American higher education is unique in its construction of student body as it is highly diverse today with students from various ethnic, social and racial backgrounds forming an integral part of the college environment. But apart from ethnicity and race, what makes higher education student body even more diverse is the presence of older students, students with disabilities and greater participation of women in educational pursuit. This has given a unique flavor and color to student body in American higher education institutions and hence also rendered it a complex mix of challenges, opportunities and excitement. This complexity also spurred the growth of support units on college campuses that would help students make an easy transition to the college life. With the passage of time, a new department of student affairs or student services emerged to handle all problems, opportunities and challenges related to a student's experience on the campus. This included personal security, disability issues, race relations, and also involvement of students in variety of extra-curricular activities.
Discussion of key terms:
Health problems: health problems in this article refer to non-disability related issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, health problems from drug use.
Disability: Disability refers to physical problems as well as learning problems (LD)
Support system: Refers to all kinds of support services available on the campus operating under different names
Self-advocacy: the ability to articulate the challenges being faced by a stuent that helps in effectively getting support
Student support systems are needed because American higher education institutions have become a true melting pot of various diversities and backgrounds. Despite the presence of diverse ethnicities on the campus, it is grim reality that some minorities groups continue to lag behind in enrollment and completion. Starting in mid-1980s, a trend was noticed in declining enrollment rate and increased attrition rates for some minorities groups including Latinos (Fisher, 1992). Student support systems within the institution work together to remedy this situation and over the past three decades, colleges and universities are consistently working on strategies to minimize attrition rate. Student affairs and student services departments are now present in almost all colleges and universities including community colleges. They focus on retention of students with the primary focus on helping students succeed in education especially those with disabilities or those coming from underrepresented groups. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 1989 highlighted the problems faced by students on the campus that lead to early withdrawal from courses and poor grades in chosen programs: "Physical disability, financial hardship, family circumstances, medical and psychological problems, and inadequate academic skills are example of situations that often affect learning" (p. 10).
Students who are unable to complete courses are not only those with learning problems but often those who have other factors affecting their ability to finish or pursue a college degree. One such major factor is health problems. Many students today face health challenges with which they are unable to cope and hence drop out of their courses or find it very difficult to finish with good grades reflecting their actual potential. For this reason, colleges specifically ask students to clearly explain if they have any health issues that need to be addressed during the enrollment process. Once on the campus, most typical disabilities would be effectively addressed by the student affairs department such as providing wheelchairs, hearing aids, sign language interpreters etc.
However what is more alarming is the rise in health problems that are connected with activities that some students adopt on the campus. According to a qualitative research by Luquis, Garcia, and Ashford (2003) it was found that students are not particularly concerned about health problems that can emerge from their involvement in sexual activities and drug use. The substances most commonly used on the campus included alcohol, tobacco, ecstasy, marijuana, and acid. Students reported that at least 80 to 90% of their peers were using some kind of drug and hence health problems emerging from such use was not a major concern. Similarly sexual experimentation was expected even though it is a major cause of health problems including sexually transmitted diseases. (Biscaro, 2004).
College and universities thus are seriously concerned about health issues that can affect a student's learning outcomes. Otrompke (2004) report that 25% of the 18 million college students are uninsured thus their health problems tend to become a serious obstacle in the way of obtaining their degrees. This is an alarming and rather distressing situation for college administration and hence student affairs department works actively with students to address such issues. But there is a still a wide gap between the effective solutions available to students with health problems and the number of students who leave their courses due to this.
Students with Disabilities:
While health problems due to involvement in certain activities on campus is a relatively obscure matter, the subject of students with disabilities like hearing and movement problems, mental issues like chronic depression or vision problems has found adequate support and presence in research and literature. According to Mull, Sitlington, & Alper, 2001, students with disabilities have grown in number over the last two decades indicating the effectiveness of disability management programs on American campuses. The National Longitudinal Transition
Study-2 found that 45% of students with disabilities today will attend some form of college or higher education institution within 4 years of leaving high school (Newman et al., 2009). It was also found that more than 11% of the total student population in higher education institutions today are disabled (Horn & Nevill, 2006) But while all this appears very encouraging, it is unfortunate to learn disabled students are still less likely to opt for 4-years degrees than non-disabled students. (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Levine,&Garza, 2006).
Students with disabilities have one advantage today that they never had before i.e. The awareness regarding disabilities and related problems which has strengthened the support system available to disabled students in colleges today. However despite the awareness and availability of effective support systems on campuses, students still face many difficulties when making a transition to college life including the differences in the level of support services available between high school and post-secondary institutions (Madaus & Shaw, 2004), attitude of the faculty, quality of services, educational and instructional demands etc. (Beilke & Yssel, 1999; Brinckerhoff, 1996; (Janiga & Costenbader, 2002)
HOW SUPPORT SYSTEM ON CAMPUS WORKS:
With college life representing a whole new world to students, even those students who have no health problems or disability issues seek family and peer support to make this transition a little easier. But those who have specific problems need the help of support services available on campus even more frequently and hence we now look into the issue from the viewpoint of student affairs and student services department to see if programs are available to provide adequate support and if yes, what students normally can do to access these services.
Role played by students in seeking support:
No support system would work effectively if a struggling student does not speak up. In many cases of violence on campus recently, it was found that students who had been struggling with mental problems prior to a major tragic were reported to student services and student affairs department by other students or faculty. But if the student himself fails to speak up, there is still chances that help would be offered. This may be unfortunate but this is the sad reality of support systems present on campus today. For this reason, support services advocate the use of self-advocacy skills which are believed to be the critical to success of students in institutions of higher learning (Anctil, Ishikawa,&Scott, 2008)
Students who can speak about the problems they are facing on the campus are more likely to find support from faculty as well as support services staff. College disability services staff cite self-advocacy as the most critical skill for overcoming challenges in college life (Janiga & Costenbader, 2002).
This skill works not only for students with disabilities but those facing other kind of challenges as well. The students who are self-aware and have the confidence and persistence to complete their degrees are more likely to approach student services with their problems (Bandura, 1977, 1986). It is unfortunate that those who need support the most might actually lack self-efficacy. It has been reported that students with leaning disabilities are far less likely to have the courage and eloquence to express themselves and hence may find it difficult to seek support compared to those without LD (Lackaye & Margalit, 2006)
Support needed and available in American Colleges and Universities:
There is variety of services available on the campus for students facing challenges working under different names such as Disability Services Office, Student Affairs department, Student services department, Student support department, Emergency hotlines etc. These offices function as the main support resource center for students offering counseling, changes in coursework load, exam accommodation, self-advocacy training, confidence building training, peer support groups and…