The topic of the evolving role of student affairs professionals is a common one, often discussed around water coolers, departmental strategic planning sessions, and professional conferences. As a faculty director of a higher education preparation program, I too, contemplate the changing higher education landscape, workplace, and skill set for new professionals in the field.
As a higher education faculty member, and former student affairs professional for close to 15 years, I have witnessed the reluctance and reactive nature of higher education to adapt to change. Unfortunately, the profession of student affairs and the ways we prepare these professionals is no different. A whitepaper from NASPA, UPCEA, and InsideTrack reported that only seven percent of NASPA members surveyed felt their functional area within student affairs addressed the needs of online learners to a great extent with almost half reporting these students’ needs are not being addressed at all (New, 2020). It was not until March 2020 that more technologically advanced solutions were thrust into the higher education atmosphere in a rapid, unexpected, and untested manner.
Two years later as we settle in to a new normal, my colleagues and I have noticed that even with more and more gathering and masking restrictions being lifted, we are still struggling to adequately connect and engage students in various academic supports and social programming. While we lament over wasted efforts and decreased student enthusiasm and morale, perhaps we need to reassess our “if you build it, they will come” mentality (Robinson, 1989).
This issue has grown to such a topic of conversation among colleagues of mine at the University of Rochester, that we have developed a cross-disciplinary research group around the “future of work” with a working group solely focused on higher education services. From our preliminary research of the educational technology landscape, we have found an increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence (AI) powered solutions. From transforming college presidents into Chatbots, to getting help with your resume or upcoming interview without human interaction, or finding alumni and donor prospects you never knew existed, the vast amount of data we have or are receiving from students and alumni can be used in powerful ways higher education at one time never imagined.
To test the validity of this new wave of AI powered solutions and to tap into students’ point of view, the Warner School of Education partnered with the University’s Ain Center for Entrepreneurship to challenge students to consider: What are current “pain-points” in higher education student services that could be addressed with new AI-powered tools – or other technologies? This question was posed to a group of about 30 students during the Creative Collision Challenge, in which student teams from a variety of academic backgrounds came together for a day-long event to tackle the issue and present their ideas to a panel of judges for prize money.
As each student team presented their issue and corresponding solution, it became clear that while students appreciated and acknowledged the vast amount of resources, support, and events the University held on a daily basis, they needed, demanded even, a mechanism to filter, customize, and personalize such offerings. Much like the algorithms used by various social media platforms, students had no qualms regarding the University using their personal information and prior activities to share with them targeted messaging and announcements.
I was comforted by the notion that while technology has its place, the human element of student affairs remains. Students desired technology to support their learning or career search outside of business hours, to help them find research labs and opportunities, or to discover the right social or academic club to join to connect with their classmates. However, the offices, faculty, and staff that facilitate and maintain these university offerings are critical to the success, connection, and engagement students have with their institution.
Perhaps there is both learning and unlearning that needs to take place for student affairs professionals, faculty, and curriculum. Courses around technology in higher education, webinars pertaining to design thinking, and regular programmatic evaluation with student input are just some ideas I’m beginning to consider. The challenge is and will continue to be how student affairs professionals can meet the ever-changing, multifaceted needs of today’s student, both in-person and online. What is becoming more clear is that it cannot be done by humans alone.
New, J. (2020). Future-proof: Reimagining student affairs for modern learners. InsideTrack. https://www.insidetrack.org/resources/future-proof-reimagining-student-affairs/
Robinson, P. A. (Director). (1989). Field of dreams [Film]. Gordon Company.
Author: Andrea Barrett is an assistant professor in the Warner School’s higher education program, and is currently serving as director of graduate student affairs. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she also directs the higher education program, which includes advising higher education master’s and doctoral students, supervising higher education internships, leading master’s theses writing cohorts, and guiding the Higher Education Student Association.
Her teaching and practice interests include student affairs administration, academic operations, curricular impacts on alumni employability, and graduate student engagement in relation to programmatic satisfaction.