Student Affairs or Student Services? Moving beyond the Name Game

One of the persistent global challenges in the field of student affairs and services is the reality that we use a multitude of terms to describe our work. I recently attended the International Bologna Conference in Berlin sponsored by the European Council for Student Affairs and the German Studentenwerke. In looking through the titles of conference attendees, I noticed titles such as Director of Student Services (Australia, Iceland and Ireland), Director of Student Welfare Organization (Norway), Dean or Director of Student Affairs (Azerbaijan, Scotland and Singapore), Head of Student Support Services (Portugal), and Vice Chancellor for Students and Employment (Spain). I was amazed, although not surprised, by the diversity of names for people playing the same game.

Canada has its own version of the “name game.” As part of the CACUSS Identity Project’s early work, I remember defining student affairs, student services, student development and student life on my survey. During the CACUSS 2011 conference, David Speed, Jennifer Brown and Lilly Walker presented research on Chief Student Affairs Officers across Canada. One of their key findings: there were almost as many titles as there were respondents.

While Associate Vice Presidents for Student Services provide leadership at some postsecondary campuses, Vice Presidents of Student Affairs do so at others. And at still others, the Vice Provost or Vice President – Students leads the division. With so much variation in titles, the Supporting Student Success research team has taken to calling the person who provides leadership to the division the Senior Student Affairs and Services Officer in recognition of the interchangeable use of the terms “student affairs” and “student services” in the Ontario context.

But are the terms really interchangeable? What are student affairs? What are student services? Do they differ in material ways? At the International Bologna Conference, one of the presenters commented that if you asked these questions to 200 people, you would receive 220 answers.

Between conducting the Supporting Student Success study and attending the International Bologna Conference, I’ve learned how various terms are associated with different organizational structures. For example, the Vice Rector of Student Affairs from Thammasat University in Thailand spoke passionately about his division’s commitment to leadership development and civic engagement through a civic engagement course and a host of peer tutoring and service learning initiatives. He referred to this component of his portfolio as student affairs because it focused on student learning and development, drawing a distinction between the student support services that his division also provides. In this example, there appears to be two sides to the coin. On one side of the coin is “student affairs” with an emphasis on student learning and development and on the other side is “student services” with an emphasis on providing services that support students to realize their educational goals.

In other contexts, student affairs has been used as an umbrella term under which the sub-areas of student services and student development fall. Still in other jurisdictions, student learning and development programs exist within offices of student services.

Not unlike the wide variation in titles, we saw a wide range of terms used to describe formal organizational structures in the Supporting Student Success study. For example, at one institution, the Director of Student Services and the Director of Student Development reported to the Vice President, Student Affairs. At another, the head of the division’s title was Dean of Student Affairs and Associate Vice Principal (Student Services). In still others, the name was consistently either student services or student affairs.

This leads to the question: what’s in a name and does it matter for the work that we do?

I think that the words we use to define our work can matter, particularly if our word choice contributes to students, parents, faculty and senior administrators misunderstanding what it is that we do and how our work supports the institutional mission and student success. How can the field move beyond the language challenge so that our contributions are recognized fully?

What About “Student Success”?

In the Supporting Student Success study, there were several instances of Student Success Centres reporting to the SSASO. Some institutions have even considered renaming the whole division simply “student success.” The University of Kansas has initiated such a change with the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Success’ portfolio looking very similar to those of the SSASOs in the Supporting Student Success study. I think this naming convention has potential but I wonder if naming a specific division “student success” may abdicate the broader institution from their responsibility to support student success.

Providing Services and Educating

It’s interesting that the top two values that form the foundation of the Office of Student Success | University of Kansas are education and service. Similarly, at one of the institutions in the Supporting Student Success study, learning, development and service were the three pillars which provided the foundation for their approach to supporting student success.

If we look back at the field’s history, providing important services and educating students has been the core of our work (see the CACUSS Mission Statement, 1989; Learning Reconsidered, 2004; the Student Learning Imperative, 1996; and the Student Personnel Point of View, 1937, 1949). Irrespective of whether staff work in a division called student affairs or student services, they play a critical role in providing high quality service AND educating students. For example, financial aid staff administer necessary funds to students, they teach students about the process by which to apply for and access available funds. In this way, they educate students how to understand and navigate bureaucratic and administrative organizational structures. This exemplifies the unity of service and education.

At two different conferences this summer, I heard practitioners lament the lack of consistency in how we describe our field. I wonder if there might be benefit by re-naming our divisions to coincide with the longstanding pillars or our field. Maybe something like Services for Student Learning and Development? What do you think?

– Submitted by Tricia Seifert

The Supporting Student Success team welcomes your thoughts and comments. Please add your perspective and “Leave a Reply.”

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