This is part of the blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs” 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. Peruse past posts on what to look for in a #SAgrad program and alternatives to #SAgrad programs to pursue related interests in different careers.
In this guest post, an Anonymous Higher Education professional shares their thoughts on what the big picture problems of higher education and student affairs. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.
Like most people reading this, I had a college experience that affected me profoundly. Though my family was of decidedly modest means, tuition in the mid-90s was reasonable and financial aid bridged the gap much better than it does today – so I was able to have a residential experience on a small liberal arts campus. It was immersive and transformative and I am thankful for the faculty, staff, and fellow students who invested so much in me to make that such a meaningful time. This experience moved me to pursue a career trying to reproduce that experience for others by way of Student Affairs.
Now: No college experience worth its salt should turn out people who can’t adapt. As I ventured into new institutions and new roles, I saw some students having experiences similar to mine, finding the right resources and niches. And then, as I began to shed my confirmation bias, I increasingly saw students left behind by static student affairs engagement models that don’t meet the needs of a changing population of learners.
I have watched:
- Social fraternities cling to their influence and demand disproportionate resources of their host institutions while much more inclusive programming models struggle to survive.
- Urban institutions sink tons of cash into developing a new residential and programming structure while criminally underserving the vast majority of students who commute, work, support families, and struggle to balance it all.
- Small colleges doubling down on irrelevant curricula, resulting in depressed enrollments, all the while continuing to teach “the students they wish they had” instead of making structural changes to serve the students they have, and that deserve a far more responsive approach.
A recent position with an organization that serves higher education helped me understand that these are not anomalies. There are massive systemic issues facing the higher education sector – issues that for the most part I think student affairs is ignoring. While most of this incredible blog series is centered on the reasons one might want to reconsider a career in student affairs, I am here to offer thoughts on why you might be careful about pursuing work in higher education writ large. To set the stage:
- American faith in higher education institutions is eroding, and there is little evidence to suggest it will recover quickly. While college degrees do add massive value to a person’s life, our national graduation rates (just over 50%: abysmal) indicate that we do a terrible job actually getting those degrees into people’s hands. We have not adjusted to meet their needs, and we are failing them. The public has taken notice.
- Another rising critique from outside our walls: Employers are not seeing the skills they need in recent graduates. Students have a much higher perception of how capable they are than do the employers who hire them. Chief academic officers have similar blinders on, habitually overestimating the abilities of their graduates. Given career outcomes are the overwhelming reason students cite for pursuing college educations, this is a serious issue.
So it is not clear we do what our students need us to do at all. And enrollments tell the story: They are in perpetual freefall at all types of institutions over the last eight years, spanning several shifts in the economy. This is driven in part by fewer students graduating from high school, and by people pursuing other options for postsecondary education. Training at work, certifications and licenses, and other non-degree pathways can be fruitful and certainly represent a smaller opportunity cost than the time and money it takes to finish a full degree.
As colleges scramble to figure out how they will entice older learners back to finish degrees – one in five adults in this country is walking around with some college but no degree, which is a direct effect of our terrible graduation rates – they are demonstrating a basic inability or unwillingness to consider fundamental changes to their models. And they are hurtling toward budget crises and closures as a result of having no idea how to attract today’s learner. This is a business that’s experiencing a rapid, catastrophic market correction. Why on earth would you get in now?
This is a business that’s experiencing a rapid, catastrophic market correction. Why on earth would you get in now?
Even if you land a steady job with a reasonable wage, the glut of people coming out of graduate programs (and out of sick and dying institutions) will be competing fiercely for a diminishing number of opportunities for advancement. Moribund enrollments guarantee flat wages and waning retirement contributions. And in the end, adjusting to meet the needs of today’s learners, which higher education has done such a shitty job of so far, is way harder when resources grow thin. So it’s a downward spiral for many institutions at this point.
These are all facts. The numbers tell the story. But here’s an additional suspicion I have, specific to student affairs: While some folks enter a career after considering many possibilities available to them, there is no small number of people who land on student affairs by default, after a minimum of creative thinking. Graduate programs have proliferated, enticing students into mediocre preparation tracks and tossing them into a really challenging employment market and jobs where they seem to be surrounded by toxicity and retrenchment of regressive social values.
And of all of these pathways to the profession, so precious few are taking into account the massive sea change in higher education and who our students are (as artfully laid out by Niki in her opening post in this series). I routinely see big, famous student affairs programs churn out new graduates completely unprepared for today’s higher education landscape, operating on assumptions established 30 or 40 years ago.
There is good work to do in this sector. My current role is one charged with making massive changes to a single institution to make it future compatible. I believe in what higher ed can be, but am skeptical that it will rise to the occasion in most circumstances. If you see opportunities to meaningfully contribute to the change we need, I encourage you to consider those. You don’t always need a degree in student affairs to do so. But if you’re assuming student affairs will be a steady option given all that’s happening, think carefully about whether you’re ready to enter that fray.
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The writer for this blog post has held senior-level positions in higher education and has 20+ years of experience in the field.
[Editor’s note: Submission guidelines allow for anonymous authorship for writers who would like to keep their identity unknown. Please respect their anonymity – this series will have a couple anonymous posts at least]