Synopsis: In August of 2019, Dr. Kyle Ashlee put out a poll to student affairs professionals asking: “What are the top three issues on your mind as you prepare for the 2019 academic year?”. The Student Affairs State of Affairs is an attempt to capture and comprehend the larger trends shaping the field today. From campus safety and student mental health to shrinking budgets and declining enrollment, student affairs professionals are worried about their students, their institutions, and their jobs. These concerns are evidence of the profoundly dehumanizing culture created by neoliberalism in higher education. If Student Affairs educators are to continue advocating for college students through the current changes in higher education, the must step back from the frenetic pace of their jobs, notice the impact of neoliberalism happening around them, and move forward with purposeful action. (20 minute read, 7 minute skim)
One of the most defining characteristics of working at a college or university is the constant state of change. Students and their needs are always in flux. Departments and functional areas undergo endless turnover and restructuring. Institutions of higher education and their budgets are increasingly uncertain. And somewhere amidst of all this change, Student Affairs educators find themselves hustling to keep up.
From the beginning, change has defined the field of Student Affairs. This fall marks the 70th anniversary of the reissuing of the Student Personnel Point of View, and with it, an important opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the field of Student Affairs has changed. Originally published in 1937 by the American Council on Education (ACE), the Student Personnel Point of View officially established the field as a response to the dynamic transformation of higher education in the United States. In 1949, the Council’s Committee on Student Personnel Work revised and updated the original report. Again, the dynamic of change was a central theme in this pivotal document:
From the beginning, change has defined the field of Student Affairs. This fall marks the 70th anniversary of the reissuing of the Student Personnel Point of View, and with it, an important opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the field of Student Affairs has changed.
“The student personnel movement developed during the early twentieth century in part as a protest against German-born intellectualism and also as the result of the findings of the psychology of individual differences during the second decade of the present century. Its evolution was stimulated by the huge growth of American colleges and universities following the First World War. With hordes invading institutions of higher education, colleges sought means to maintain some personal and individual relationship with students” (American Council on Education, 1949).
“Substantial changes have occurred in student characteristics and the nature and organization of colleges and universities. Student affairs assists institutions in responding to changing conditions by providing services and programs consistent with students’ needs and the institutional mission” (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 1987).
With such relentless change, it can be difficult to keep track of how Student Affairs has transformed over the years and what is happening today. In the beginning the field was concerned, above all, with providing college personnel services. From there, the field shifted to focusing on student development, and then student learning. Today, Student Affairs professionals seem to be working toward student success more than any other outcome.
The Student Affairs State of Affairs is an attempt to capture and comprehend the larger trends shaping the field today. My hope is that this analysis will serve as a reflective mirror as well as a call to action for Student Affairs educators who want to serve students, support their institutions, and uphold the values of the profession during a turbulent time of dehumanization in higher education.
The Student Affairs State of Affairs is an attempt to capture and comprehend the larger trends shaping the field today.
In the beginning of August, I put out a poll to several Student Affairs social media groups as well as to my friends, colleagues, and mentors who work in the field asking:
“What are the top three issues on your mind as you prepare for the 2019 academic year?”.
Within just a few days, I received an incredible number of responses through comments, private messages, and one-on-one conversations. Of course, the individuals who responded to the poll are by no means a representative sample of the entire field. I did not ask for any demographic information, length of time in the profession, functional area, or position title. I was simply curious and eager to hear from anyone who wanted to share.
Ten Crucial Issues for the Field of Student Affairs in 2019
Based on the responses I received, the following is a list of the ten most significant issues on the minds of Student Affairs professionals as we enter the 2019 academic year:
- Campus Safety
With the horrors of Dayton and El Paso still weighing heavy on the minds of many Americans, students are coming to campus this fall feeling concerned and anxious about the dangers of gun violence in the United States. Mass shootings have become commonplace in the United States, resulting in everything from mandatory active shooter trainings to heightened armed police presence at colleges and universities across the country. As some of the primary managers of campus safety, Student Affairs professionals have begun playing a more prominent role in preparing colleges for a nightmare scenario that many believe could happen at any moment.
- Student Mental Health
From anxiety and depression to other debilitating diagnoses, college student mental health concerns are on the rise. From 2007 to 2017, the treatment of college student mental health problems rose from 19% to 34% and students with lifetime diagnoses increased from 22% to 36%. As campus counseling centers struggle to keep up with the growing caseload, many Student Affairs professionals find themselves stepping in to support students through mental health crises. While some graduate programs cover basic counseling skills, Student Affairs professionals often lack the adequate training and preparation to manage the increasingly complex mental health concerns experienced by today’s college students.
- White Supremacy
In 2018, a total of 313 cases of White Supremacist materials were documented at colleges across the country. The rise of White Supremacist propaganda on college campuses has led to increased concerns for the welfare and safety of marginalized student populations, including Undocumented Students and Students of Color, to name a few. Additionally, rising social acceptance of bigotry, hatred, and fear has fueled an unprecedented debate among students, faculty, and staff about the role of free speech in higher education. While many Student Affairs professionals have stood up to defend marginalized students from the threat of violence and injustice posed by White Supremacy, campus responses to incidents of hate have been heavily critiqued from all sides. Student Affairs professionals across the country struggle to balance university free speech policies with the growing concern that demonstrations of speech may lead to violence.
- The Perceived Diminishing Value of a College Degree
Although the benefits of earning a college degree have been well documented, many Americans are beginning to believe that going to college is not worth the return on investment. Indeed, some high-achieving students have made headlines after dropping out, claiming that “college is a scam”. With nearly half of all employed graduates from four-year institutions working in jobs that do not require a college degree, it is understandable that people are beginning to question the value of a U.S. higher education. This perception is based on the idea that the ultimate goal of a college education is to get a job, as opposed to becoming a critical and engaged citizen. As a result, states have decreased funding to colleges and universities, student enrollment has gone down, and colleges and many universities have suffered financial hardship. Student Affairs professionals are caught trying to uphold the values of holistic education, while also catering to the increasing practical demands of students, parents, administrators, and businesses to foster skills that will help graduates be more competitive in the job market.
- Shrinking Budgets
As of 2018, state funding for two and four-year public colleges was more than $7 billion less than what it was in 2008. These massive cuts have had a damaging effect on higher education, including increased tuition rates, decreased student enrollment, more student loan debt, less full-time and more adjunct faculty, fewer course offerings, and most importantly for Student Affairs professionals, student support services being eliminated at colleges and universities.
- Declining Student Enrollment
As of spring 2019, college enrollment in the United States has decreased for the eighth consecutive year. Overall, enrollment is down 1.7%, or approximately 300,000 students. Although the impact of this trend varies by institution, colleges and universities experiencing significant decreases in student enrollment are bracing themselves for the inevitable financial impact that will result from fewer and fewer tuition dollars. Many Student Affairs professionals are being tasked with finding innovative strategies to increase revenue and reduce costs. When these efforts aren’t enough, college and university leadership often look to Student Affairs departments, budgets, and positions as among the first to be cut.
- Rising Tuition Costs
Average annual tuition rates at four-year colleges in the U.S. has risen by 36 percent since 2008. Many universities rely on tuition dollars to operate, and as student enrollment and state budgets decrease, colleges have responded by increasing tuition prices. Rising tuition costs significantly impacts affordability and access to higher education, especially for low-income students and Students of Color. As a result, the gap between those who can afford a college degree and those who cannot is growing wider and wider. Many Student Affairs professionals are feeling pressure to advocate for those students most negatively impacted by the steady increase in tuition rates.
- Crushing Student Loan Debt
A total of 44.2 million people in the United States owe a collective $1.52 Trillion in student loan debt. Student loans now classify as the second highest consumer debt category, falling just behind mortgages. Again, student loan debt burdens low-income and Students of Color more than any other demographic. Approximately 64 percent of all graduating students have borrowed, while more than 80 percent of Black students graduate with debt. All of this debt severely limits future employment opportunities and social mobility. As many students try to mitigate debt by working in addition to managing their class commitments, Student Affairs professionals struggle to engage students on campus.
- Increasing Demands on SA Pros
With an eye on the shrinking bottom line, colleges and universities are continually asking Student Affairs professionals to do more with less. If positions or departments are not eliminated altogether, leadership within divisions of Student Affairs are called to be creative in generating revenue and cutting costs. For many, this either means providing fewer services to students or asking Student Affairs educators to take on more responsibilities in order to ensure retention rates and student success.
- Unsustainable Staff Turnover Rates
Approximately 60% of Student Affairs professionals leave the field within their first five years in the job. These educators tend leave the field due to excessive work hours, stressful conditions, non-competitive salaries, a lack of effective supervision, work-life conflict, limited career advancement opportunities, a lack of professional challenge, a loss of passion, and attractive career alternatives. Moreover, declining budgets and calls for efficiency in higher education also contribute to high employee turnover. The culture of Student Affairs work tends to place extremely high expectations on Student Affairs professionals, which causes stress, anxiety, and for many, burnout.
1. Student Affairs professionals are worried about their students.
In addition to their primary job responsibilities, Student Affairs educators seem to be spending a significant amount of time worrying about student safety, responding to mental health crises, and defending marginalized students against violence and hate.
2. Student Affairs professionals are worried about their institutions.
Economic and political forces have changed the financial stability of colleges in the United States, and Student Affairs professionals are feeling pressure to discover creative revenue-generating solutions or make difficult decisions to cut back.
3. Student Affairs professionals are worried about their jobs.
With increasingly complex concerns and dwindling resources, supporting today’s college students seems like an uphill battle. Many Student Affairs professionals are worried that their jobs might be in jeopardy if they aren’t able to put out all the fires while also documenting every decision they make along the way.
The Effects of Dehumanizing Neoliberalism in Student Affairs
The concerns held by Student Affairs professionals going into the 2019 academic year are evidence of a profoundly dehumanizing culture in higher education. The current season of change sweeping through college campuses seems to be concerned, above all, with profit, efficiency, and accountability. A focus on the bottom line often takes priority over caring for people. While this is a false dichotomy, Student Affairs professionals often feel forced to compromise on what is best for students in the name of what is best for the budget. As a result, higher education has become a stressful, frantic, and toxic place to work.
The current season of change sweeping through college campuses seems to be concerned, above all, with profit, efficiency, and accountability. A focus on the bottom line often takes priority over caring for people.
Scholars attribute the degrading culture of higher education to neoliberalism, or “the defining political economic paradigm of our time – it refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit” (McChesney, 1999, p. 7). At colleges and universities, neoliberalism has shifted the focus of education from developing students to producing workers.
For Student Affairs professionals, neoliberalism has created an atmosphere where time, productivity, and resources are the driving forces behind the work, instead of students’ wellness, learning, or development. This uncaring environment demands that educators work more and reflect less. When expectations are constantly higher, there is no time to stand still or to question the dehumanizing nature of the work. As a result of having little time for reflection, the system goes unexamined and faces little resistance. Indeed, “knowledge stripped of ethical and political considerations offers limited, if any, insights into how universities should educate students to push against the oppressive boundaries of gender, class, race, and age domination” (Giroux, 2002, p. 441).
This dehumanizing culture is also bad for students. Neoliberalism encourages educators and students to confuse college with job training, which results in less resistance and active critique toward systems of oppression. Students, and parents, see themselves as customers paying for a service, rather than students seeking an education. If Student Affairs educators focus only on keeping students and future-employers satisfied, they have less time to help students learn and grow. Any educational effort which might hold students accountable or challenge them to think about how their behavior impacts other people is met with resistance. As a result, the work of Student Affairs professionals has become more about ensuring student satisfaction than about developing critical and engaged members of a campus community.
Finally, neoliberalism is bad for Student Affairs professionals’ health and wellness. Research shows that stress in academia is higher than that found in the general population (Catano et al., 2010). Awareness about student mental health is growing due to the neoliberal culture of customer satisfaction, but little attention is paid to the mental health of Student Affairs educators. The current emphasis on productivity in higher education makes it difficult for educators to take time for themselves or seek help.
The current emphasis on productivity in higher education makes it difficult for educators to take time for themselves or seek help.
Self-care is an often-cited aspiration but continues to be an elusive practice for many Student Affairs professionals. In 2015 ACPA conducted The Work Life Integration Project, which found that many educators “reported feeling that they couldn’t turn work off because everything is always a priority.” Another study showed that Student Affairs professionals “experienced negative psychological and physical outcomes as a result of their work supporting students through trauma” (Lynch, 2017, p. III). Yet another study demonstrated that work-related stress in Student Affairs results in poor health, decreased satisfaction with personal relationships, decreased sleep and sleep quality, and decreased job satisfaction (Skipper, 1992).
Student Affairs professionals begin to integrate the neoliberal expectation of working more and caring for themselves less as early as graduate school. In a recent About Campus publication, Dr. Dian Squire and Dr. Z Niccolozzo critique the rhetoric of self-care in Student Affairs as yet another mechanism of neoliberal dehumanization in higher education. The authors note that,
“As a field, we have propelled our graduate students away from a developmental framework, one that regards graduate students as learners and contributors to our field and reframed them as laborers and production tools contributing only time and energy with little consideration for their being” (Squire & Niccolozzo, 2019, p. 4).
Sadly, the dehumanizing effect of neoliberalism in higher education is so pervasive some Student Affairs educators end up turning against one another, instead of using their energies toward dismantling systems of oppression. In a forthcoming paper, Dr. Sam Museus (in press), argues that the impact of neoliberalism in higher education results in educators constantly comparing and trying to position themselves as better than each other. The tragic result is that vulnerable relationships and authentic community are nearly impossible to establish due to the fierce culture of competition and toxicity that is increasingly common at colleges and universities.
Sadly, the dehumanizing effect of neoliberalism in higher education is so pervasive some Student Affairs educators end up turning against one another, instead of using their energies toward dismantling systems of oppression.
When Student Affairs professionals are burdened with constant stress and anxiety produced by neoliberalism, not only does their health suffer, their ability to push back against the dehumanizing culture of neoliberalism in higher education is diminished. Indeed, “as the power of higher education is reduced in its ability to make corporate power accountable, it becomes more difficult within the logic of the bottom line for faculty, students, and administrators to address pressing social and ethical issues” (Giroux, 2002, p. 438). The inability to organize active and sustained movements of resistance against the dehumanizing nature of neoliberalism in higher education seems to be the true crisis that is defining and shaping the field of Student Affairs in 2019.
Leading with Mindful Resistance
When the College Student Personnel Point of View was first published in 1937, the United States was experiencing unprecedented change due to global warfare. Since that time higher education has only continued to change, and Student Affairs professionals have adapted to meet every challenge. Through the second World War, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the passing of Title IX, and 9/11, Student Affairs professionals were there to help lead students and institutions through these challenges into the future. Every change in our country’s history has shaped higher education, and Student Affairs professionals have led the way by working to ensure that changes in student demographics and educational needs were accompanied by thoughtful and equitable support services.
Today’s college educators are being asked to navigate massive technological, economic, and political changes. The potential consequences of these trends are frightening and tangible. But the field of Student Affairs does not attract the faint of heart. Student Affairs professionals are doers and achievers. They are problem-solvers and first-responders. They are, and always have been, leaders.
Today’s college educators are being asked to navigate massive technological, economic, and political changes. The potential consequences of these trends are frightening and tangible. But the field of Student Affairs does not attract the faint of heart.
If Student Affairs educators are to continue advocating for college students through the current changes in higher education, they must use their time, energy, and resources to actively resist the effects of neoliberalism. By doing so, not only will Student Affairs professionals be advocating for their students, but they will also be taking a stand for their own wellness and the well-being of collaborative relationships within the field that can be leveraged to collectively resist systems of oppression.
The most effective forms of resistance against neoliberalism are those which prioritize mindfulness, healing, and the development of each individual student. Through a practice of mindful resistance, Student Affairs educators can simultaneously promote the collective well-being of students, educators, and institutions. These approaches emphasize community building, joyful Student Affairs practice, collaborative organizing among educators, and collective liberation from systems of oppression.
Through a practice of mindful resistance, Student Affairs educators can simultaneously promote the collective well-being of students, educators, and institutions.
Practicing mindful resistance in the midst of the neoliberal takeover of higher education is not only a helpful strategy toward preserving the values of the profession, it is also an ethical imperative. To intentionally question and effectively hold institutions accountable, Student Affairs educators must be fully present in their work by observing the true impact of neoliberalism on students and educators alike. This means taking time for daily reflection and contemplation. It means prioritizing student wellness and learning. It also means taking care of ourselves and bravely speaking our own truth. Through these practices, Student Affairs professionals can step back from the frenetic pace of their jobs, notice the impact of neoliberalism happening around them, and move forward with purposeful action.
More so than anyone else in higher education, Student Affairs professionals have the values, ability, and influence to deliver colleges and universities from the dehumanizing outcomes of neoliberalism. As the 1987 Perspective on Student Affairs noted,
“Effective student affairs professionals use personal persuasion and collegial participation in the resolution of issues and problems. In a pluralistic campus community, the manner in which policies are made, decisions are reached, and controversial issues are handled may be as important as the results themselves. Indeed, an institution transmits values to students by the way it approaches policies, decisions, and issues. Student affairs assumes a major role in encouraging and establishing open and humane methods of campus decision making and the rational resolution of conflict” (American Council on Education, 1987).
Of course, engaging in mindful resistance will not be easy. As we have seen, neoliberalism in higher education ensures that Student Affairs professionals are discouraged from these types of resistance efforts, and even incentivized to abandon them altogether. Student Affairs educators must be steadfast in the knowledge that rest, reflection, and recovery will be among the most effective strategies they can implement to resist the dehumanizing impact of neoliberalism and lead colleges and universities through the frightening changes facing higher education today.
Student Affairs educators must be steadfast in the knowledge that rest, reflection, and recovery will be among the most effective strategies they can implement to resist the dehumanizing impact of neoliberalism and lead colleges and universities through the frightening changes facing higher education today.
In the face of continuous cataclysmic change, Student Affairs professionals have consistently advanced the common good and championed the rights of the most marginalized individuals on campus. If educators remain true to liberatory practices of mindful resistance, perhaps this will be the only aspect of higher education that won’t change.
ACPA & NASPA. (2015). Professional competency areas for student affairs educators. Professional Competencies Task Force. Washington, DC: Author.
American Council on Education. (1949) The student personnel point of view. Washington, DC: Author.
Catano, V., et al. (2010). Occupational stress in Canadian universities: a national survey. International Journal of Stress Management. 17(3), 232-258.
Giroux, H. A. (2002). Neoliberalism, corporate culture, and the promise of higher education: The university as a democratic public sphere. Harvard Education Review. 72(4), 425-463.
Lynch, R. J. (2017). Breaking the silence: A phenomenological exploration of secondary traumatic stress in U.S. college student affairs professionals. Doctoral Dissertation. Old Dominion University.
McChesney, R. (1999). Introduction. In Chomsky, N. Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
Museus, S. (in press). Humanizing scholarly resistance: Toward greater solidarity in social justice advocacy within the neoliberal academy. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.
National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (1987). A perspective on student affairs. Washington, DC: Author.
Skipper, T. L. (1992). How stress affects student affairs professionals’ health. The Bulletin of the Association of College Unions-International. 60(2), 4-9.
Squire, D. & Niccolozzo, Z. (2019). Love my naps, but stay woke: The case against self-care. ACPA About Campus. 24(2), 4-11.
The Student Affairs State of Affairs would not have been possible without the generous support of my friends and family. Specifically, my wife, Aeriel, and my daughter, Azaelea, who put up with hearing me talk about this project for many, many hours. I'd also like to thank everyone who responded to my poll during one of the busiest times of preparation for the fall semester. Lastly, I want to thank all of the Student Affairs educators tirelessly working to support students in their learning and development. This work is often thankless and exhausting. I see you and I appreciate you all.