This is part of a blog series dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. In this post, we’ll review why you should reconsider a career in student affairs. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.
The perfect tweet for this blog post: It is in reference to ‘who left student affairs in 2019″ tweet.
In November I intended to write just one blog post on why prospective students should reconsider student affairs graduate program. On my personal Facebook, I asked my friends (many who are in SA) “For folks in SA, what reasons would you give to discourage someone and advise them into a different grad program and/or field?”
Let’s just say…folks had a lot to say on the topic.
This first entry in the blog series will comment on the many darker aspects of student affairs that most prospective students, and even graduate students and some new professionals, are not well aware of. Student affairs has a bevy of systemic issues and more folks, particularly on social media, discuss these issues. But for every person who discusses these issues, there’s a high ranking white lady or dude in student affairs who calls that person a “dumpster fire” instead of, uh, actually calling the systemic issues a dumpster fire and working to address them.
Welp, here’s the dumpster fire:
1. Student Affairs Isn’t Puppies & Rainbows
Many folks believe that student affairs is focused on social justice. This is a fair assertion, especially because “social justice” is literally in the professional competencies of the organization. And there are many folks doing great work and consistently working towards justice, working towards liberation, working towards inclusion (these are all, to me, different levels of work, but all still important).
And then there are others…Everyone will overlook or mess up on an area that they are privileged in (we are always learning as educators) but then there are some folks who systematically contribute to oppression and tend to ‘fail upwards’.
Ultimately, institutions of higher education were built on white supremacy (Wilder, 2013), colonization and genocide (Wright, 1995), sexism and classism (Cohen & Kisker, 2010), abelist (the ADA wasn’t signed until 1990 and many faculty still have issues providing accommodations), and in general have been against folks who weren’t Christian (read how the Ivy League discriminated against Jewish students) or LGBTQ+ (dip into the research with K. Renn) either. Yes, there have been many advances in equity since World War II and later growth during the Civil Rights Era. But there are still significant issues creating an equitable playing ground for students of color, disabled students (or ‘students with disabilities’/SWD – the community uses both terms and its personal preference), low-income students, trans students, queer students, non-Christian students, women, older students, students with children/families/who are caretakers, transfer students, first-generation students, immigrants, international students, undocumented students, and any other student who doesn’t fit the mold.
And remember, Dear Prospective Student, the research on disparities for marginalized students that is published in media (and most of the academic literature), focuses on students. If the environments at all institutions (to an extent, and then it depends on the college, department, supervisor, etc) can be negative to student well-being…what do you think that means for the student affairs professionals who hold marginalized identities?
…yeah, folks, there’s a lot of toxicity in student affairs for marginalized folks.
Cody Charles(2017) dives into this through his essay “Student Affairs is a SHAM”; focusing on the recruitment of marginalized students into student affairs. As a white woman, I have not experienced racism, but the stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues of color…what I’ve read in the various student affairs Facebook groups…and all the other oppressive environments and actions experienced by student affairs professionals holding one or multiple marginalized identities…Whew! And then the stories of transphobia, sexism, ableism, etc…there are many dumpster fires in this field.
Personal disclosure – Five years of FT nonprofit experience + 2 years working in graduate school, and I don’t think I ever experienced systemic sexism at work (besides this one misogynist pastor who literally stapled papers and stared at his desk the whole time when I was meeting with him to discuss an important issue, ugh)…until I began my first post-graduate position in student affairs? Oof, yes. Multiple incidents that maybe I’ll write about in depth ten years down the road when there’s some more distance. (Lol yes, be nervous, you know who you are)
Trust me: Student Affairs is no better (yet also not any worse) than most other fields. I have folks who work in the private sector who have healthier work environments than some of the folks in student affairs.
However, while its not puppies and rainbows, I will point out some benefits to balance this section…
The benefits for some folks for working in higher education:
- Generally, most institutions have strong diversity statements so you can try to advocate for yourself to HR + more comprehensive reporting measures on civil rights (but that still doesn’t mean the institution will protect you necessarily).
- If you come from a low-income family and/or have disabilities that require medical attention, generally most institutions have great insurance – often better than other fields.
- Plenty more Paid Time Off (PTO) than most other fields, which is great if you have a chronic condition, family time, and/or love breaks from work. There are usually differences between institutions (public or private, small or large) on how much PTO you get.
- If finances are a concern and you have dependents and/or you/your spouse wants to continue your/their education, many institutions will cover tuition for perhaps 1-2 courses a semester or some will cover all courses. You’ll still need to pay fees, however.
- For trans folks, more and more institutions’ insurance policies include gender affirming healthcare (of course, this exists at large firms as well)
2. This isn’t a Lifelong Career
Perhaps you really are interested in working in student affairs forever…or perhaps you’re applying this fall to graduate school because you’re not sure what else to do with your career,
I’m sorry, Dear Prospective Student, but if you go to graduate school for student affairs, you’ll likely be in a different field anyway within 5 years – or at least, 50%-60% of professionals will be gone (Lorden, 1998; Tull, 2006; Marshall, Moore Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery (2016).
Can you imagine? Two years of your life studying and perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a career that last <5 years??? (Of course, if you get everything paid for, this can be fine – there are plenty of transferable skills, which I’ll cover in a future post).
Multiple scholars have covered this: Lorden (1998), Tull (2006), Marshall, Moore Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery (2016), Frank’s (2013) dissertation, Ward (2015), and more…
3. So why do folks leave the field of Student Affairs?
Marshall, et.al (2016) noted the following themes; but note I am adding my own observational notes for the rationale and I have a large number of friends who contributed their own thoughts on this as well:
- Burnout – Many functional areas require long hours (except for academic advising usually, but that still is a depending flow of talking to students non-stop throughout the day), including evenings and weekends. When offices are short-staffed or just have ambitious goals, this results in even more hours – and yet still, the professional feels like they aren’t hitting their goals. Sometimes when an office is short-staffed, but nothing is on fire, higher-up administators think “by golly, look how well things are working! let’s save money and cut x position immediately” resulting in long-term low-capacity and a culture of over-working.
- Salary issues – Many jobs that one can obtain with a bachelor’s degree range from $30,000-$60,000 starting immediately. So why do most student affairs positions with required master’s degree start with a range of $29,000-$42,000? With a median of $35,000? This is not a lot to live on, as I will explain in a future post on personal finance in SA.
- Career alternatives – I know folks who left their positions in student activities or multicultural affairs to become trainers at corporations making $65,000 and working regular hours. If student affairs type of work is what you are interested in, there are many alternative careers that use those same skills. (Again, I will explore options in future posts).
- Work/family conflict – The weird schedules associated with student activities and residence life can be killer on a personal life. (for a light-hearted read, check out “25 Ways You Are Dating A Student Affairs Professional”)
- Limited advancement – Renn & Jessup-Anger (2008) stated that the student affairs workforce is 15%-20% new professionals with less than 5 years of professional experience. There are a great number of entry-level positions but the competition gets fiercer for Assistant/Associate Director positions. And once you’re ready for higher levels? An immense amount of competition for director roles…often a doctoral degree is preferred for some of these roles and anything higher than director tends to require it. (But of course, as we know, having a doctoral degree does not automatically, in any way, make someone better at running an office or division).
- Supervisor issues and institutional fit – The critique I have about current scholarship on this topic of leaving student affairs is it doesn’t cover the specific issues facing marginalized folks in oppressive conditions. Essnetially, this tends to get at the concept of “institutional fit” – some folks ‘fit’ while others do not (“fit” is almost always shrouded in power and privilege). As for supervisor issues, supervision is not really taught in graduate school (although for some graduate assistantship positions they’ll have a training on it), which means there are some mediocre and some absolute terrible supervisors running around….people get promoted or hired into supervisor roles with little regard for how well they actually supervise people, but hey! “Golly gee they supervised full-time staff at xyz university, so they must know how to do it, so let’s hire them!” -_-
- Loss of passion – With all the above going on, who wouldn’t lose passion for their student affairs job?
4. You have to Still Pay for Parking as a Professional
Like….Tell me why at the age of 29 and freshly graduated with my master’s, I started my job with an annual salary of $35,000 and had to pay $600 a year for parking…just because my institution was adjacent to downtown of a city?
How many other companies or organizations charge their employees hundreds of dollars for the privilege of parking at work (some who are downtown in a city, but still). The one difference is sometimes smaller schools, especially community colleges, will provide free parking.
(okay this issue is small in the context of everything else, BUT I shall always remain mad about it)
5. The Pay Is Insulting for a Master’s Degree
Yes, I covered this a bit in #2, but it must be emphasized…
Most institutions have entry-level folks listed as “exempt”, meaning they must work at least 40 hours, but can be ordered to work “as much as needed” to get the project done. This is serious labor – high student contact, event planning, etc. All for maybe $17/hour or around $35,000 a year? In an upcoming post, I’ll share a copy of my old paycheck and do a ‘personal finance class for the entry-level SA person’ to give you a better idea of what this means.
6. The Student Affairs Field is Losing Value and Budget Cuts (i.e., jobs) are Coming
Until the research era in the 1920s-1940s, funded by millionaire philanthropists, hit higher education, faculty were the ones to serve as deans, advisors, etc. Many faculty, honestly unfairly, still think student affairs jobs are not necessary because ‘they’ can do it. But they cannot, because the professoriate has changed (to be fair, mostly at research universities) and the focus is research, publications, etc. Additionally, the needs of students have diversified and trained professionals (i.e., student affairs) are there to support student retention, advising, and running programs – training that falls outside the scope of studying one topic (history, biology, etc) in depth and teaching on it.
However, we are hitting a crisis in enrollment and across the board student affairs divisions at many institutions are thought to be of lesser value. I absolutely agree offices like cultural centers, student activities, etc are critical to student retention and absolutely necessary but when we are hitting a budget crisis, student affairs is going to be (and already is at many locations) the first to go once the president/board of directors get a chance. Colleges require faculty, financial aid offices….they don’t require programming in order to operate on a bare bones budget.
Why are budget cuts looming?
College enrollment has declined for the 8th consecutive year (Inside Higher Ed). “States with the largest decrease in student enrollment numbers were Florida, California, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to the center, in that order. Alaska, Florida, Illinois, North Dakota, Hawaii and Kansas had the largest percentage declines.” Birth declines began in 2008 and by 2026 higher education will begin to experience the “college enrollment bust” (Bloomberg).
“Over the past eight years, college enrollment nationwide has fallen about 11%. Every sector — public state schools, community colleges, for-profits and private liberal arts schools — has felt the decline, though it has been especially painful for small private colleges, where, in some cases, institutions have been forced to close” (NPR)
Meaning if you enter a student affairs graduate program in fall 2020, you’ll likely graduate in spring 2022 and then have 4 years before your institution will (likely) start experiencing more cuts.
7. Student Affairs Programs Aren’t Preparing Graduates for These Changes
The majority of student affairs programs are located at 4-year public campuses that focus on traditional undergraduate students (i.e., often straight out of high school, living on campus, not parents/caregivers). Which means the practical experience that graduate students obtain through their assistantships will primarily be with the “traditional student”. Our SA faculty primarily have their research focused on this “average” student population. Many of the theories taught in most SAgrad programs (though this is changing through texts like this and this) are rooted in the experiences of white middle-class college students.
Today’s college student, per the Lumina Foundation, has changed from what we may think of:
- 37% of college students are 25 or older
- 46% are first-generation college goers.
- 9% of college students are first-generation immigrants
- 42%of college students are students of color.
- 64% of college students work, and 40% of them work full-time
- 49% of college students are financially independent from their parents
- 6% of college students serve of have served in the U.S. armed forces
- 24% of college students have children or other dependents
- 36$ of college students reported not knowing where their next meal was coming from
- 9% of college students reported being homeless within the past year
- 31% of college students come from families at or below the Federal Poverty Guideline. The majority of college students (53%) come from families at or below TWICE the poverty level
These numbers? They will only change further as we hit the enrollment bust and colleges need to recruit even more students outside of the traditional high school recruitment circuit.
If you’re a current #SAgrad or in the field, did your graduate program teach you how to better serve and work with students from these (and other populations)? If you are a prospective student, definitely ask about this during interview season.
Faculty – feel free to prove me wrong and share in the comments or Twitter what your program is doing different. I want to believe #SAgrad programs are evolving, but have seen evidence to the contrary so far.
Want to add to the conversation? Tweet me at @NikiMessmore
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