Campus to Congress: What policymakers can learn from today’s student affairs
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Fayetteville State University, a historically black university in North Carolina, recently announced plans to demolish two residence halls. On its face, the move is not unusual. After all, the dormitories are old and unoccupied. But what makes the decision stand out – and one policymakers would do well to take note of – is that the two buildings, which once housed more than 400 students, will not be replaced.

The institution’s decision was not, as one might intuit, triggered by the specter of declining enrollment, decreased funding, or a budget crunch. Fayetteville State’s enrollment has remained steady for years. But while the number of students has not declined, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the ways students engage with the university are changing. They’re older than traditional college students. They take the majority of their classes online. They’re balancing the demands of work with school. And many have neither the need nor desire to live on campus.

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“They don’t need dormitories,” James Anderson, Fayetteville’s chancellor, told the Chronicle.

In this sense, Fayetteville State is not an anomaly. Nearly 40 percent of college students are now over the age of 25. More than half of all college students now take at least one course online. Fifty-eight percent work while in college. Just 13 percent of students live on campus and 26 percent are parents. More and more students are going to school part-time. Fewer and fewer have four years of time and four years of money (at the same time).

This is the new reality facing higher education, that is creating unprecedented demands -- and complexity -- for frontline staff charged with unlocking the potential learners that our policies, systems, and institutions didn’t anticipate, and aren’t well equipped to serve.

Because as the needs of today’s students are evolving – so the field of student affairs is too. The idea of student affairs originated centuries ago at European institutions of higher education, where deans were put in place to enforce campus rules and address issues of discipline. When the GI bill fueled demographic shifts among American college students in the mid-1940s, the role – and responsibility – of higher education evolved.

And today the stakes are even higher. Access to and success in higher education is fast becoming an economic, if not moral, imperative. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require a college degree.The path to economic opportunity and mobility flows through college and, as a result, much work has been done to lower the barriers of access to higher education. More people -- and from increasingly diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds -- are attending college than ever before.

But one in five students never graduate.

As colleges shift to focus on completion, student affairs has been charged with leading initiatives that retain and graduate nontraditional learners -- and help graduates translate their college experience into language and skills that matter in the labor market. How can non-academic experiences compliment coursework to ensure that students obtain and maintain soft skills like collaboration and communication? How can institutions ensure students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, find and gain the out-of-class experience they need in industries dominated by unpaid or low-paying internships? To start, student affairs must evolve from a position focused on first-time, full-time students to developing psycho-social and academic support structures for students who may be spending less "physical" time campus.

The work of student affairs is, of course, not limited to completion and careers. Students are more activist in nature and more civically engaged now then they have been in generations. Recent years have seen large-scale protests around sexual assault, racial equity, and free speech on campus as students demonstrate a need for student affairs to respond to new or more pressing needs. Title IX offices are growing in importance. Today’s students are demanding more counselors and advisers of color. And longstanding student affairs challenges like food insecurity on campus, student mental health, and student homelessness are taking more precedent.

These are challenging times for higher education. We are witnessing a sea change reflected in an entirely new face of today’s students. That new reality on campus should shape the Department of Education’s guidance on sexual assault prevention and response, and urge equal protections for all students, regardless of gender identification. And it must inform legislation designed to protect undocumented immigrants who attend our nation’s colleges and universities. Likewise, the next rewrite of the Higher Education Act must take the needs of today's students into account and update policies to recognize that today's students have time and financial obligations outside of the classroom, that they are more likely to attend more than one institution before graduation, and that institutions of higher education need to offer flexible models and supports to meet students where they are.

While the shift may be evident today to those working on the frontlines of student affairs, the development of tomorrow’s policies demand that awareness of this transformation permeate the committee halls and conference rooms in Washington, as well.

Kevin Kruger, Ph.D., is the president of NASPA, with over three decades of experience in higher education with a unique viewpoint on the challenges faced by an increasingly nontraditional student population. Julie Peller is the Executive Director of Higher Learning Advocates and has background in federal postsecondary education policy issues with a focus on student attainment, and student financial aid.