Title IX and gender-based compliance. Alcohol and drug abuse prevention. Mental health. Student privacy. First Amendment expression. Threats to campus safety.
These tricky higher education hot topics are a starter list of the issues that are perplexing campuses across the country and are slated to be discussed at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting. A common denominator among these issues and plenty of others is that they fall to student affairs professionals to address.
But my colleagues and I in NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education are more than just fixers during a crisis. Higher education must broaden the discussion of student affairs to include strengths and not just potential vulnerabilities.
NASPA released a survey last year of more than 860 chief student affairs officers and found that 12 percent of their time is spent addressing crises, which means 88 percent of their time is spent on noncrisis work. Unfortunately, most boards, members of the campus community and even the media only ask questions of and hear from student affairs leaders when the institution faces a crisis or they feel the institution is vulnerable.
With a portfolio that includes student learning and success; campus culture; health, wellness and safety; compliance and regulatory responsibilities; and leadership development, the chief student affairs officer and the student affairs team must be a vital resource for all members of the institution as they plan and formalize the vision, goals and strategic direction of the institution.
Student affairs responsibilities exist across campus and the greatest benefit of our efforts can occur if we are allowed to break through self-imposed silos and partner creatively.
Here are a few examples of this type of creativity.
- The University of South Florida launched a program to increase the overall student retention rate by 15 percent. Critical to the program are strategies such as expanded orientation, required housing for freshmen and intentional advising, tutoring and mentoring to support those students who are at risk for attrition. Students deemed most at risk are offered mentoring. The Office of New Student Connections was created to coordinate mentoring, coaching, online networking and programs to involve freshmen and transfers in campus life.
- Elon University has built on the strengths shared by many campus leadership programs, which are often housed in student affairs, to increase leadership skills and grow core interpersonal competencies among students. Elon’s Center for Leadership oversees the LEAD program, which bridges the important topics of leadership and civic engagement. Elon is joined by many institutions, including University of Miami and Florida State University, in partnering student affairs professionals with faculty to create meaningful civic engagement experiences for students in the community, region and abroad. These experiences provide students with tools for self-examination and growth, and culminate in an opportunity for students to apply learned leadership skills in the community.
- Employers have clearly articulated that they want their employees to have specific, real-world skills, and institutions like the University of South Carolina are providing leadership and organizational behavior training for students who qualify for work-study employment. Students earn money to help pay the bills, get job experience and are introduced to information and opportunities that increase their work-ready competencies. These experiences will help them land jobs and succeed in their chosen careers.
- The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) takes a holistic look at the needs of its students by providing academic, student affairs and financial support to encourage full-time enrollment for all students, and specifically for those who are Pell Grant eligible. ASAP’s efforts include special seminars and block-scheduled classes, new approaches to developmental education, enhanced advising and career services, MetroCards for use on public transportation, and use of textbooks. To date, the program has increased semester-to-semester retention, average number of credits earned over two years and proportion of students who earned an associate’s degree in two years.
Student affairs work is growing in complexity and we are implementing best practices for delivering practical, real-life experiences to students that will help them grow and refine their leadership skills. Our staff members are partnering with faculty colleagues to position our students to graduate with interpersonal and intercultural skills. And we provide opportunities for engagement where student learning occurs best -- across campus in an environment that connects classroom and cocurricular learning. We’ve heard complaints about the skills gaps of our graduates and are focused on preparing our current students to be successful in their first and their most impactful jobs.
We want to present our work and be held accountable for what we do. Student affairs officers should be encouraged to share their metrics and examples of student engagement and success. Our student affairs colleagues are utilizing increasingly sophisticated tools to collect and share data and can offer concrete examples of how they contribute to the strategic initiatives of the institution.
We understand the pressure our leaders face to offer up compelling student outcomes, job placement rates and other indicators of degree value, and we welcome the opportunity to provide the qualitative and quantitative measures of our success that bolster these metrics.
Student affairs team members are more than just party planners and shoulders for students to cry on -- ask to hear how they are meeting the complex social, emotional and -- in conjunction with the faculty -- academic needs of today’s students.
The lines between student and academic affairs are blurring, and we welcome our role in supporting and enhancing the work being done in the classroom. Chief student affairs officers oversee the learning opportunities that complement, support and enhance the classroom environment. They play a vital role in retaining students and giving them the opportunities and skills that ultimately make them employable.
And, of course, we cover those topics that induce heartburn in campus leaders. Work is being done on difficult and serious topics by student affairs teams in conjunction with presidents, legal counsel, government affairs, academic affairs, budget and finance and other offices on campus to prepare for potential challenges to our institutions. As we all know, it is rare that an institution faces a unique challenge; we are learning from the experiences of others and applying the guidance of experts to refine our approaches.
It is the responsibility of the chief student affairs officer and the student affairs team to provide students with healthy and productive experiences on campus to prepare them to contribute to society and the workplace. Ask us about our entire portfolio of work, not just the work most similar to the headlines of greatest concern.
Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
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