In examining the primary challenges and opportunities that student affairs professionals face, I return to three questions that have been asked about higher education throughout history. First, who receives the opportunity to attend and get a degree? Second, how is higher education funded? Third, what is the purpose of higher education? In answering these questions in the present moment, student affairs professionals are provided with both immense opportunities as well as severe challenges, creating both wonder for the possibility inherent in the future and doubt at the enormity of the challenge involved in reaching that future.
Many of the functional areas in student affairs are devoted to answering the first of these three questions. Who attends our institutions? Who finishes their degrees? Through pre-college programs in high schools, to recruiting programs in admissions, to academic advising and academic counseling, student affairs professionals must take on the challenge of providing access to historically underrepresented groups and supporting those students through degree completion. Higher education could be the great equalizer for our society, providing economic opportunity and social mobility to first-generation college students and students with disabilities or low-incomes. The social capital gathered in higher education could reduce the structural racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other isms by connecting students, both those with power and privilege and those without, to diverse others. When people are in relationship with those who are different from themselves, they are likely to learn and care about them, and this care could be translated into societal change in the future. However, the challenges associated with recruiting and supporting students who have been historically barred from higher education are many, including funding the programs that support their success, as well as challenging the status quo. Often programs such as these, which support specific groups of students like the CAMP program, which supports children of migrant workers, or the federally funded TRiO programs, which support low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities, are the first to be defunded in an economic crisis. Many people with power do not see the immense importance of these programs. Change of this magnitude happens slowly, and those with power and privilege may not want to give up that power in creating a more egalitarian society.
The second question, how is higher education funded, is a challenge and opportunity that student affairs professionals take on by supporting students financially. Whether this work is done through financial aid offices, in advising sessions, by encouraging and/or offering scholarships and grants, or through advocacy by senior student affairs officers at the state and local levels, students come first in this equation. This second question connects quite prominently to the first question in that keeping higher education accessible to all students in terms of costs provides more opportunities to students in historically underrepresented groups. With the costs of higher education rising at an exponential level, the challenge for student affairs is to do our work more efficiently, using our resources wisely, while offering the most comprehensive learning possible for all students. The challenge is also to lobby our government for a changed federal loan and grant program that takes students into account. In the Career Services office, a new funding model for student loans has been discussed that is already being utilized in Europe, where students borrow what they need for their education but only pay back a percentage of their income. This strategy would result in students making choices about their career that are not based on the debt they incur during their college education, but about their real passions and interests, and it could offer incentives for people to choose careers that may not pay as highly yet are sorely needed for our society like teaching and nonprofit work. There are great opportunities and challenges in asking the question, how is higher education funded?
Finally, the purpose of higher education is certainly a question that is currently being asked by many in U.S. society. Often during tough economic times, this question emerges because people wonder whether the high cost of college pays off for individuals and for society. The challenge and opportunity of the coming years will be to communicate the value of higher education in the cognitive and psychosocial development of students. This question emerges out of the struggle between a view of higher education as vocational in nature or a view with higher education’s purpose as creating a thinking and reasonable society through exposure to the liberal arts. Currently, because of the high costs involved, the media seems to be pursuing the vocational applications of higher education. Do students with college degrees get better jobs? Do they earn more? Is college currently preparing students for the workforce? These questions are being asked right now. Part of answering them is through educating faculty members to connect classroom learning to career applications, use high impact pedagogy, and encourage students to seek out internships in their fields. In Career Services at OSU, we are currently in the process of launching a program that asks faculty to get involved in students’ career development in the classroom, by integrating it into the curriculum. Departments such as the Center for Teaching and Learning at OSU provide professional development opportunities for faculty members who may be experts in their respective disciplines but have never engaged in learning about high impact teaching that provides real-world applications for students. Programming like this, merging the dual purposes of higher education as both connected to career and to citizenry, can help ease the concerns of society, who express suspicion in the inherent worth of a college degree.