Student Affairs As Both a Field of Study and a Profession Essay

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Student Affairs as Both A Field of Study and a Profession

What is Student Affairs?

Tyrell (2014) believes student affairs professionals have a continually expanding and evolving role in community colleges, with recognition of increasingly complex student experiences and with broadening of community colleges' role in the way students are engaged outside of and within formal, institutional settings.

The student affairs domain is an extensive and complex part of college campus operations, covering several departments and involving professionals hailing from a broad range of academic backgrounds. Student learning does not occur only in classrooms; rather, it is interwoven all through students' experiences in college, right from their freshmen days to the time they leave its doors after earning their college diploma. College students are molded by these experiences, conflict management lessons learnt from sharing dorms with fellow students, critical thinking skills perfected through challenging coursework, leadership skills attained through leadership positions in student organizations, and a growing sense of self/personal identity acquired while making sense of these experiences. While student learning undoubtedly occurs in the classroom, one must bear in mind that the university/college by itself serves as a learning platform. College life is certainly an enriching, transformative experience and hence, student learning also covers their overall development (Long, 2012).

Furthermore, the area of student learning involves a range of individuals, belonging to the student affairs domain, who predominantly educate outside of class (Long, 2012). The sphere has had an extensive history in connection with higher education. Over time, its name has undergone several changes, including student personnel, student development, student services, and the like. Colloquially, however, it is referred to as "student affairs." "

Theoretical Perspective of Student Affairs

According to Long (2012), the profession of student affairs is sound both in theory and in practice. Just as in the case of librarianship, theories represent the groundwork for student affairs practice, knowledge, and expertise. Models and theories advance routine student affairs work, right from career exploration and academic advising to discipline and leadership development.

A professional in student affairs requires the support of informal as well as formal theories. How a student affairs professional regards the correspondence between practice, formal theory, and informal theory will define his/her success in the field. Ideally, their work must be driven by theory-practice models that produce flexibility as well as rigor necessary for student affairs personnel, through critical evaluation of informal as well as formal theory. Hence, this paper takes up a discussion of formal student development/learning theories and the implicit or informal understanding of personnel in charge of their implementation (Reason & Kimball, 2012).

Kimball and Reason (2012) state that defining formal theories using the manifold named models taught to a majority of student affairs workers during graduate studies is probably the easiest way of approaching the issue. Informal theories denote practitioners' theoretical interpretation of the student development and learning concept, depending on their understanding of formal models/theories via the perspective of personal experiences. Further, they work as a series of assumptions, guiding values, and beliefs, of which student affairs personnel are critically informed. For instance, moral development stemmed as one of the informal theories grounded in personal reflection of moral developmental stages' limitations, which may be tested rigorously. By contrast, implicit theories represent the assumptions, values, and beliefs operationalized by professionals in everyday practice, usually without realizing that they are doing so. Thus, as per these definitions, informal theories always rely heavily on formal theories, while implicit ones normally develop without formal theories' guidance. Consequently, all effective models translating theory into practice should address issues of adaptability and rigor, in addition to providing a mechanism for shedding light on the hidden assumptions, values, and beliefs undergirding the profession, connecting the qualities with formal theories using reflective practice. By doing so, implicit and informal theories become parallel to one another.

Theories of student development may be classified under four broad groups, which are as follows (Long, 2012):

Psychosocial theories -- These concentrate on the interpersonal and self-reflective aspects of a college student's life. They explain how students' views of society and personal identity evolve in the course of crises and conflicts encountered by them. Student affairs personnel often employ psychosocial theories in scenarios requiring students to develop autonomy and independence, or resolve disagreements with others. They also employ them in framing discussions concerning identity, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race. One theory classified under this category is Phinney's Ethnic and Racial Identity Theory. The theory puts forward the view that students hailing from ethnic/racial minority backgrounds encounter fundamental conflicts arising due to their minority group status, and that their identity is threatened through exposure to biased treatment and stereotyping. Another psychosocial theory is Super's Career Development Theory, whose premise is that competencies and career preferences alter with experience and age.

Cognitive-structural theories -- This group of theories explains a student's thought processing, reasoning, organization, and interpretation with regard to personal experiences. The theories are typically sequential in nature, with cognition development unfolding stage by stage, as the student builds on prior experiences. Professionals in the field of student affairs often employ them in situations wherein students are required to learn, reflect, and adapt behaviors and perspectives to their respective environments. One theory included in this category is Perry's Cognitive Development Theory, which accounts for how a student organizes and perceives knowledge. Two more theories under this group are Kohlberg's Moral Development Theory, which explains impact of students' reasoning ability on their conduct and behavior, and Parks' Faith Development Theory, which defines faith development of students as a process of identifying and forging connections between events and experiences.

Person-environment interactive theories -- This cluster of theories concentrates on the direct impact of educational environment on student development and conduct. The theories coming under this category are extensively employed in the domains of career services and academic advising. One such theory is Astin's Student Involvement Theory, whose hypothesis is that the more a student engages in college life's social and academic aspects, the more his/her social and academic proficiency will be. Another theory falling under this group is Tinto's Student Departure Theory that accounts for student retention. The theory proposes that students leave higher education prematurely (i.e., without acquiring their degree) owing to the quality and nature of university/college-related interactions. Students and the educational institution they enroll in, possess unique characteristics that may sometimes contradict one another. When these conflicts remain unresolved, the student might drop out or depart (Long, 2012).

Humanistic-existential theories -- These theories describe the way students make important decisions that impact themselves as well as others. Student affairs personnel, including counselors, who attempt to provide assistance, are heavily reliant on these theories. Hetler's Wellness Model is one theory falling under this group; it proposes that without wellness, a student will not be able to grow intellectually and psychosocially. The term 'wellness' implies the state of overall physical, social and mental well-being; it combines six elements of students' lives: physical, social/emotional, intellectual, occupational, spiritual, and environmental. Students should succeed in each dimension for fully experiencing healthy, positive and complex development and learning (Long, 2012).

Student Affairs as a Profession

According to Bresciani and Hoffman (2012), the profession of student affairs values individuals and in a period of accountability and assessment, this profession should also value growth and demonstration of skills by these individuals. In this context, the term 'assessment' means a systematic gathering, analysis, and utilization of information relating to education for improving student development and learning. Thus, how must people be educated to make them fit for a student affairs post or how must this profession be pursued?

Some documents perceive professional training to be the duty of graduate preparatory programs, whereas others concentrate on several entryways into this field. Both of these depictions place much of the responsibility of ensuring superior quality work in the field on professional bodies (Torres & Walbert, 2010).

However, Tyrell (2014) remarks that there appear to be fewer practitioners in the student affairs offices of community colleges who have finished graduate work imbedded with formal student development training compared to their counterparts in four-year colleges. If this is really the case, professionals in community colleges must reconsider how to obtain best required training for effectively applying these models of student development within student learning environments. Therefore, there are numerous reasons for community college professionals to consider becoming competent in the application of community college student development models/theories. Nevertheless, a question of whether one can enter the student affairs profession only through acquiring an advanced degree remains open to discussion.

The credentialing execution team of ACPA (American College Personnel Association) is addressing the aforementioned question, since it feels some professionals can exhibit the requisite skills sets and knowledge competencies for effectively supporting, challenging, and interacting with, students, without advanced degrees. How can this be possible? It is believed that skills sets can be acquired by professionals through seeking opportunities for professional development (for instance, reading a "Student Development Theory to Practice" text, studying articles, creating…

Sources Used in Document:


Hoffman, J. L., & Bresciani, M. (2012). Identifying What Student Affairs Professionals Value: A Mixed Methods Analysis of Professional Competencies Listed in Job Descriptions. Research & Practice In Assessment, Vol 7, 26-40. Retrieved from

Long, D. (2012). The Foundations of Student Affairs: A Guide to the Profession. In L. J. Wong, Environments for student growth and development: Librarians and student affairs in collaboration (pp. 1-39). Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries. Retrieved from

Long, D. (2012). Theories and Models of Student Development. In L. J. Wong, Environments for student growth and development: Librarians and student affairs in collaboration (pp. 41-55). Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries. Retrieved from

Reason, R. D. & Kimball, E. W. (2012). A New Theory-to-Practice Model for Student Affairs: Integrating Scholarship, Context, and Reflection. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, Vol 49, No. 4, 359-376. Retrieved from

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