Considering a Career in Student Affairs
By Dr. Patrick Love
Associate Professor, New York University

Are you looking for a meaningful career? A career in which you can make a difference in the lives of other people? A career where you could work at a small liberal arts college, a community college, or a big university? A career where you will be challenged to develop skills in a variety of areas, such as leadership, advising, administration, or supervision? If so, then you are in the right place, because the field of student affairs provides just such careers. Welcome to the American College Personnel AssociationProfessional Preparation Commission Directory of Graduate Programs Preparing Student Affairs Professionals, where you can gain information about the field of students affairs and many of the institutions that provide graduate preparation programs for the field of student affairs.

The purpose of this essay is to provide information about the field of student affairs to users of this directory, especially those users from outside the field. This brief essay identifies: the roots of the student affairs profession;

  • foundational documents and beliefs;
  • what jobs student affairs professionals hold (e.g., residence director, academic advisor, dean of students);
  • the types of departments in which student affairs professionals work (e.g., financial aid, orientation, career services);
  • the types of institutions in which student affairs professionals work (e.g., community colleges, liberal arts colleges, research universities);
  • where student affairs is going (our future); and
  • why you might consider a career in students affairs.

History of Student Affairs

The field of student affairs arose from a variety of strands of college work. One strand emerged from the advising and counseling positions that developed on campuses--the personnel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The other was through the proliferation of administrative and management functions as institutions of higher education grew in size and complexity during the late 19th and throughout the 20th century. The first Dean of Men was appointed at Harvard University in 1870. The number and type of advising, counseling, administrative, and management positions continued to increase throughout the 20th century to meet the evolving needs of institutions and the students who attend them. Other factors that contributed to the development of the field of student affairs include the proliferation of colleges and universities during the late 19th and throughout the 20th century, the inclusion of women and students of color, the rise in the importance of extracurricular activities, and research conducted on the experience and development of college students. More recent trends influencing the field include the expansion and integration of developmental theory, refocusing on the learning experiences of students, and exploring the role and enhancement of student engagement.

Foundational Documents and Beliefs

There are core beliefs and principles of student affairs practice that have persisted throughout its history and there are those beliefs and principles that have evolved and emerged as institutions of higher education and the needs of our society have changed. One of the most important early documents that attempted to capture the emerging complexity of the field was the Student Personnel Point of View, published in 1937 by the American Council on Education. It was reviewed and rewritten in 1949. Since then additional documents have been produced that have attempted to capture the beliefs and principles of the field, while providing vision and guidance for future development in the field. These documents have included: Student Development in Tomorrow's Higher Education: A Return to the Academy (1972); the COSPA statement (1975); A Perspective on Student Affairs (1986); The Student Learning Imperative (1993); and Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs (1998). These are all relatively brief documents and it is highly recommended that anyone considering a career in student affairs would do well to read them.

An analysis of the documents reveal some of the ideals toward which we strive as a profession. They include:

A belief in the dignity, uniqueness, potential, and worth of each individual.

A belief that our role is to enhance student learning and student development.

A belief in the development of the whole person, including the importance of intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual elements.

A belief that learning occurs in diverse places and diverse ways.

A belief in supporting the goals of individuation and community, recognizing the powerful role of community in learning and development.

A belief in communities where diversity is desired, mutual respect is expected, and where ideas and assumptions are to be explored and questioned.

A belief in encouraging conversation and communication, instead of stifling it, no matter how offensive the ideas may be to some.

A belief that the mission of student affairs flows from the mission of the institution.

A belief that higher education and student affairs have roles in assisting in transforming our society into one that is a learning society.

Roles, Functions, and Institutions

At its broadest definition, student affairs could be said to consist of any advising, counseling, management, or administrative function at a college or university that exists outside the classroom. However, the traditional notion of student affairs often includes a mixture of the following functions taking place in the following departments.

Functions - Student affair professionals perform a varied mixture of leading, educating, individual and group advising, counseling, supervising, teaching, training, planning, program development, inquiring, managing, financial management, and assessment and evaluation. Emerging functions include resource attraction and grant writing, entrepreneurship, outcomes assessment, political negotiation, and cultural assessment.

Departments - Department and program areas typically associated with student affairs include residence life, commuter services, graduate student services, admissions, new student orientation, financial aid, counseling centers, advising centers, leadership development, Greek affairs, student activities, student unions, leadership development, community service, service learning, career planning and placement, discipline and judicial affairs, alumni relations and development, services for students with disabilities, developmental learning services, and advocacy and support programs (e.g., for students of color, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender students, veterans, women, international students, adults).

Institutions - Student affairs professionals work in every kind of institution including private liberal arts colleges, community colleges, public colleges and universities, research universities, women's colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges, urban institutions, and for-profit institutions.

The Future

The student affairs field recognizes the on-going changes and transformations that are occurring in society and affecting institutions of higher education. The field and the professionals within it are dedicated to meeting those challenges. However, at its core, the student affairs profession will be called to continue its traditional responsibilities of helping to shape our institutions and to meet the learning and developmental needs of all students and humanizing the college campus. To achieve these goals we will need to learn how to make colleges supportive, learning rich environments for all students, including traditional age students, adult students, graduate students, part-time students, commuters, students of color, students with disabilities, and poor and otherwise disadvantaged students. In addition, student affairs practitioners will need to develop policies and practices that allow students to stay connected to each other and the institution in the face of technological and societal trends that will increasingly foster disconnectedness.

Considering a Career

Given the wide variety of needs being addressed and the wide variety of roles and functions, the field of student affairs seeks individuals from varied backgrounds, and with varied experiences, skills, and interests. What we hope is common in the individuals seeking a career in student affairs are the values listed earlier in this essay, especially a desire to assist in the growth and development of all college students, and a willingness to continue to grow and develop in one's abilities to meet the needs of our students and the needs of our institutions.

We encourage you to talk with people already working in the profession. We are sure you will hear stories of challenge, frustration, even discouragement. But we also know that you will hear stories about the joy of positively influencing someone, the satisfaction of making a difference, and the exhilaration of meeting challenges and overcoming obstacles. Working in the field of student affairs is an exciting adventure. We hope you will consider joining us!

Suggested Readings

American College Personnel Association (1994). The student learning imperative: Implications for student affairs. Washington, DC: Author.

American College Personnel Association and National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (1997). Principles of good practice for student affairs. Washington, DC: Author.

American Council on Education (1994a). The student personnel point of view. In A. L. Rentz (Ed.), Student affairs: A profession's heritage (pp. 66-77). Lanham, MD: University Press of America. (Original work published in 1937).

American Council on Education (1994b). The student personnel point of view. In A. L. Rentz (Ed.), Student affairs: A profession's heritage (pp. 108-123). Lanham, MD: University Press of America. (Original work published in 1949).

Brown, R. D. (1972). Student development in tomorrow's higher education: A return to the academy (Student personnel series No. 16). Washington, DC: American Personnel and Guidance Association.

Council of Student Personnel Associations (1975). Student development services in postsecondary education. In A. L. Rentz (Ed.), Student affairs: A profession's heritage (pp. 428-437). Lanham, MD: University Press of America. (Original work published in 1975).

Cross Brazell, J. (1996). Diversification of postsecondary institutions. In S. R. Komives & D. B. Woodard (Eds.) Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 43-63). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Culp, M. & Helfgot, S. (1998). Life at the edge of the wave: Lessons from the community college. Washington, DC: NASPA.

El-Khawas, E. (1996). Student diversity on today's campuses. In S. R. Komives & D. B. Woodard (Eds.) Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 64-80). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Komives, S. R., & Woodard, D.B. (1996). Student services: A handbook for the profession. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (1987). A perspective on student affairs. Washington, DC: Author.

Nuss, E. M. (1996). The development of student affairs. In S. R. Komives & D. B. Woodard (Eds.) Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 22-42). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rentz, A. L. (1996). Student affairs practice in higher education (Second Edition). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Woodard, D. B., Love, P., & Komives, S. R. (2000). Leadership and management issues for the 21st century. New Directions in Student Services. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

September 2003