More and more, institutions of higher education are changing, most notably the economic arena is forcing institutions to do more with less, and this is having a serious effect on how institutions provide services to students. Economic constraints are forcing some institutions to merge departments, eliminate programs, and reduce personnel in order to balance budgets. Yet, with limited budgets, reduced staff, and increased demands to provide quality education and services to students, institutions must ensure that they provide students with adequate support to succeed both academically and personally.
Shifts in student cohorts are also changing rapidly, with more students from historically under-represented groups entering postsecondary education. Larger cohorts with various needs, backgrounds, and interests are pursuing higher education and institutions must be intentional in providing relevant services and programs that will enhance their academic experiences and assure that they attain a degree.
With such high demands in a time of economic turmoil, changes, and challenges that institutions are facing, how are institutions structuring (or re-structuring) their organizations to support student success?
With this question in mind, I want to examine part of the findings of our research study. The Supporting Student Success research study investigated how student affairs and services staff perceive their institution’s formal and informal organizational structures and how staff members perceive these organizational structures to influence their ability to support student success. Through individual interviews and focus groups, we asked participants at nine universities and five colleges in Ontario to define the formal (reporting lines of their division/program, titles, and portfolio agendas) and informal (e.g. networks and relationships among staff, faculty, and students) structures of their organizations.
Participants had an opportunity to draw a diagram to depict their perceptions and these drawings were then shared with members of the focus groups to discuss similarities and differences. We found that participants elaborated on the image they drew during the focus group conversation and that the images tended to coincide with two different approaches to supporting student success: student-focused (represented by spider web-like models) and institution-focused represented by “silos”. It is important to note that images and their coinciding approaches were not exclusive. Depending on participants’ roles in the organization, their perceptions of the organizational structure differed. We present these two approaches as ends of a continuum in which staff members’ perceptions of the organizational structures at their institution exist along that continuum.
Participants that perceived their organizational structures as a spider web-like image (also depicted as dream-catchers, overlapping circles, and wheels) described their organization as an interconnected knit that supported students at the institution. Leaders in these organizational structures were keen in connecting departments, programs, and people to provide a supportive network for students and also to provide support to one another in this process. They saw a shared responsibility in supporting student success and relied on each other to create a culture that was student centered. Figure 1. depicts the student-focused images.
Participants that depicted their organizational structures as a spider web-like image also seemed to share values and missions with others in their departments and departments across other divisions, which often stemmed from the institutions’ mission and vision statements. An important influence in the spider web models was the strong presence and involvement of a senior student affairs and services officer (SSASO) often identified as a Vice President, Student Services, Associate Vice Principal or Dean of Student Affairs. Student affairs and services (SAS) staff in our study described a strong influence of their SSASO in facilitating communication and developing collaborative lines within the division and across the institution. The approach to supporting student success at institutions in the spider web-like diagrams were depicted as student-focused institution because their values, mission, and actions represented a strong commitment to supporting students.
In contrast with the spider web-like imagery that depicted a student-focused approach to supporting student success, some participants described their organizational structures as silos. In these models, often depicted as towers, brick walls, and islands, organizational units were perceived to operate independently of each other, lacked collaboration between units, and were perceived as focused on maintaining the institution’s procedures and practices as opposed to examining how students navigate the institution and organizing according to student use. Figure 2 depicts images associated with the institution-focused approach.
SAS staff who depicted this model often did not find the same level of intentional support from senior administrators that was found in the spider web model, and often felt that faculty and administrators did not understand their role in supporting students. Participants also felt that there was a lack of commitment of a shared responsibility in supporting student success among faculty, SSASO and SAS.
Organizational structures that were depicted as spider web and silos were not always mutually exclusive and often times very different perceptions of the organizational structures were held at the same institution. This overlap or “tension” in SAS staff’s perceptions of the organizational structures at their institution was found among three groups: between the student affairs and services division and the broader institution, between SAS departments, and between individual SAS staff members. In the first group, tension occurred when divisions “wished” they were more student-focused, but felt the larger institution did not have this commitment. In the second group, often tensions arouse when departments had been merged, typically because of re-organization of the institution or organizational unit, and these departments had not developed congruency in their approach to serving students. The last group, individual SAS staff, found tension in their perception of the organizational structure when they differed in their approach to serving students with one another. Some SAS staff in the same departments would prefer to exercise/adopt a more student-focused approach when serving students, while others preferred to adopt/exercise a more institution-focused approach. We saw this tension between individual SAS staff members most commonly in departments that provided more of the “transactional” types of services to students such as financial aid and registrar’s units.
We emphasize in our study that while the continuum of spider webs and silos were dominant among our participants’ images, no institution fully represented either. Moreover, there is no “right” or “wrong,” or even perfect model. What is important to note is what we can learn from these findings to face some of the challenges institutions are experiencing. This brings me to a discussion of my initial question: “With such high demands, changes, and challenges that institutions are facing from stakeholders, how are institutions structuring their organizations to support student success?”
Communication, collaboration, and leadership were prevalent themes in our findings that provided SAS staff with beneficial tools to provide support to students and to each other. Intentional communication among SAS staff from various departments where people shared their roles in their division and got an opportunity to interact with one another was highly beneficial. SAS staff explained that getting an opportunity to learn about their colleagues’ roles and familiarize themselves with the services they provided allowed them to better support students. When SAS staff were familiar with one another at the institution they were able to make appropriate referrals, provide consistent information, and provide relevant advice to students. Intentional communication also helped SAS staff to build networks with colleagues across divisions/programs, which often led to collaborations. Participants reported that not only did collaborations enhance the services and support for students; it often led to the creation of innovative programs or service delivery models to fulfill their mission to support students. Effective and supportive leadership from SSAOS was influential in opening/widening the lines of communication and collaboration among SAS staff and divisions, which positively influenced SAS work in supporting students and strengthening programs and services.
The challenges that higher education institutions face are ever growing. However, the need to support students in achieving their academic and personal goals is ever more important because they too are facing dramatic changes and challenges in all aspects of their lives (education, economy, politics, etc.). Whether institutions tend to be more institution-focused, student-focused, or somewhere in the middle, there is value in taking a step back and reflecting on what we can accomplish in a time where we are often limited in being able to do all that we wish to support students. The findings of our study provide us with insights of what SAS staff are doing across colleges and universities in Ontario to support students, what strategies have worked and what has not been so successful in supporting students.
I invite you to reflect on what we asked SAS staff members in our study: How do you perceive the organizational structures of your institution? What do you believe is helping (or hindering) your ability to support student success? For many of the participants in the study, this was the first time that they were asked to reflect and voice these perceptions. This opportunity allowed participants to engage in dialogue with their colleagues about their current environment, voice their concerns, and often initiate intentional collaborations among units.
– Submitted by Diliana Peregrina-Kretz