I can recall how at times during the early years of my career, I would feel guilty when I said I enjoyed my work because as a college counselor, I often saw students when they were in distress. They didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives or they were not doing well in school or they were having family problems or worse.
I’m feeling a little guilty now after reading three articles, in particular, in the January 24 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The small amount of guilt is because the three articles address challenges for colleges and universities, and I think these challenges are ripe for the skills of highly trained student affairs professionals. It is often in situations of distress that student affairs professionals are in the spotlight and they never fail to shine.
Sara Lipka writes about the decreasing pipeline of high school graduates and ends the article with this provocative sentence: “Demographic shifts could change who gets treated like a prospective college student.”
Lipka points out that when the number of high school graduates declined in years past, colleges and universities turned their attention to adult learners. When the number of adult learners cease to fill the enrollment shortfalls, colleges and universities will have to turn to another population, and that group will likely be first-generation students.
There is a lot of talk about opening pipelines to first-generation students, and yet, the attitude may still be one of charity. Attitudes of charity suggest that the students did not earn a right to attend the institution, but are being given a tremendous opportunity.
When enrollment of first-generation students affects the bottom line, the attitude will change, but the preparation for increasing numbers of this new population will not be adequate unless there is an understanding and recognition that one of the best resources to prepare colleges and universities for first-generation students will be skilled student affairs professionals.
I feel a little guilty in viewing challenges for colleges and universities as a propitious time for student affairs professionals, but orienting students to what it takes to be successful in college and providing support services where needed is what student affairs does. Student affairs also understands that it’s not only this new generation of students who need orientation; it’s the institution that needs orientation and preparation for the students.
In an article on the demographic shift, Eric Hoover quotes Donald Hossler, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington, who calls the need for colleges and universities to help a “more diverse group of students” succeed as “the demographic imperative.”
Student affairs through various offices, initiatives, and programs provide a safe space where students can have time to adjust to the newness of the environment and get moral and spiritual support. Student affairs doing what they do best provide some of the brightest corners of colleges and universities that are floating on their past reputation and continuing to enjoy the ratio of applications to admits.
In these bright corners, student affairs professionals continue to work with students on retention because they know that the retention of students new to higher education is often not connected directly to academic ability, but to other issues related to health, wellness, and a sense of belonging.
Student affairs does this work though the institution may not state anywhere in its strategic plan or outcomes the word “retention.” Some institutional leaders would prefer to think that retention is not an issue for the students they have admitted. When colleges and universities begin to recruit and value retaining more diverse groups of students because they need them, funding for retention will become a priority and time spent on helping students succeed will be valued.
In this same issue of The Chronicle, Dan Berrett writes about highly charged discussions that occur on college and university campuses. When one considers the demographic shifts toward more diversity on college and university campuses, one must also know that crosscultural differences will bring even more difficult exchanges. I look forward to the opportunities students will have in a more diverse environment to learn about other cultures, their own culture, how they developed their current beliefs, and how they will develop their values.
When Berrett and others reference the power dynamic between teacher and student and the difficulty of having these hard conversations in a classroom, I think about the opportunity for student affairs to collaborate with faculty in facilitating these discussions in a setting outside the classroom structure with a professional who has no perceived power over the external rewards students expect from class participation.
I encourage student affairs professionals to make their skills known and to demonstrate the many ways that they can contribute to the mission of their institution, higher education, and the success of what Donald Hossler refers to as “the cohort marching to college.”