Student Affairs Leaders for 21st Century Community Colleges: Adopting the Scholar-Practitioner Model

Elena Sandoval-Lucero, Vice President of Student Affairs, Community College of Aurora

February 21, 2017

Educational access for all has been a hallmark of the community college mission since the colleges came into existence at the dawn of the 20th Century. Access to higher education creates the opportunity to participate fully in the economic and professional opportunities that are available to Americans in the 21st Century.

For the last decade, however, the shift of focus in higher education has gone from access to completion. This is because the best and most plentiful economic and professional opportunities of this century require some type of post-secondary degree or credential. Community colleges can play an important role in helping to achieve our nation’s education and workforce goals, as they serve almost half of all students enrolled in higher education in the nation. However, the shift in focus requires a drastic change in how we approach our work. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), has adopted key strategies for change:

  1. Increase completion rates by 50% by 2020
  2. Dramatically improve college readiness
  3. Close the American skills gap
  4. Refocus the community college mission and redefine institutional roles
  5. Invest in collaborative support structures
  6. Target public and private investments strategically
  7. Implement policies and practices that promote rigor and accountability (AACC, 2014)

To meet the challenge of moving from access to completion, community colleges focus for student affairs leadership development on their campuses must include the AACC key strategies for change. With a laser focus on student success, accountability, and outcomes in community colleges, current leaders must change the way they develop future student affairs leadership, and implement succession planning for the community colleges of tomorrow. For community college student affairs professionals, adopting a scholar-practitioner model can support the achievement of both institutional accountability, and leadership development goals.

Leadership development needs to focus on using assessment and action research as processes to achieve college goals, improve institutional effectiveness, and build a culture of inquiry. Student affairs leaders must shift their mindset from service to reflective practice and work on becoming scholar-practitioners. The caveat here is that data informs decision making, it doesn’t drive it. Using action research and data inquiry tools helps student affairs practitioners address issues and barriers at all points along the pipeline including access, retention, completion, and transfer. In order for change to occur, practitioners need to engage in reflective practice, using disaggregated data so that they can come to understand the true lived experiences of their diverse student body.

Leaders should also focus on the idea that there is no “right way” to ensure success for all students. Instead reflective practitioners must use a scholar-practitioner focus to examine the uniqueness of each institution and student in order to change outcomes, and improve institutional functioning overall. This process must also be conducted in collaboration with academic colleagues, as faculty are integral to achieving the completion goals of the institution.

In a continuing evolution of student affairs practice, the scholar-practitioner model is ideal for community colleges because it increases commitment, responsibility, connection, buy-in, and relationships among staff and faculty members. Starting with the individual practitioner level, the scholar-practitioner model allows for individuals to choose topics of personal interest, which then can be shared with colleagues, departments, divisions, and campus leadership in a way that creates change and communication that flows back and forth among the levels of organizational leadership. This process then informs and supports institutional benchmarking, and strategic planning. The fact that student affairs professionals have a seat at the table during the process points to the growing importance of our profession to the national education agenda.


American Association of Community Colleges. (2014). Empowering community colleges to build the nation’s future: An implementation guide. Washington, DC: Author. Available at

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