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Student Affairs’s Voice, Visibility, and Relevance in Higher Education Administration

Supporting the Profession Student Affairs Partnering with Academic Affairs
January 29, 2020 Doris Ching Amefil Agbayani

The following is an excerpt of “Student Affairs’s Voice, Visibility, and Relevance in Higher Education Administration,” published in volume 20, issue 3 of the Journal of College and Character.


Many colleges and universities today are reorganizing student affairs operations in ways that eliminate or reassign many of their functions to other university departments. In some drastic cases, student affairs departments and senior leadership positions have been eliminated. On some campuses, the chief student affairs officer does not report directly to the chief executive officer and is not a cabinet member. The major reasons cited for these administrative actions include the following: to achieve greater integration of institutional services and programs; to reduce costs and/ or redistribute funding to other institutional priorities; to reduce bureaucracy and layers of administration; and to make student services more streamlined and accessible to students. While these institutional actions may appear reasonable, they overlook the fundamental mission and role of student affairs in colleges and universities. Furthermore, they undermine the significant ways in which student affairs programs contribute to the educational success of students. Within these contexts, this article poses and addresses a necessary and timely question: When student affairs loses institutional visibility and its central role in the administrative structure, what essential elements of an institution’s educational mission and priorities are lost? 

As advocates of student affairs professionals and programs that promote students’ educational success in higher education, we share in this article our perspectives on student affairs organization and operations. Although we began our higher education careers in academic affairs and have maintained our faculty rank, we staunchly support the primacy of students at colleges and universities and clearly recognize student affairs’s significant contributions to teaching and learning in the academy. We value student affairs’s central role in student success, and we believe it is critical that students and student affairs professionals are represented at the institution’s executive level by a chief student affairs officer (CSAO), who reports to the chief executive officer (CEO) and who has a voice in decision making on matters that impact students. Aware that some institutions have recently taken actions to reorganize student affairs in ways that exclude the CSAO from reporting directly to the CEO and from serving on the executive cabinet, we contend that student affairs programs and services must continue to serve a central role in supporting student academic success and developing the whole student in higher education. While we anticipate that readers may already know and agree with what is presented here, we hope they will share these concepts with presidents and chancellors, regents and trustees, academic faculty, and business executive officers in order to motivate administrative decisions and policies that benefit those who constitute the core of colleges and universities—namely, our students. 

Educational Success Requires Attention to Students’ Basic Needs 

Universities strive for students’ eminent accomplishments and development as self-actualizing individuals who realize their potential. As stated in their strategic plans, Carnegie-Mellon University (2015, Our Mission, para. 2) aims “to cultivate a transformative university community committed to ... ensuring individuals can achieve their full potential,” Georgia State University (2016, Goal 1) strives to “demonstrate that students from all backgrounds can achieve academic and career success at high rates,” and University of California-San Diego (2018, Goal 1) seeks to deliver “an educational and overall experience that develops students who are capable of solving problems, leading, and innovating in a diverse and interconnected world.” 

While ambitious strategic goals for student learning are integral to colleges and universities, the institutions pursuing lofty goals for student academic success must be mindful that addressing students’ basic needs is paramount to achieving aspirant learning outcomes. Institutions must simultaneously address students’ fundamental needs of food and housing, safety and security, peer relationships and social worth, interpersonal relationships, self-esteem, and respect as they seek to enhance students’ educational progress and guide students to become all they are capable of being. 

Student Services Significantly Supports Learning and Development 

The crux of student affairs is to address students’ fundamental and developmental needs through various programs, offices, and services that may include academic counseling and support, admissions and recruitment, campus safety, career services, child care services, counseling and psychological services, cultural centers, ethnic centers, financial aid, Greek and other student organizations, international student support, judicial affairs, LGBT programs, nontraditional student support, parent and family programs, residential life, school-to-college transition, service learning, student activities, student advocacy and intervention, student athlete support, student conduct and mediation, student disability services, student diversity and inclusion, student employment, student engagement, student government and leadership, student publications, student recruitment and orientation, Title IX office, veteran support, wellness and recreation services center, women’s support center, and others. 

Some student service programs support learning and success by helping students mitigate barriers to learning, while other programs educate students directly through experiential education, service learning, and residential learning communities that invite students to develop and practice leadership, teamwork, multicultural awareness and advocacy, and community engagement competencies. 

Furthermore, Linkedin’s recent analysis of hundreds of thousands of job postings identified the “technical” and “soft” skills that employers sought most in new hires (Hess, 2019). The five “most in-demand soft skills in 2019” include time management, adaptability, collaboration, persuasion, and creativity. These “most-in-demand” skills are qualities students develop in many student affairs programs and activities.  

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