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Advising Students Foreclosed to Academic Major Decisions

April Belback, Director of Undergraduate Advising and Mentoring, University of Pittsburgh

Academic advisors have long recognized and understood the value of exploration for students in higher education. However, it is common that undergraduate students are unwilling or unaware of opportunities to explore academic majors and career choices, especially in their first college year (Fox & Martin, 2017). Advisors more likely hear statements such as: “I have always wanted to be a teacher since I was little” or “everyone in my family is in the medical field so I’m not sure what else to do” or “my counselor said that I am good at math so I want to be an engineer.” Such students, often presenting themselves as having made a choice about a plan of study, can become dissatisfied in college and are at risk of failing to persist if not carefully advised (Shaffer & Zalewski, 2011). These students are in foreclosure status, meaning they have “premature commitments to plans and goals despite minimal or no effort to explore options or to understand oneself” (Shaffer & Zalewski, 2017, p. 165). While recognizing and working with foreclosed students may be new to higher education academic advising, educational and psychological research has contributed to our understanding of identity status, and foreclosure in particular, for more than three decades (Shaffer & Zalewski, 2011).

Apt to come to college without the preparation or vernacular to navigate what can often be complicated institutions, students from underrepresented populations are even more likely to be in foreclosure status during the first few years of college. Such populations include those who are the first in their families to go to college (i.e., first-generation), students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and students who are from traditionally underrepresented groups (e.g., students of color, students with disabilities, or LGBTQ+ students, among others). Transition and decision points about academic majors and careers are often some of the most complicated pathways for students in college. However, proactive (intrusive) academic advising strategies that educate students about their options and help students avoid potential problems can mean increased retention for universities (Varney, 2012).

Using Marcia’s identity status theory and O’Banion’s advising model to frame the issue, three strategies for advising students in foreclosure will be described. These strategies can be used by advisors in facilitating discussions with students about the complex topic of major selection. The strategies focus on a proactive advising approach to increase retention of students in foreclosure status. Providing the advising and student success community with this information can help inform their work, specifically given the increasing diversity of college student populations.

Theoretical Models

Two models are presented to frame the issue and increase the understanding of how students’ academic major decision-making among the foreclosed student population is an important factor in the advising process (Salinas & Ross, 2015; Shaffer & Zalewski, 2011). First, James Marcia’s ego-identity status theory (1966) defines foreclosure status in late adolescents, and Terry O’Banion’s (2012) model of academic advising is a widely accepted process for helping students successfully navigate the curriculum.

Marcia Ego-Identity Status Theory. In 1966, James Marcia’s quantitative study was the framework for his ego-identity status theory in late adolescents. Congruent with Erikson’s formulation of identity, Marcia (1966) identified four statuses: identity achievement, moratorium, foreclosure, and identity diffusion, each with different intersections of exploration (crisis) and commitment. Students in foreclosure status are low on the exploration continuum and high on the commitment continuum (Marcia, 1966). In other words, a foreclosed student expresses high commitment to a major or career without exploring their own goals and dreams, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between their own ideas from that of their parents, guardians, or counselors (Marcia, 1966). Salinas and Ross (2015) note that foreclosed students

[H]ave dedicated themselves to a single path at an immature degree of awareness, creating a type of pseudo-identity with their choice, and committed to the first major/career perceived as viable. A denial of this goal creates a crisis that requires a solution. A transition from the original choice is mandatory, but, without identified alternatives, these students remain ‘foreclosed.’ (para. 2)

Thus, intrusive advising may be a critical strategy in ensuring that students in this status are successful.

O’Banion Advising. Terry O’Banion (2012) provides a model of academic advising and a five-step process that values self-identity and exploration. The model situates the purpose of academic advising as helping students select a major that promotes the attainment of vocational goals, rather than curricular or scheduling goals alone (O’Banion, 2012). Working from the bottom up in five sequential steps, academic advisors help students to self-identify and explore major and career goals and choices. The steps include (1) exploring life goals, (2) exploring vocational goals, (3) discussing program choice, (4) making course or curricular choices, and (5) scheduling courses (O’Banion, 2012). To boost their success, students need to experience each step of the process, but colleges often fail to use this sequence with students (O’Banion, 2012). If the first three exploratory steps are skipped, students may be more apt to be foreclosed to academic major decisions.

Proactive Advising for Foreclosed Students

Proactive advising strategies for students in foreclosure status include helping students navigate family and parent expectations, creating secondary academic plans and major choices, and providing opportunities for deep conversations.

Navigating Family and Parent Expectations

College students often seek majors defined by the expectations of their parents or family members. When provided the opportunity to self-reflect and explore, different paths are illuminated. However, adolescents have difficulty navigating conversations with family members about a change of major or career aspiration, and these conversations can bring feelings of disappointment and resentment. In addition to providing opportunities for reflection and exploration, advisors can help students find language to navigate difficult family conversations. Such an intervention, however, needs to be carefully considered to empower students during this transition point. For example, advisors can help students anticipate questions family members might ask and help them practice their responses. Advisors may also point to information about the new major or career path to help family members understand the student’s journey.

Creating Secondary Academic Plans

Despite the high commitment, students may seek a major that is not a good fit or in which they may not be successful. Advisors can help these students create secondary academic plans. When educated on all of their options and choices of majors, minors, and certificates, students begin to understand additional career paths and are more likely to explore. Students may take time to ingest secondary plans, as foreclosed students have typically been committed to their first major choice for some time. Therefore, it is important that options are presented in a supportive and careful manner. Also, advisors may find that repetition of the options and information is helpful, as students may need time to adjust their mindset for change. One way advisors can help students develop secondary plans is by asking open-ended questions, which emphasize student strengths and interests and offers a unique shift away from a focus on any deficiencies (Fox & Martin, 2017). In her work focused on strength-based learning and advising, Laurie Schreiner (n.d.) developed an excellent list of questions to help advisors in these types of conversations with students.

Providing Opportunities for Deep Conversations

Advisors may only recognize that students are in foreclosure status when they are given the opportunity to have deep, meaningful conversations with students (i.e., those that go beyond scheduling courses). It takes time and effort to build trusting relationships that allow meaningful conversations to happen. However, when advisors recognize students are in foreclosure status, continuing to use an intrusive approach can prove to be helpful. Discussions about negotiating family expectations or identifying secondary plans are examples of deep conversations that might happen in the advising space. These conversations can also help students uncover additional information about themselves, identify new areas of strength or interest, and anticipate possible barriers to educational goals.


The limitations of these advising strategies include time and capacity. Academic advisors often have overwhelming rosters of students that result in limited time for each interaction. Time restrictions make it difficult to help students navigate difficult family conversations; develop secondary plans; and explore their own strengths, interests, and goals. Each recommended strategy takes extra time and relationship-building. However, the investment of time spent providing proactive advising will likely reap the rewards of increased student success and higher retention (Varney, 2012).


Fox, J. R., & Martin, H. E. (Eds.). (2017). Academic advising and the first college year. University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition and NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising.

Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3(5), 551-558.

O’Banion, T. (2012). Be advised: Updating the traditional academic advising model for the 21st century. Community College Journal, 83(2), 42-47.

Salinas, O. T., & Ross, K. W. (2015). Courageous conversations: Advising the foreclosed student. http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/ Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Courageous-Conversations-Advising-the- Foreclosed-Student.aspx

Schreiner, L. A. (n.d.). Questions for each phase of strengths-based advising. http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Portals/0/Resources/Publications/ documents/Questions%20for%20Strengths-Based%20Advising.pdf

Shaffer, L. S. & Zalewski, J. (2017). Dangers of foreclosure. In Fox, J. R., & Martin, H. E. (Eds.), Academic advising and the first college year (pp. 165- 178). National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition and NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising.

Shaffer, L. S. & Zalewski, J. M. (2011). “It’s what I have always wanted to do.” Advising the foreclosure student. NACADA Journal, 31(2), 62-77.

Varney, J. (2012). Proactive (intrusive) advising! Academic Advising Today, 35(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/ View-Articles/Proactive-Intrusive-Advising.aspx


April Belback