ACPA Senior Scholars Blog

Justifying Student Affairs programming: What’s behind the academic curtain?

Vasti Torres
Dean, College of Education
University of South Florida
Former, ACPA Senior Scholar

Since becoming an Academic Dean in 2013, I am seeing the nexus between research and practice from a very different perspective. As a faculty member in a student affairs preparation program for many years, I thought that the academic administration did not give student affairs an opportunity to share its knowledge and research about student success and learning.  Now I have a slightly different view of the landscape.

Academic colleges generate the tuition that drives our colleges and universities.  In these ever-tight budgetary times, every penny generated in tuition is important.  For this reason, I find myself trying to hold onto tuition for my college, which at times places me on the other side of the table from student affairs divisions who are asking for additional money.  I continue to support the work done by student affairs, but sometimes find myself understanding why academic affairs units want to limit the funding going to these “support” units.  Academic colleges can provide data on the number of graduates, learning outcomes, and other student success measures directly linked to what happens in the classroom.  Student affairs has to justify how their programs contribute to these measures, without having that “direct effect” of teaching the courses required for graduation. It is this ability to justify the contribution made by student affairs that is driving my different view of the nexus between research and practice.

Much to my surprise the rationale often given by student affairs practitioners is data from the 1980s or 90s.  In spite of the growing body of literature and various models that are more inclusive of underrepresented and low-income students – most practitioners can only talk about one model maybe two student success models.  It is also worrisome that practitioners cannot always connect the various pieces of research to create a cohesive picture of how the out of class experience influences student success. Worse – many do not even know if the student success models they cite would apply to the educational context of their institution.  How do you know that these forms of social integration really influence student success at your institution?  How have you tested these assumptions with the diversity of students currently on your campus?

Though most of my fellow academic deans do not know the higher education and student affairs literature in the same manner I do – I get the sense that they don’t buy the argument that a retention model from the 1980s ( continues to be valid if it has not been tested with the students at this institution – therefore it is automatically questioned. How do you know this model continues to be relevant for today’s students? That is what academics administrators do – they ask the difficult questions and expect an engaging and educated conversation about the merits of the rationale provided.  On the contrary most student affairs practitioners expect that their rationale will automatically be accepted as valid without clearly delineating the value of student development. For most colleges new programs or initiatives have to be funded with existing funds, while in student affairs it seems the expectation is to add on rather than re-purpose funding. Why – because someone else did the research therefore it must apply to the students at your institution? This is a troubling tension for someone like me who came from student affairs, but now sits as an Academic Dean. I find myself having these same questions.

How can this tension change our approach to create the change required for student affairs to flourish? In fact, the student unrests that are currently occurring across the country provides practitioners the perfect venue to illustrate their competence both in crisis management and in applying research and theory about marginalized students and systems of oppression.  Here are some thoughts to consider next time an academic dean asks you – how do you know what to do in these situations? Or perhaps asks you – why should this program be funded with more money?

  • Embrace the researcher nerd within you:  if you have not found this side of you in graduate school, approach a faculty member about helping you design a study to see how students at your institution fit into the theories, models, and research that is currently in the field ( Engage in the tension that perhaps assumptions you make about your students do not apply to all students.
  • Read the literature written in this millennium:  while foundational models and theory set the base line, today’s students are very different and the current research is much more nuanced.  This is critical for underrepresented students within our institutions.
  • Be a practitioner – public scholar:  The dissemination of knowledge is not just for the academic side. Write a blog or an essay that applies the research findings to practice. As the former Associate Editor of the “On Campus” section of the Journal of College Student Development (JCSD), I can tell you we received very few submissions about what works (with data) on your campuses.

If student affairs practitioners are to truly address the pressing needs of students in this century, they will need to let go of some of the assumptions they carry and consider new forms of caring for the needs of students.  After all, when was the last time you did more than consider the research about what it means for a student to experience racism, stereotype threat, demeaning comments, or self-doubt about their abilities? How often do data about these issues truly inform your practice? Some of our students experience these issues every day and we all have to do more than consider just social integration.