It goes without saying that what is occurring in the larger environment will have an impact on the attitudes, beliefs, and motivations students bring to their college life. Regardless of the inevitable challenges to be addressed, I see a positive vision for the work of student affairs remaining committed to promoting learning and development of the whole student.
Two of the pillars on which my optimism is based are the flexibility and adaptability of student affairs in meeting the needs of all students and, upon reflection on years as a student affairs professional, what I have discovered about the nature of perennial challenges to be addressed. In my article for the 50th Anniversary edition of Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, I describe how many of these challenges appear to be predictable and finite in number, falling into the following categories:
- Demographic change
- Student activism
- Resource constraints
- Government intervention
- Catastrophic events
When asked why they are so passionate about their work, student affairs professionals generally reflect on the opportunity to change students’ lives. In order to continue in this critical work, it is instructive to heed the lessons of the past in anticipating future challenges facing higher education.
We must realize the importance of external and internal environments and the likely reactions of colleges and universities to these stimuli. Student affairs – with prior awareness of these categories of challenges – has an opportunity to proactively and innovatively create ways to blunt possible negative impacts and use the challenges as vehicles to address needed change or transformation.
Following are excerpts from an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning in 2018, available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/10.1080/00091383.2018.1509600.
Students and Student Affairs: Facing Perennial Challenges in Ever-changing Contexts
In reflecting on student affairs as an organizational entity within higher education, I am keenly aware of the impact of the environmental context on the strategic directions and responsibilities of professionals who do student affairs work. In this essay, I offer observations on how the environment has, over time, had an impact on the tenor and content of the work of student affairs.
A significant strength of student affairs has been its ability to adjust education and support strategies as students and the context in which they are learning change. Professional development and the diversity of backgrounds, skills, and routes into student affairs enable student affairs professionals to be flexible and adaptable in effective ways.
While those of us in student affairs and higher education often speak about “change” and “transformation,” we typically pivot and adjust when nudged. In fact, many of the challenges that bring about shifts and adjustments appear to be predictable and relatively few in number:
- Demographic change is a constant;
- Student activism ebbs and flows;
- Resource constraints arise at unpredictable intervals;
- Government intervention in higher education is as predictable as clockwork; and
- Catastrophic events and crises demand concerted reactions.
The best hope for student affairs is that in responding to this perennial set of challenges we are innovative and generative in building on strengths. We must preserve best practices, learn about new perspectives, and create ways to more effectively and efficiently meet the needs of all students, all while promoting the overall mission of our particular institution.
Defining Student Affairs: Student Affairs through the Decades…
The Sixties and Seventies – Demographic Change and Student Activism
…As a result of the important roles student affairs played during the height of student activism and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as in the implementation of new government guidelines for student equity, student affairs could no longer be narrowly defined. Instead, student affairs administrators began to be seen as campus leaders who had their finger on the pulse of what students needed. They were indispensable to helping institutions address students’ demands and remain committed to the ideals of higher education and institutional mission. …
Another significant and unanticipated change was how student affairs professionals viewed their roles. …They emphasized the congruence between what was occurring in their programmatic interventions and theories on human development. These professionals claimed their roles as specialists who supported both academic success and personal development of students. …
The 1980s – Resource Constraints
Near the end of two turbulent decades marked by demographic change and student activism, the nation’s attention turned toward constraints on resources in the midst of a recession in the early 1980s. Additionally, fewer high school graduates threatened a decrease in college and university enrollment and, consequently, a reduction in revenues.
… some administrators were concerned that critical functions of student affairs might be in jeopardy if those making decisions about restructuring or eliminating programs did not understand how student affairs contributed to the mission of the institution.
In response, a group of leaders in what was then the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) reexamined the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View. Fifty years after publication of this original philosophical statement that underpins the profession, this group of leaders reaffirmed in A Perspective on Student Affairs (1987) that the academic mission of the institution was preeminent, and the role of student affairs was to support this mission, as well as to address the affective and cognitive growth of students.
The 1990s – Student Affairs Educators and Expanding Diversity
With continuing changes in the demographics of students, the overarching goal of many colleges and universities during the 1990s was to reduce the achievement gap between newer populations of students and those who had traditionally had access to higher education.
Diversity – defined broadly to include LGBT students – was a priority for a critical mass of students in the 1990s. Marginalized students advocated for their own spaces on campus, often housed in the student union or student center under the umbrella of student affairs. Student affairs and faculty worked closely together to facilitate intercultural dialogues. …
Approaching the Millennium – Constraints, Catastrophes, Crises
… the late 1990s were lean years for higher education. Resources were once again constrained. Following previous patterns, higher education took its cues from business: re-engineering, re-structuring, re-forming, and re-imagining organizational structures.…
During the last decade of the twentieth century and through the millennium, student affairs and higher education were influenced by national events that either threatened to be catastrophic (e.g., the Y2K scare) or were catastrophic. Campus communities felt the impact of the unthinkable tragedy that disrupted the entire nation on September 11, 2001 and shared in the nation’s collective grief. …
Adding to the anxiety students felt about the outside world, a mass shooting by a student at Virginia Tech in 2007 disrupted the apparent safety and security of colleges and universities. When this was followed shortly by another attack at Northern Illinois University, campus safety and security aspects of student affairs became more prominent. The challenge of creating preventive measures to keep students safe from attacks was more than a nudge.
The Twenty-first Century – The Old is New Again
…Calls for accountability required higher education to show evidence of effectiveness through data instead of anecdotes. Although assessment plans were being developed, it was difficult for student affairs to measure the effectiveness of interventions beyond head count and student reports of satisfaction…
While student affairs divisions were adjusting to new demands and needs of students in an atmosphere of external calls for accountability, …I convened a group of higher education graduate faculty, student affairs administrators and practitioners from both generalist student affairs associations, NASPA and ACPA, [which resulted in] the publication of Learning Reconsidered: A College-wide Focus on the Student Experience (2004). …
Student affairs professionals’ enthusiasm for the concepts and suggestions in Learning Reconsidered could not mask the reality of the 2008 recession. Student affairs made adjustments and shifts in order to accommodate new demands and resource constraints. During this period student affairs professionals demonstrated their selflessness and commitment to students and their institutions. They shared ideas about how to use innovative approaches to do more with less, guided by the precepts of Learning Reconsidered.
Future Visions of Student Affairs
In the future, student affairs will be defined largely by advances in technology and by students themselves. …
Student demographics, especially the increasing age of college students, will have significant influence on how student affairs will provide educational support programs….
The second half of the twentieth century demonstrated how student activism ebbed and flowed. … Student affairs will continue to play a critical role in helping students acquire the tools and skills necessary to sustain the movement they have begun.
With institutional mission as a foundation, and educating the whole student as a basic principle, student affairs has had a key role in addressing the perennial challenges facing higher education. However, anticipating the same challenges is like looking to the past to predict the future. A strength of student affairs is learning about new perspectives. Dropping assumptions about students based on status such as the first in their family to attend college; what groups have been marginalized and privileged in the past; and the belief that education is the equalizer will enhance the ability of student affairs to be innovative and generative in building on strengths.
Finding new ways to integrate co-curricular experiences into academic course work will be the way to educate the whole student whose focus is on life after college. Listening intently and continuously to students and helping them find a way to help create the learning environment that is most congruent with their needs will help student affairs address perennial challenges and create opportunities to more effectively meet students where they are in order to help them reach their potential.