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Five megatrends threatening student affairs (and how to turn them into opportunities)

Supporting the Profession
February 4, 2015

Five macro forces of change are converging that are shaking the foundations of higher education institutions and threaten the very existence of student affairs as an independent function. However, senior student affairs officers are uniquely positioned to turn these threats into opportunities if they make the best use of their position to lead innovation and change.

Trend #1: New pressure on students to find meaning and purpose

Those who hold that the only purpose of college is to get a job miss the “bottom line” value of helping students find meaning and purpose. Purpose is the “what” of our lives – the ends or goals we pursue. Meaning is the “why” that helps us understand who we are and helps us to choose goals we will find fulfilling. College is often about only goals – choosing a major, getting good grades, getting into grad school, getting a job – with little time spent on helping students explore what will give meaning to their lives. College is a time of transition that brings special challenges. Students live under intense pressure to live up to expectations of others, to let go of the comfortable security of childhood, to grapple with the tension between freedom and responsibility while constantly comparing themselves to their peers and coming up short. This search for identity and the resulting pressure result in unsafe sexual behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse, depression and other mental health issues and, in too many case, suicide. Student affairs is ideally positioned to help students find both meaning and purpose on their way to graduation so that they enter the world of work ready for life.

Trend #2: New technologies will redefine how we interact

New technologies are reshaping expectations for what goes on inside and outside of the classroom. This apparent in the growth of online learning and how students, faculty and staff connect. Students increasingly expect to conduct transactions on their smart phones or other devices that used to involve a visit to an office. Many transactional services will be delivered online to reduce costs and improve access. The challenge for student affairs will be to create a sense of community, connection, and belonging for students who are not on campus often or at all. Another is to use data wisely to understand and even predict what students want and need. They will expect the university – including student affairs – to know as much about them as Amazon and to anticipate what they might want. On most campuses, the data is there but isn’t being used to drive decisions. That needs to change.

Trend #3: Changing student demographics

Overall competition for students will increase over the next decade as the number of high school graduates declines while the racial/ethnic/socio-economic makeup of entering students will shift.  By 2020, 45 percent of the nation’s public high school graduates will be non-white compared with 38 percent in 2009.  Students will be more likely to be the first in family to attend college and will have fewer economic means. In addition, more of those entering college will be foreign-born including immigrants and international students recruited actively by colleges and universities. Adult learners, often with jobs and families, are becoming a greater percentage of the student body. Finally, we are seeing the end of the millennial generation and a new “touchscreen” generation coming to campus. All of these emerging segments have different needs and expectations that have direct implications for what services student affairs needs to provide.

Trend #4: Rapidly evolving world of work

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, one third of the entire US workforce changes jobs every year. Today’s students may have 10 to 14 jobs by the time they are 38. Students are applying for jobs that didn’t exist ten years ago. Employers increasingly are looking for college graduates who can thrive in an innovative global work environment with skills that go beyond what is learned in the classroom.  These skills include critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings. Employers also say they want candidates who demonstrate ethical judgment, intercultural skills and the capacity for continued new learning. Student affairs can provide new approaches to how we work with students in their journey to position them for success after graduation.

Trend #5: Increased demand for institutional accountability

The popular media are currently engaged in a scathing denunciation of higher education pointing both to staggering student loan debt and the questionable value of a degree in finding employment.  A recent Wall Street Journal article made the case saying, “What’s really needed in U.S. higher education is major structural change. To remain viable, college and universities need to cut expenditures dramatically. For decades, they have ridden the student loan gravy train, using the proceeds to build palatial buildings, reduce faculty teaching loads and, most notably, hire armies of administrators.” (January 15, 2014). Unless it can make a case that it creates outstanding value for students and for the institution, the student affairs function will be squarely in the cross hairs of the budget cutters.

Turning Threats into Opportunities with an Innovation Hub

Framing is everything. If we see these five megatrends as threats, our responses will be defensive seeking to avoid the danger. The better path is to see these trends as the domains in which our most creative and innovative thinking can take place.  New solutions can be forged that simultaneously address most or all of them.

We recommend creating an Innovation Hub within the student affairs division.  Think of this as the infrastructure to bridge the various silos on the campus that serves as the forum for creating interdisciplinary solutions to fundamental problems.  Details on how to do this are found in our new book, Leading Innovation and Change: A Guide for Chief Student Affairs Officers on Shaping the Future and further developed in a forthcoming special NCD report. 

The book is available in the NAPSA Bookstore and is available to members for $34.95.

2015 NASPA Annual Conference

The authors will present at the 2015 NASPA Annual Conference Monday, March 23 at 8:30 a.m. Their session is titled, "Making Student Affairs the Hub of Innovation on Campus: A Leading Edge Strategy for the Chief Student Affairs Officer." 

About the authors

Laurence N. Smith is cofounder and senior partner of New Campus Dynamics; a consulting firm that helps colleges and universities build their leadership, innovation and change capacities.  He is emeritus vice president for university marketing and students affairs at Eastern Michigan University. He founded and was the first chair of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy for Leadership and Executive Effectiveness. Smith is a nationally recognized keynote speaker, author, executive coach and consultant in the private and public sectors.

Albert B. Blixt is cofounder and managing partner of New Campus Dynamics.  He is an expert on designing and implementing rapid strategic change in complex organizations and a developer of the Whole-Scale® Change methodology.   Blixt is a consultant and executive advisor who has worked with Fortune 500 firms, national nonprofits and government agencies as well as many colleges and universities over the past 20 years.

For more information, go to www.newcampusdynamics.com.