November 19, 2014

Making Student Affairs Matter in the Curricular World

A question that those who have or are currently working in the Student Affairs profession need to answer is this: why is it so difficult convincing the rest of the academy of the value and worth of the student development programs on campus? Those in the profession are well aware of the impact their programs have on students. Through extracurricular and co-curricular participation students are developing some of the most sought after skills and abilities employers are looking for- leadership acumen, experience working in teams, an ability to work with diverse groups, initiative, creativity, ingenuity, effective communication skills, self-efficacy and a host of others. At a time when companies like Google are saying that they are less concerned with what applicants know than what they can do with what they know, the active, hands-on learning opportunities that student development programs provide for students are invaluable. In more than a few cases the desire to persist in school is a result of the relationships formed and experiences gained by students outside of the classroom. And yet- student development programs are so routinely discounted or marginalized at many colleges and universities. Why is this?

Following are some explanations:

  • It often appears that students are participating in a bunch of random, seemingly unrelated activities.
  • At a time when assessment is everything, student development programs often lack defined, measureable learning objectives.
  • Many student development programs do not make it easy for students, college administrators, employers, and graduate school admissions officers to see the outcomes students acquire through participation in a related, themed set of extracurricular and co-curricular experiences.
  • Too often, opportunities are not taken advantage of to contribute directly to the curricular mission of the university.
  • Even though many Student Affairs Offices do a great job of involving students in civic activities, the dots that would create a culture of civic engagement are not always connected.
  • It is difficult to provide an even semi-accurate count of the number of students engaged in extracurricular and co- curricular activities.

Student Affairs professionals have the ability to better align, organize and present what they do with their student development programs. This will result in more motivated students, greater student participation, a significant and highly visible contribution to the college or university, and greater acknowledgement and appreciation for lessons learned by students in the extracurricular and co-curricular by prospective employers and graduate schools.

Following are some suggestions:

Develop and implement an overarching “umbrella” for the myriad of classroom- related and out- of –classroom learning experiences and involvements available to students (for the sake of this blog entry I will refer to this as the “Umbrella Program.” A name that is unique to a particular campus and resonates with students, faculty and staff is recommended.)   Student learning occurs throughout the college experience- on and off campus, in and out of the classroom, and during and between semesters. Some of this occurs through university sponsored programs and initiatives and some through experiences that students seek out for themselves. With the technology available today it is possible for students to record their participation in pre-determined categories (possible ones could include leadership, civic engagement, international awareness, career exploration & development, etc.) established by the broad university community and administered in a Student Affairs office. It is further possible for students to record reflections on their experiences organized around defined learning objectives. Most of the experiences students would need to fulfill the requirements in specific categories are already in place on campus and in the surrounding community; they just need to be organized into categories and reflected upon.

What are the advantages to having an overarching student development initiative- an “Umbrella Program?” They are considerable. To begin, unlike so many opportunities available to students, participation is unlimited; thousands of students can be accommodated. Secondly, this type of program is a great motivator for student participation in campus and community programs; students who are active at a modest level are encouraged to do a little more in order to complete a participation category. Students who are already pursuing a number of development opportunities available to them are acknowledged and rewarded and students who are doing nothing extra to enhance their college experiences get started because they feel the peer pressure generated by thousands of engaged students. An “Umbrella Program” is attractive to students from all corners of campus- residential, commuter, and non- traditional- because it includes experiences of particular interest and accessibility to each and it allows students to choose their own level of participation and to proceed at their own pace. An ancillary benefit is the increased attendance at many workshops and programs that previously experienced disappointing turnouts. Additionally, the “Umbrella Program” is able to provide a reasonable indicator of the number of students participating in campus activities.

And there are more benefits. With built-in reflection activities learning can be assessed. Completion of one or more categories can be acknowledged on a transcript that, because the learning objectives that have been met, is so much more valuable than the old “co- curricular transcript.” Umbrella Program transcripts allow employers and graduate schools to easily identify what a student has learned rather than being inundated with a long list of activities. Finally, because an approach of this nature can and should blend in and out of classroom activities it will receive support from across the campus community- faculty, staff, and students.

Bottom line: an overarching, umbrella approach to student engagement adds purpose to a critical element of the college experience, benefitting current students, and attracting prospective ones.

Find ways to connect with the curricular side of campus.

Taking this step can be so beneficial for Student Affairs. Partnering with faculty brings credibility and a new sense of appreciation for the work done by Student Affairs professionals. Additionally, the relationships that are formed   with faculty inevitably leads to them becoming familiar with the programs and initiatives within Student Affairs Departments and frequently they become advocates.

Partnering with faculty in growing, implementing and administering service learning initiatives can be an obvious and productive choice for a cooperative venture. Volunteer Centers are typically in the Student Affairs domain and they naturally lead to relationships with community entities. In many instances, these relationships can evolve into quality service learning opportunities. Additionally, on campuses that do not have a stand -alone service learning office, a Student Affairs unit can bring expertise in coordinating programs into play by assuming administrative and logistical responsibility for service learning. And of course service learning experiences can be used by students to progress in the “Umbrella Program” described above!

Internships provide another natural intersection for Academic and Student Affairs. Internships are often administered through a Student Affairs Office. With these experiences becoming increasingly vital to student learning and eventual job placement faculty in virtually every academic department are naturally interested in collaborating with an office that can benefit their students in such a significant way. Reaching out to faculty in academic departments and involving them in internship planning and procurement is a step every Career Planning Office should be fully engaged in. Once again, progress in an overarching student development program (“Umbrella Program!”) can be made by students gaining internship experience.

These are just two high profile opportunities for Student Affairs/ Academic Affairs collaboration. There are many more and those with promise on particular campuses should be seriously considered.

Seamlessly integrate civic engagement programs and initiatives so as to create a culture of civic engagement on campus.   

It is well documented how vital it is for college students to graduate with a sense of civic responsibility. Our society needs it and a majority of employers value it. Most university mission statements articulate a commitment to civic engagement and it is supported by faculty, administration, the surrounding community and often times by state legislators. A Student Affairs office is well positioned to serve as the crossroads for student volunteering, service learning, and leadership programs with a civic component. And again, all of these activities can comprise a theme within the student development Umbrella Program.


On virtually every college campus Student Affairs departments offer great opportunities for student growth and development; by organizing them into logical categories with defined learning objectives the lessons students learn and the knowledge they gain can be measured and validated. This leads to extracurricular and co-curricular involvement being more meaningful for students, having a greater degree of credibility and support by faculty and administrators, and being better understood by prospective employers and graduate schools.   Student Affairs departments also have expertise that can but not always has contributed significantly to the academic enterprise.  The time is now for Student Affairs to matter, or matter more, in the curricular world!