Do We Need Undergraduate Student Affairs Programs?

The value of diverse academic backgrounds.


February 19, 2015
The Journey Into a Student Affairs Career

When I started out in higher education, I wanted to be a physical therapist. My first year of coursework at Indian Hills Community College was everything that a budding pre-health student required. After two years of study at IHCC, I graduated with my associate's degree. Transferring to the University of Northern Iowa, I was anything but a pre-health student. During those first two years of college I had discovered that I wasn't really that interested in studying science. Eventually, I changed my major (and focus) to communications with an emphasis in public relations and a minor in marketing. During my time at UNI, I had an internship with the Wellness and Recreation Center doing web/graphic design. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was working for a department within the division of student affairs at the institution. To me, the internship was a job that paid well and provided me with a lot of useful professional experiences.

Why did I want to be a physical therapist? The answer to this question is quite easy. When I was 14 years old, I dislocated my left patella. The next two years of my existence were filled with (seemingly) endless visits to a local physical therapy clinic. In my limited teenage view of professional occupations, there were teachers, doctors, salesmen (my dad!), farmers, and physical therapists. So when I was 17 and started to get marketing collateral from institutions, I knew that I wanted to go to college to be a physical therapist because of all of the care that I had received while my knee healed. Clearly I hadn't thought it out very well. At IHCC, I realized that there were so many different academic/career areas to explore. I was okay with changing my track because my view on what was possible had expanded tremendously. Ironically, when I was an academic advisor at Oregon State University, I was responsible for advising pre-PT students.

However, I digress. The reason for this trip down memory lane is a recent conversation that took place about undergraduate student affairs courses/programs on a popular student affairs listserv. While I was aware that there were schools that were offering undergraduate courses that focused on the student affairs field, I was fascinated to see mentions of a student affairs major (as a degree concentration), minors, and several courses. I immediately started to ponder whether or not this was a good thing for the profession (or for undergraduate students).

Now I know what you're thinking, how can this not be a good thing? Well, the idea of cadres of individuals who have been encapsulated inside of a student affairs centric academic pipeline from undergraduate to masters to doctorate (at times it feels like a credentialing arms race) is a bit disconcerting to me. A diverse set of academic backgrounds makes student affairs much more vibrant. The field is far better at thinking outside the box and/or the "bubble" of higher education when it is made up of individuals who come from a variety of disciplines.

Now, in case you're wondering, there are of course some caveats to my thinking. First off, I am a proponent for post-undergraduate introductory student affairs programs like the Colorado State University Exploring the Student Affairs in Higher Education Profession MOOC. For people who are interested in going into a masters degree program for student affairs (or just learning more about the field), this is a brilliant move by the Student Affairs / Higher Education folk at CSU.

A lot of us have suggested to various undergraduate students that they should think about student affairs as a career. I've talked with students about the profession on multiple occasions, but I've also advised students to get out of the higher education environment before heading back into it. I think it's incredibly important for students who think they know and love what student affairs is all about to get out and experience something other than college/university life. Should programs intentionally create bridge programs from undergraduate student affairs to masters-level student affairs programs?

I'm not sure what's driving the current push to increase the number of student affairs undergraduate academic offerings. However, it does seem like there are initiatives to further the reach of undergraduate student affairs professional preparation. This makes me ask a lot of questions... Are we having issues with getting people into our graduate-level programs? Are too many people entering into graduate programs without a clear sense of what the field is all about? Are there not enough qualified student affairs practitioners for our functional area employment opportunities?

What is driving this push into the undergraduate realm? I sincerely hope that this isn't motivated by entrepreneurialism. An undergraduate academic offering in student affairs would most-likely serve as an additional revenue stream for a college or school of education. If it didn't increase funding, it would almost certainly serve as a recruitment channel for a graduate level program. To be clear, I'm not referring to a single course that presents an outline of the student affairs profession. I'm thinking about undergraduate majors (even if via a degree emphasis/concentration) and minors.

When I started working in my first official student affairs job (after working in various communications jobs), I wasn't really aware that I was working in the field. It was a marketing position within a student affairs division. Similar to my internship at UNI, I liked the work and the paycheck. I didn't immediately identify as a student affairs practitioner. After a couple years of working in the field, someone asked me where I went to graduate school. That was when I learned that you could go to graduate school for student affairs/higher education administration. Maybe things would have turned out differently for me had I had the opportunity to minor in student affairs (or even major in it). Although, there was something inherently beneficial about my process/timeline of student affairs discovery.

Perhaps that is my biggest concern when it comes to undergraduate student affairs programs. There is a delicate balance between educating students about the field versus actively influencing their academic and career decisions.


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