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Insights from Penn State World Campus Student Affairs

August 8, 2022 Ashley Asshire Adams Penn State University

This week, NASPA released a Virtual Support Services Planning Guide, which serves as a companion resource to the Spotlighting Virtual Innovation report. The guide is designed to help colleges and universities inform planning efforts for advancing virtual support services for students engaging with a campus in a hybrid environment. Today, NASPA is featuring a post authored by Dr. Ashley Adams, Senior Director of Penn State World Campus Student Affairs. This blog highlights key takeaways delivering a holistic approach to virtual supports at Penn State World Campus. Thank you, Dr. Adams, for sharing insightful tactics for the field and elevating the good work happening at your institution!

Alexa Chamberlain, NASPA


Insights from Penn State World Campus Student Affairs

At the 2015 NASPA Conference, the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) presented its vision for a student affairs practice within Penn State World Campus, an online delivery unit. I happened to be sitting in the audience. In 2022, leveraging that framework, I returned to NASPA with my supervisor to present the development, implementation, pitfalls and triumphs of Penn State World Campus Student Affairs, a robust student affairs practice complete with staff and program operations along with a comprehensive suite of student services, support, and engagement. Residential and online student affairs practitioners can learn about the progress and pitfalls of our journey and how an integrated framework benefits all students, regardless of learning modality. 


The Case for Online Student Affairs: Online education has grown significantly in the past 15 years. In fact, the proportion of all students who were enrolled exclusively online grew to 16.6 percent in 2018 (Digest of Education Statistics, 2019). And as online college enrollment in bachelor’s and master’s degrees increased by 42.59 percent from 2012 to 2017 (amounting to almost one million more online students over the course of six years) online learners continue to ascend as a sizable student demographic (McGraw, 2020). The voice of this growing student population becomes stronger every year as student expectations of service offerings rise. Higher education has made headway in its efforts to serve underrepresented student populations, particularly as it relates to race and identity; however, intentional services and program offerings for online and adult learner populations have not kept pace. En masse, student affairs practitioners have not comprehensively extended student affairs pedagogy to online learners, which is critical in helping students advance in alignment with student development outcomes, build affinity towards the institution, and persist to graduation (Bean & Eaton, 2001).

Online learning is no longer on the fringes of higher education and thus it is prudent to consider where student affairs practice may fit into the online student experience. Through an intentional integrated student affairs practice model, I partnered with stakeholders across the university system to close the gap in student-centered services by developing a comprehensive student affairs unit in 2016. The unit is now equipped with many of the traditional student affairs functional areas, such as student conduct, career services, student activities and leadership programs, equity and inclusion, care and advocacy, and mental health services. By working to extend student engagement activities and co-curricular learning outcomes to its more than 20,000 online learners, the Penn State World Campus Student Affairs office builds community and extends the values of the University to its students.

Building An Integrated Model: Penn State has a multi-campus model with 23 campuses including medical, law, and graduate campuses, and the World Campus, resulting in more than 93,000 students at census 2021-2022. Penn State World Campus is growing with more than 20,000 students, 35% of which live within the Commonwealth. With more than 175 degree and certificate programs, World Campus students are mostly nontraditional, with 89% adult learners and 19% military affiliated, and many require comprehensive student affairs services.

In 2015, through a graduate student capstone project, residential practitioners began to explore how to extend the Penn State student experience to an online learning environment through programs and services, cocurricular engagement opportunities, and creating community, and then shared that exploration with other practitioners at the annual conference. I was in that 2015 annual conference audience, and in 2016, became the inaugural director for online student affairs at Penn State World Campus. Over the past six years, I have been intentional about building a unit that is integrated into student affairs across the institution through intentional hiring of practitioners with experience of residential, adult, and online learners, with a focus on negotiating and merging cultures.

This work has resulted in a comprehensive unit entitled World Campus Student Affairs, whose mission is to lead strategic student engagement and co-curricular initiatives to enhance the educational experience, retention, and graduation rate of Penn State World Campus students. This unit has seven full-time professional staff and four graduate assistants that cover key areas in student affairs, including student engagement, student leadership, student clubs and organizations, student conduct, career services, mental health services, and equity inclusion and advocacy.

Lessons Learned: One of the greatest challenges in building this unit was not recognizing the significant culture shift required for some stakeholders. It was challenging for some to understand the value of providing comprehensive support services to adult learners, or they underestimated the importance that co-curricular engagement has on improved retention and graduation rates among online learners. What we learned is that regardless of age, life experience, or mode of delivery, student development theory and its core tenets are still applicable. A human centered approach, even when technology is available, is still key. Finally, online learners are becoming younger and younger and expect online support services as they access many of their essential services. One approach that proved vital to implementing a comprehensive student affairs practice for online students was to center student voice and perspective throughout the process. We formed a student advisor board, which hundreds of students applied to participate in, which guided our early work. Four years ago, the students elected to form a World Campus Student Government Association, which is fully recognized by the University’s board of trustees as a vital student voice.

I encourage residential and online practitioners to consider how to center online students in their practice through assessing the needs of these students, giving students the opportunity to engage and connect with one another, and ensuring that retention and graduation of these students is bolstered through online student affairs practice.