The Difference Student Affairs Makes in a Shifting Higher Education Environment.

Does your university really want to improve student retention? If so, it is essential for institutions to remember that it is student affairs professionals who regularly interact with students during challenging times. That interaction can be what makes the difference in a student deciding to leave or stay, fail or succeed, and survive or thrive. Unfortunately, many institutions appear unaware of just how essential a fully staffed and supported student affairs area is to their stability and success. That lack of understanding can lead to poor retention rates, a misunderstanding of student needs, ineffective response to students in crisis, and a diminished student experience. Considering this, what does an effective and supported student affairs area look like and what needs to be considered?

Let us start by talking about today’s students and their diverse needs. A growing number of students are entering college expecting robust mental health services, personalized academic support, multiple service opportunities, campus activities that engage, student focused facilities, and easy access to technology that works. In addition to these basic needs, the experiences of today’s students are being impacted by COVID, political divisiveness, racial tension, environmental concerns, unrest in multiple parts of the world, and general concern about what the future may hold. 

Next, let us consider what universities need to do in light of these many challenges. It is no secret that institutions tend to focus on cost containment, revenue generation, accreditation requirements, regulatory demands, governance, and academic program development and delivery. Services and support for students tend to be an after thought or something that must be provided at minimal levels in the name of customer service. This has been a long-standing approach in higher education, and one that needs to be dramatically shifted. Students, providing services/support for them, and creating ways to foster their success must be the first things considered when setting institutional priorities related to recruiting and retaining students. To do that, you need committed student affairs professionals who are valued and supported.

Now let us turn our attention to what an effective student affairs area might look like. If you do a search for student affairs functions on a campus, you will undoubtably find a variety of possibilities. For purposes of this brief article, I would like to suggest that, at a minimum, a student affairs area needs to be comprised of professionals adept at connecting with students and providing both in person and online support, services, and programming in the following areas:

  • Academic support, learning assistance, testing assistance, and advising
  • Campus activities
  • Career services and internships
  • Community service, civic engagement, and service-learning
  • Counseling services
  • Crisis response and emergency support
  • Dining services (for residential campuses)
  • Disability resources and services
  • Greek life
  • Health services
  • Housing and residence life (for residential campuses)
  • Leadership education and development
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer+ programs and services
  • Multicultural/intercultural/international programs and services
  • Orientation
  • Recreation and intramural programs
  • Safety and security
  • Sexual violence-related programs and services
  • Spiritual life
  • Student conduct
  • Study abroad

This list is certainly not all inclusive, and different student populations and campus environments will determine areas, programs, and services needed. It is shared as a suggested starting point.

Once a campus determines the student affairs areas, programs, and services it will provide, there needs to be a commitment to providing a level of funding that will ensure success. This means that salaries for student affairs professionals should reflect the value of the importance their positions and functions hold for the institution and its students. It also means that their input regarding student matters should be regularly sought out, considered, and genuinely valued. Student affairs staff members are in many ways uniquely positioned to positively shape and impact the student experience. 

Given the importance of creating a community on campus that attracts and retains students, it is essential that institutions staff and fund student affairs in ways that ensure meaningful support of and service to students. Dutcher LLC would welcome the opportunity to work with you to review the student affairs structure/functions on your campus; assess student perceptions of campus support services; identify needs and gaps; and help determine and design the staffing structure and services needed to improve retention and the student experience.

Post by Dave Emsweller, Higher Education Consultant, Dutcher LLC