10 Things Student Affairs Programs Don’t Teach You

Graduate programs in higher education and student affairs provide budding professionals with educational theory and insights that will be invaluable when working at a college or university. However, there are many lessons that will only be learned by actually being a student affairs professional.

While internships and practica linked to the graduate program can offer some skills development, they can perpetuate bad practices, particularly because there may be little if any direct curricular connection between the academic program and the department hosting the internship. Unfortunately, these practices then become ingrained in students’ minds and are carried with them throughout their professional lives.

Here is a list of topics that student affairs programs do not teach:

Budgeting & Finance – One of the key lessons for moving up the administrative ladder in student affairs is having a working knowledge and experience in budget and finance management. Unfortunately, any higher education finance courses taught are cursory in nature and do not provide any opportunities to learn how to create revenue and cut spending, which is almost certainly a requirement for department heads and executive higher education administrators.

Management & Supervision – Hiring and firing, assessing performance, and motivating employees are not areas that student affairs programs teach to students who will be prospective employers. Generally, these skills are learned best on-the-job and are influenced by the specific policies and procedures of the department and institution for which you work.

Political Saavy – Institutions of higher education are rife with personal and political agendas. While classes in ethics and discussions of case studies occur in student affairs programs, there typically are not “How To’s” taught in regards to holding your own in the political arena of higher education.

Theory vs. “Real World” – As is the case with any discipline, the ideal standards taught in class are going to differ from what occurs in actual practice. You can learn all there is to know about Astin, Chickering, and Tinto, but work with colleagues who never heard of them nor care about their place in the practice of student affairs.

Emergency Preparation – The health, safety, and security of our students has become one of the top priorities of all colleges and universities. Student Lifers outside of Residence Life (i.e., admissions, career services, etc.) typically do not have day-to-day operational concerns related to this area so it can be more difficult to get direct experience in this area.

Fundraising – University foundation and alumni departments are typically charged with raising external funds to be used for scholarships and special projects. This is another area that is particularly specialized and subject to specific institutional policies and federal and state guidelines and laws.

Program Development – Civil engineering programs teach students how to build bridges, medical programs teach students how to diagnose and treat illness, but student affairs programs do not teach prospective student affairs professionals how to develop, manage, and assess departmental programs. Having the knowledge to put these type of strategic plans together is crucial. Unfortunately, new professionals carry around “bad habits” learned from their undergraduate and even graduate institutions. They can incorporate these philosophies and practices into their new professional lives without being knowledegable about how to fully develop a department through evidence-based practices.

Marketing & Publicity – Now more than ever, colleges and universities face multiple challenges for attracting and retaining undergraduate students. Marketing has become essential in order to publicize both student affairs departments and institutions as a whole. Social media has now become ubiquitous in our world and especially in the lives of our students.

* Photo courtesy of Craig Parylo  

8 thoughts on “10 Things Student Affairs Programs Don’t Teach You

  1. TeachHigherEd

    Spot on – I teach an internship course for a higher ed program, as well as a “generalist skills” course as a means to help students get some of these skills while in school.

  2. MGR Clarion

    Good post! I’m going to reply to the site, as well!

    Donna M. Schaeffer, M.A.
    Community Manager
    Diane L. Reinhard Villages at Clarion University
    159 University Blvd.
    Clarion, PA 16214
    Office: 814-226-4740
    Fax: 814-226-4741

    Managed by [sig_logo]

  3. Jeremy

    I actually learned many of these things in my graduate program at Ohio University. Not all programs are created equal. Scrutinize the courses and objectives and you’ll find these things in some of the better programs.

    1. studentlifeguru

      Thanks for your comment, Jeremy. I also agree that all programs are not created equal, particularly those that do not follow CAS and ACPA / NASPA standards. Ohio U. has a reputable program with a very established student affairs division on campus so it stands to reason that you received an excellent experience there.

  4. Aja Holmes

    Spot on, I totally agree with the supervision aspect, that is the area I will focus on for my doctoral research.

    1. studentlifeguru

      Hello Aja – That would be a great topic to explore for a dissertation! Just some random ideas for topics if you do not already have one: actual versus perceived supervision readiness for new professionals; the role of practica and internships in supervision skills development; graduate program impact upon full-time student versus part-time student / full-time professional’s supervision efficacy. Example research question: How do higher education doctoral programs impact supervisory skills of graduate assistants in Housing & Residence Life? (or whatever department your passion lies)

      The possibilities are pretty much endless! I would be more than willing to take a look at your proposal when you get to that stage.


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