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Running head: AN ADVISOR’S DILEMMA 1

An Advisor’s Dilemma:
Academic Advising at Suburban Community College
Randy Cloke
Salem State University
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Higher education is a field with plenty of rote tasks that require effort, but not so much

thought. For many, if not most, positions, however, this is only part of their job’s responsibilities.

Indeed, there are many times in a professional’s day that where must make choices in their work,

and there is often no easy or simplistic “best” choice.

Through an ethical dilemma case study that will be detailed, and the ensuing discussion

about the case and individuals involved, we will further explore some of the difficult,

challenging decisions that a professional in student affairs may have to make daily.

The Case at Suburban

Suburban Community College is a community college that serves students in the suburbs

of a major northeastern United States city. The college has two campuses that are approximately

30 and 45 minutes away from the city proper, respectively. The college serves about 7,000

students all of whom are commuters. More than half of the students are part-time, and most

students are above the age of 22. The college has many degree programs which are designed for

either a career path, wherein the student graduates from the college and enters the workforce, or

transfer degrees where the student graduates with an associate’s degree and transfers mostly-

uniformly to a four-year state college or university.

All students are assigned an academic advisor who is responsible for aiding the student in

following their degree program to ensure graduation, regardless of the student’s plan to enter the

workforce or transfer to another school. All advisors are either full-time faculty who teach in the

student’s degree program or full-time professional advisors whose sole working role is to

provide academic advising. At Suburban, students in health sciences, like all nursing programs,

business administration, or liberal arts are typically seen by an advisor who specializes in their
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program. The advisor will know the particularities of their degree requirements and any special

processes or benchmarks required to fulfill the degree.

However, the nursing program at Suburban is unlike many other degree offerings. It is

highly competitive and highly selective, and students apply to enter the program during their

time at the college after completing required courses. Admission is not guaranteed regardless of

the applicant’s coursework or grades. When students first start their academic career at the

college and want to be prepared to apply the nursing program, their entry program is Health

Sciences, which is comprised of the college’s core course components along with many health

and biology courses that the nursing program prefers or requires a student complete to be

considered a strong applicant.

The Health Sciences Advisor, Rick, has the largest caseload of students, and knows the

programs within his area of specialization very well. He also advises all the students who hope to

gain admission to the nursing program. Ashley, 18, a recent high school graduate from the local

area, is beginning at Suburban in just a few weeks as the Fall semester begins. She is currently

working part-time and plans to go to school full-time at Suburban. She is enrolled in the Health

Sciences program and wants to be a nurse. She visits the Advising Center at Suburban to talk to

Rick about course registration and the nursing program’s requirements so she can be prepared in

two years when it comes time to apply.

Ashley comes into the Advising Center one morning to talk with Rick. Rick asks most of

the introductory questions an advisor usually asks a new student: what are you hoping to do with

your program; what are your academic interests; where do your academic strengths and growth

points align; why do you want to enter the field you think you do; etc. When answering these

questions, Ashley indicates that she does not feel she is a strong student in math or the sciences,
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and especially did not enjoy her high school biology. Through some further probing, Ashley says

that she did not have a poor teacher or anything like that, but that the topics in class did not

interest her. Rick notes this in his mind, and informs Ashley that she will need to take many

biology courses in both Health Sciences and then in Nursing if she is accepted into the program.

Ashley seems to dismiss this and says she understands. Rick asks why she wants to go into

nursing, and Ashley says, rather pointedly, that the money that nurses make is a big factor for

her. She says that she does not particularly enjoy working with people, but that the money makes

it worth it. Rick notes these points in his mind, too.

Rick is torn. Ashley was not a strong student in the areas that her program requires, but a

lot of students are not strong, academically, in high school and college can afford them the

opportunity to have a renewed focus on their coursework. But Rick knows the exceptionally

challenging admissions requirements, and the selection committee does not often admit students

who have not sailed through their required courses, especially the biology courses. Given

Ashley’s seeming dismissal of this important consideration, Rick wants to suggest or ask further

about whether Ashley has considered other career paths that may better align with her skills and

interests. Further, Ashley’s statement about not enjoying working with people signals another red

flag in Rick’s brain.

Rick’s job is to help keep his advisee students on the right path to graduate in the

programs he specializes in. He is responsible for keeping up to date with the nuances and

idiosyncrasies of each degree so there are no unwelcome surprises when a student thinks they are

on the verge of graduation. But students should be well-informed of the challenges they may

face, and that some situations may see them up against daunting statistical likelihoods. Does

Rick press Ashley to possibly consider other options that better fit with her academic strengths,
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or does he encourage her to continue in a degree program she says she wants but that will present

her with challenges and may leave her with a degree that will not help her get the position she

wants but without admission to the program that will?

Ethical Statements and Guidelines by Professional Organizations

The ACPA is the American College Personnel Association and is one of the largest

professional organizations for student affairs practitioners. Like many umbrella professional

organizations, which have members who work in the same institution but often with very

different responsibilities, provides a basic framework of core ethical standards which any

member should uphold.

The ACPA Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards lays out four areas of ethical

consideration: Professional Responsibility and Competence, Student Learning and Development,

Responsibility to the Institution, Responsibility to Society. Each of these areas has specific

points to which ACPA members are to hold themselves. After scouring the statement, the second

area, Student Learning and Development, is the best of the four areas for the given ethical

dilemma at Suburban. Of the specific guidelines within it, the very first one, 2.1, is the most

applicable to the Suburban situation.

The guideline states that an ACPA member is to “Treat students with respect as persons

who possess dignity, worth, and the ability to be self-directed” (ACPA, 2013, p. 3). This is the

most specific ethical guideline that is directly applicable to the dilemma Rick has. By advising

Ashley of all of the program’s requirements and whatnot, Rick is meeting many of the other

guidelines in the ACPA statement. Does the question he has about whether to further push

possible career or program alternatives to Ashley abdicate Rick of his responsibility to treat her

with dignity and worth? Does questioning her academic abilities and interests based on her own
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words and test scores and grades demean, lessen, or question Ashley’s worth? Perhaps most

pointedly, does Rick undermine Ashley’s “ability to be self-directed” when she has come to him

with a path in mind?

It is hard to say for sure one way or the other, which is what makes this situation an

ethical dilemma. While the ACPA’s statement is helpful in providing broad tenets of ethical

practice for its members, it is important to note that many of the functional areas in higher

education have their own professional organizations, including academic advising. Given this, it

is worthwhile to also consider any ethical standards that group has put forth and see what further

sense may be made of the case at Suburban.

Professional organizations often provide their members guidelines on ethical practices in

their daily work. For the functional area of Academic Advising, such guidelines are provided by

NACADA, the National Academic Advising Association. These ethical guidelines provide a

framework into which we can place the possible paths which the advisor in our dilemma, Rick,

can choose.

NACADA’s Core Values is structured similarly to the ACPA statement described above.

NACADA’s core values declaration puts forth ethical guidelines where advisors are responsible

the individuals they serve; for involving others, when appropriate in the advising process; to their

institution; to higher education; to their educational community; and for their professional

practices and for themselves personally. Reviewing these five areas, the first area, where an

advisor is responsible to the individuals who are advised, may provide some additional context

for Rick and this dilemma at Suburban.

In the first area, the Core Values Declaration says that “advisors work to strengthen the

importance, dignity, potential, and unique nature of each individual within the academic setting”
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(NACADA, 2005). Further, the statement says that all students have a varying array of

differences that makes each of them unique, but all students are “responsible for their own

behaviors and outcomes for those behaviors” and “can be successful based on their individual

goals and efforts” (NACADA, 2005).

With these specific guidelines in mind, one must begin to wonder whether it would be

ethical for Rick to further press Ashley to consider other potential degree programs or to widen

her career interests. If all students, Ashley included, can be successful, then Rick may be best

meet NACADA’s declaration by letting her continue on and seek the nursing program without

any further questioning or intervention from him. Similarly, if Ashley, like all students, is

responsible for themselves and their behavior and what results from it, then she will own

whatever educational choices she makes including when those choices prove to be both fruitful

and not.

Ultimately, guidelines are just that. They are guidelines. They cannot necessarily help in

each and every situation, as a professional in higher education will face dilemmas like the one at

suburban which has no clear or easy path and where the statements provided by their

professional organizations cannot directly apply. It is ultimately the decision of the professional

to pick a path and recognize the potential outcomes that can result from it.

In the case at Suburban, Rick has two choices: press Ashley to consider other

opportunities as her academic and career interests do not seemingly align well with the program

she indicates she wants to pursue, or simply advise Ashley of what may result in the future,

including being well into a degree in health sciences that may not yield her an admission into the

school’s nursing program. While the ACPA and NACADA guidelines may help one advisor in
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this kind of situation choose one option or the other, they still may not help another advisor in

making this choice.

The Cause of this Dilemma

Before working through the scenario at Suburban, it is worthwhile to delve into what

some of the circumstances that may have led to its existence. As someone who thinks very much

about the lack of resources—time, money, staff—I very much wonder if much of the cause of

Rick’s dilemma is steeped in the lack of some sort of resource.

Suburban is a community college, and many community colleges nationwide are facing

budget cuts or reductions that greatly affect the costs to students, whether in tuition or

programming offers (Smith, 2016). This is something we can likely see at Suburban. Why is the

nursing program so selective? Most programs at most schools have open enrollment, and this is

particularly the case at community colleges which have a dual role of not only being a path to a

four-year degree, but as places that offer job-training and career enhancement programs for

people who either do not wish to go to a four-year school, do not plan on a career that requires

that kind of education, or are in a career which can be furthered by a degree or certificate from a

community college. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that the job growth for nurses will far

outpace other fields, with expect growth at 16% between 2014 and 2014 (Bureau of Labor

Statistics, 2015). Rick’s dilemma is one which he needs to work through, but not one that he

necessarily has control over the cause. Another thing to consider is that many schools lack

faculty inherently, as many nurses do not want to enter academic and teach their craft. (Ingeno,

2013).

Given some of the literature, it is reasonable to expect that Suburban is a school that lacks

funding from any number of resources, which limits faculty hiring—along with a distinct lack of
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available, hirable faculty candidates—and thus limits program growth—creating a selective

admissions program. All this despite the fact that the nursing field is expected to grow

dramatically in the near term. Without greater funding and faculty members, it may be

impossible to lessen the very selective admissions requirements for the nursing program, as it

seems that even students who have a deep interest in the field, like Ashley, may never even have

the chance it, even if their grades are sufficient.

While it is easy to pass off the situation as being caused entirely by a lack of resources, it

is important to consider the nature of community colleges being open-enrollment for almost all

prospective students for almost all degree programs. This is compared to four-year schools that

do have selective admissions, but students know before enrolling whether they will be able to

enter the program they apply for. This is not the case at suburban, which makes it unique. The

college is open almost universally to all those who have a high school diploma or equivalent, but

not all programs are, which is more like another institution with selective requirements and runs

counter to the mission of most, if not all, community colleges.

Choosing a Resolution

So, after examining any ethical guidelines available to him from professional

organizations and considering reasons why this situation might exist in the first place, what

should Rick do? If it is me, I think the way Rick had handled the situation up to that point covers

ethical guidelines and should clear his conscience. If he has covered all the potential outcomes

for Ashley and has informed her to the best of his knowledge some of the expectations nurses

will have, including what working conditions and responsibilities are like, then Rick should

ultimately let Ashley go forth in the path she has selected. I think it is more than fair to ask a

student their motivation for choosing the program they have, and financial security is a fair
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consideration for anyone to have. So long as Rick helps Ashley understand the difficulties she

may face and the reasons she has for selecting what she has, then he has covered all of his ethical

standards and must ultimately let the student choose the path they have. It will then be incumbent

upon the academic advisor.

If I am Rick in this situation, I would conclude the conversation by reiterating everything

I had covered to that point. I would inform Ashley once more of the courses that will be required

to even admit to the program, the rigors of the courses within the nursing program once there,

and that there is a very real risk, due to the selective admissions process, that she will not be

chosen for nursing at Suburban. I would further add, after registering her for her first courses,

that if she has any questions about anything at all that she could come see me again. I would let

her know that she will almost always have options no matter what happens, and that if she ever

changes her mind—whether about a particular course, the program, or another career path—that

I am available to hear her thoughts and help talk her through it the best that I can.

Conclusion

This situation at Suburban is one that happens every day at many schools, specifically in

academic advising. Advising is a functional area that has its host of ethical dilemmas, but it is

hardly unique in the field of student affairs or higher education. An equally well-thought out case

could be made for another choice in the situation above, but it is important that anyone interested

in or entering the field to understand that they will face similar situations often, and will have to

consider what is the “best” option among two or more choices that has no clear cut optimal path.

Students like Ashley will make their own choices, and that is one of the most important things to

consider, too. It is important to caution students of the dangers and difficulties they may face in

whatever choices they make, but in doing so we should empower them to make their own
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choices and go through their own decision-making process. Much like Rick has questions about

what the right thing to do is, it is reasonable to expect that any student who enters an advising

session with him has gone through a similar process of researching, asking, and choosing, even if

tentatively. Ultimately it is a student affairs professional to help the student make the most well-

informed decision they can, all without choosing for them. In the case at Suburban, Rick has

done that, and can look forward to working with Ashley again.
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References

ACPA. (2006, March). Statement of ethical principles and standards. Retrieved from

http://www.myacpa.org/sites/default/files/Ethical_Principles_Standards.pdf

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015, December 17). Registered nurses. Retrieved from

https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm

Ingeno, L. (2013, July 13). Who will teach nursing? Inside Higher Education [Washington, DC].

Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/07/22/nursing-schools-face-

faculty-shortages

NACADA. (2005). Core values declaration. Retrieved from

http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Core-values-

declaration.aspx

Smith, A. A. (2016, August 19). Different funding systems, same underlying problems. Inside

Higher Education [Washington, DC]. Retrieved from

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/19/dramatic-differences-how-states-fund-

community-colleges