Many student-facing administrators are considering leaving higher education, thanks to a fraught political climate, limited resources, and a rapidly expanding set of responsibilities that are causing exhaustion and burnout. Colleges urgently need to take steps to keep them around.
That’s a key conclusion of a new report from Naspa: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education that aims to outline a road map for the field over the next five years. The report, written by a NASPA task force, includes results from a survey of student-affairs professionals.
While 61 percent of survey respondents said they planned to keep working in student affairs for the next five years, about one-third said they weren’t sure they’d stay in the field, and 25 percent said they didn’t know if they’d recommend a career in student affairs. About 40 percent said their colleges weren’t discussing changes in the student-affairs work force.
One dean of students who participated in a focus group for the report pointed out that senior leaders are often working 80-hour weeks, and seem overwhelmed and undervalued. Why, the administrator asked, would early-career professionals want that future for themselves?
Nearly all respondents said they expected to take on more duties in the next five years, particularly in the areas of social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion; online student communications and virtual student engagement; and crisis management. If administrators’ existing workloads aren’t redistributed, the report says, that will increase burnout even more.
Eighty-four percent of respondents said they believed stress was causing people to leave student affairs. Eighty-eight percent pointed to low salaries as another factor.
“As institutions attempt to simultaneously provide integrated learning activities, engaging social spaces, and safe and inclusive environments, professionals are challenged with doing so while managing shrinking resources and constant crises,” the report says. “This expansive list of priorities requires staff to work at exceptionally high levels and often for long hours, which is not sustainable in the long term.”
Colleges should offer more-flexible work policies, clearer paths to advancement, and more-attractive compensation to recruit and retain staff members, the report recommends.
Student-affairs offices were founded a century ago as mechanisms to foster student conduct and discipline, but they have since evolved to oversee campus life and activities, student organizations, student-support programs, and other areas, the report says.
This expansive list of priorities requires staff to work at exceptionally high levels and often for long hours, which is not sustainable in the long term.
Today student-affairs professionals are increasingly responsible for one of the most important and complicated aspects of higher education in the 21st century: student belonging.
In the survey, while more than 60 percent of administrators said their colleges had made diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority, just 32 percent said they believed their institutions were adequately addressing racial justice, campus climate, and equity. The report stresses the importance of professional development and training for student-affairs staff members so they feel they actually have the capacity to lead such work.
Student-affairs administrators are also having to adapt to students’ changing expectations for their college experience. Generation Z students are more concerned about how institutional values align with their own, the report says.
As colleges enroll more-diverse student populations — students of color, student parents, students who are working full time, and online learners — student-affairs officials reported in the survey and in focus groups that many of their systems, policies, and structures were outdated and not designed to serve their campuses. The Naspa survey found that just one-third of respondents felt that their institutions were adequately responding to changes in student demographics.
Student-affairs officials signaled that they would be continuing to scale up the role of technology in student-support efforts even as the pandemic recedes. Most survey respondents said that their colleges would be providing more online options for mental-health treatment, advising, orientation, student programming, and career fairs.
Seventy percent of respondents reported that they’d be more often handling crisis management over the next five years, and half expected to be providing more student counseling.
But nearly all the respondents said they felt at least somewhat ready to handle crisis management, and 52 percent said their campus was “very responsive” to students’ growing mental-health concerns.