $718,583 which accounts primarily for salaries. In addition to advising, other employees in the unit have a different focus (e.g. career functions, reinstatement seminars, and administrative functions). The advising activities, while 33% of advisors’ time, represented 19% of the unit’s total annual budget. Similarly, advisors’ time spent in meetings (7%) represented 3% of the total budget or $28,543 annually.
- (33% of advisors salary directed to advising) $134,557 /Total department budget (which includes total salary costs) $718,583 = 19%
- (7% of advisors salary directed to meetings) $28,543 /Total department budget which includes total salary costs) $718,583 = 3%
While 19% of the total budget identified for advising may seem small, it represents but one activity in the unit. In reality there are other essential functions for which most advisors are responsible. If the central unit went away, it would cost a university $134,557 just to replace the lost advising activities. All other essential functions would either cease to exist or would be distributed elsewhere, putting an additional burden of work on others.
Implications for Advising Assessment
Grites (2003) provided the foundation to undertake the economic analysis to determine what advising is worth in dollars and cents in a central advising unit. As institutions that undertake this type of assessment, several points to consider are discussed below.
First, for this study, the analysis and the tools to do the analysis were the main goals. The simple formula that was developed provided the tools to calculate the “cost” of advising and the ability to demonstrate the unit’s advising worth to the institution. An inventory of key advising activities and advisor’s time in these activities, supplied data that was the foundation for all the analyses. However, the request for this data was met with suspicion since there were previous indications of budget cuts.
Second, this analysis helped with the understanding of the “value” of advising activities in the unit: where they were inefficient (time spent in meetings), and where greater effort was necessary to meet the unit’s mission and goals (career-related activities).
Third, this study did not examine direct links between academic advising and retention/completion. While beyond the scope of this study, the information and calculations contained here could be expanded to determine advising’s direct effect on retention as measured by dollars and cents.
Finally, in this study advisors reported more time in unit staff meetings and less in career-related activities. While this highlighted an area to be addressed, it is important to note that without a deeper understanding of the unit, it could be misconstrued that one activity is valued more than another. Although one could argue that time spent in meetings actually helps craft procedures to help students succeed, the analysis in this study merely represents a dollar amount determined by the time it takes to perform each task. Therefore, a blanket statement that money spent is equivalent to importance to the institution is flawed. Many tasks can carry greater importance while requiring less time to complete. Without this perspective, perceived “value” would be shortsighted.
With the simple formula and methodology presented here, advising units can determine time spent on activities, the cost of activities, and the worth of these activities to the institution. It can also serve as a window into unit advising activities to identify where inefficiencies exist, and the alignment to the unit’s stated mission and goals. Grites provides excellent examples of how advising units can further quantify their role in student persistence and retention.
WSU found the assessment very helpful in preparation for an impending budget cut; it provided an overall picture of the economic worth of the central advising unit. This advising assessment can also be a valuable tool for advising administrators in other institutions who want to chart advising resources with a simple economic analysis.
Susan Poch, Ph.D. and Josh Whiting, Ed. M.
Office of Undergraduate Education
Smith Center for Undergraduate Education 519
Washington State University
Grites, T. (2003). Determining the worth of an advising unit. The Academic Advising News, 26(1). Retrieved April 1, 2013 from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Determining-the-Worth-of-an-Advising-Unit.aspx
Troxel, W. (2008). Assessing the effectiveness of the advising program. In Gordon, V.N., Habley, W.R., Grites, T.J., and Associates (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed., pp. 386-395). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Washington State University (2013). Institutional Research Fact Book. Retrieved April 1, 2013 from the Washington State University web site: http://ir.wsu.edu/data.
Cite using APA style as:
Poch, S. & Whiting, J. (2014). Chart your advising resources with a simple economic analysis: A case study. NACADA Clearinghouse Resource Web Site: