A Controversial Credential

Plans to start a credentialing program for student affairs professionals is causing discontent among many officials.

January 24, 2012

Student affairs professionals are lining up on either side of a divisive issue: whether those in their profession need to be credentialed.

People in the field have been debating the question for years with no tangible progress, but the American College Personnel Association’s move to create a credentialing program is likely to change that. Supporters of the idea say such a system would ensure that student affairs professional staff -- many of whom have unusually diverse educational backgrounds and work experiences -- possess the skills they need to be effective in their positions. It would be a win-win for prospective job candidates looking to demonstrate their competencies to potential employers, they say, and for colleges that might be skeptical of a candidate who doesn’t have a master’s degree in student affairs administration.

Opponents, though, take pride in the unique perspectives student affairs officials bring to the table, and worry that a credentialing system would homogenize the field and restrict applicants who follow nontraditional paths. Many believe the program will be just an unnecessary hoop to jump through, a solution in search of a problem. "As a professional with both a master's and doctorate in higher education, my gut reaction is to be appalled!" one reader wrote on Inside Higher Ed blogger Eric Stoller's post about the program, which sparked some heated comments. "How many years of education do I need to do this?" one person asked.

At issue for everyone is the nagging question that just won’t die: How much of a profession, really, is student affairs?

“There is a divide in the profession. There are those people that think that basically anybody can do student affairs work – you don’t need special knowledge or competencies. Then there’s those of us who feel that this is simply not the case,” said Aaron W. Hughey, a professor and program coordinator of the master’s program in student affairs and higher education at Western Kentucky University. “You can still work in the profession without having this credential, but having the credential means something.”

In 2010, ACPA, in conjunction with NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, published a set of core competencies that, “regardless of how they entered the profession,” all officials should be able to demonstrate. Each competency area – among them, advising and helping; leadership; equity, diversity and inclusion; ethical professional practice; and student learning and development – includes a three-tiered skill set that officials must have to be certified at the basic, intermediate or advanced level. For example, under the “law, policy and governance” competency, the first skills required at each level are, respectively, being able to explain the differences between public and private higher education with respect to the legal system and what they may mean for students, faculty and staff at both types of institutions; explain the legal theories connected with torts and negligence and how they affect professional practice; and develop institutional policies and practices that are consistent with federal and state/province law.

That document makes no mention of credentialing, but it will serve as the benchmark for ACPA’s program. Details such as who will approve individuals for certification and how the process will work have yet to be nailed down; a Credentialing Implementation Team is expected to form a specific plan to move forward within 18 months, Levine said.

Asked for comment and how it might respond to ACPA's action, a spokeswoman for NASPA, the larger, older and wealthier of the two groups, said only that the organization "doesn't have a position on credentialing at this point." (Some tension between the associations arose last year, when in a membership vote of whether to merge the groups, ACPA opted to do so while NASPA did not.)

There’s little disagreement over the fact that people in student affairs should possess some set of core skills, Hughey said. “The frustrating thing for me is, we develop all these professional competencies, we develop all these tools, and then we refuse to really use them in ways that other professions use them,” he said, referring to fields such as law, teaching and medicine.

As Stoller noted in his blog post, there are already certification programs for professionals in academic advising, enrollment management, housing, and other areas. Campus health centers and counseling centers generally employ people who must pass licensure exams. And the Association of College Unions International has formed a task force to explore the potential for a certification process.

In her own blog post after the controversy unfolded, ACPA President Heidi Levine acknowledged the debate, and sought to flesh out some of the credentialing details. Emphasizing that the program will be voluntary (a point that doesn’t bring critics much comfort, considering that the goal is clearly for it to become standard practice), Levin explained that it will likely have two components.

The first would be a Student Affairs Register, which would comprise the individuals who demonstrated possession of the competencies at the basic level. But they would also have to complete some number of continuing education credits each year (the specifics haven’t been determined yet). The second part to the program would be Specialized Skills Certification, whereby anyone who demonstrated competencies at the advanced level would receive further recognition.

“Clearly, at this stage there are more questions than answers about both components of the Credential Program,” Levine wrote. ACPA will gather feedback up until its annual conference in March.

Levine said, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, that she’s been hearing interest in credentialing since 2005, when ACPA and NASPA assembled the task force that developed the competency standards.

“This is going to be looking to those things that we’ve already said: anybody working in student affairs needs to have at least a baseline knowledge of in order to be considered competent. So this is taking that next step of building on those competency areas that have already been developed,” Levine said. “Homogenization is not at all something that we are seeking, or that I think is likely to be a byproduct of this, any more than it has been in any other profession that has credential or certification processes attached to that.”

The debate over the need for certification in student affairs is decades old, but it’s been a largely static back-and-forth between those who think it’s necessary and those who don’t. Many believe that the guidelines developed by the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, which are directed at programs rather than individuals, are a more than sufficient way to ensure graduates are competent.

“CAS has standards for all these areas, so why reinvent the wheel? It’s already out there and programs can choose to abide by CAS’s standards, or they can choose to ignore them,” said Mark Kretovics, an associate professor of higher education administration and student personnel at Kent State University. “Others would argue that it makes us more of a profession – that’s an individual problem, not the association’s problem.”

Kretovics says he doesn’t understand why some in student affairs continue to perpetuate the idea that others in academe don’t consider it a valid profession, and that they are “treated as second-class citizens.” If that’s true, he asks, why has the field seen such growth, and why are its administrators consistently consulted for committees and things because of their expertise in student development?

“I think we’re even more valued today than we’ve ever been. So I’m not sure where this is coming from,” Kretovics said. “This isn’t going to make us any more professional on our campuses.”

Should somebody produce evidence linking such certification programs to better outcomes, Will Barratt, a professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University, might get behind the idea – but for now, he’s troubled by the lack of research.

“Show me the data,” he said. “Before I would urge people to spend hundreds of hours doing anything, let’s get some data on what it might do or not do. I’m not going to encourage a curriculum change on my campus without some data. I’m not going to suggest that students should be doing x, y or z without some data.”

But Hughey, who has worked in student affairs since about 1980, thinks the resistance is just unrealistic.

"There's a lot of people who came up that are now in executive positions within the profession.... and they have this idea that, 'You know, I didn't have all this stuff. I've done just fine and so I don't see why we should impose on the next generation of administrators and professionals all this stuff,' " he said. "That was a different world. Thirty years ago, we were a lot less accountable than we are now.... Student affairs is not that well-defined at this point, but it's a lot more well-defined than it was 20 or 30 years ago."


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