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Bringing Student Affairs to the Center of the Institution

Creating solid relationships with staff and students helps improve enrollment and retention. Higher ed institutions need to prioritize their Student Affairs department to develop and deepen these bonds. 

Defining the Role

Every institution, whether or not it is explicitly stated in its mission statement, is focused on retention, and student affairs departments are front runners in leading the initiatives and procedures to retain students. Take the Office of Student Life, for example. On the surface, students, faculty and staff may only see Student Life as the fun department or the activities department. Student Life allocates valuable time, money and resources to creating environments in which students can build relationships, develop a sense of self, a place in the community and bring students and faculty together within co-curricular activities. 

One area of focus for TRIO Programs is first-generation college students who, according to The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, often face psychological, financial, academic and social challenges. Additionally, one in three first generation college students leave their institution within the first three years. By identifying the needs and challenges of first-generation college students, TRIO can develop support systems and campus events to promote healthy relationships and promote campus connectedness to retain students. 

This sense of belonging and appreciation drives student engagement. If a student can see themselves spending time with others in the community, attend well-intended campus events and develop deeply rooted connections, they will want to stay the course and finish their degree. Relationships in themselves promote retention. When you build relationships with peers, staff and faculty, the possibilities for success are exponentially greater. 


One challenge Student Affairs departments face at a commuter school like mine is the misconception or misunderstanding each Student Affairs department’s operations. Many students do not know that events, counselling, tutoring and other services are free. Students, faculty and staff may not see or understand the value of the services departments provide. Student Affairs departments have to spend valuable time on dismantling stereotypes and educate students, faculty and staff on the importance of support services.   

Another challenge is commuter schools unable to rely on housing departments, fraternity and sorority life and athletics to captivate students; we therefore face a barrier to engagement. Without a captivated audience, Student Affairs must be critical in creating programs and services that appeal students enough to either stay on campus or drive back to campus. 

A third challenge is department funding. As a whole, Student Affairs departments depend on state appropriations. In the state of Oklahoma, for example, state appropriations are reliant on a volatile oil industry. As a community college, our mission statement focuses on access to education. As tuition costs continue to increase nationwide, our focus on a quality education at an affordable cost has to be consistent. 

Active Engagement Benefits 

Some of our time is spent on educating students on the importance of our work, and some of our time is spent on educating staff and faculty on the importance of our work through our programs, counselling, student conduct issues and so much more. 

Part of our job is to develop ways in which we convey our purpose to co-workers who are not aware of what we do. For example, student conduct is vital to student success and retention. Student conduct should not be a punitive but an educational, developmental process that supports and encourages growth. Another example is developing mindful support systems for students who are not progressing academically or otherwise. For academic advising, lower advisor-to-advisee ratios allow advisors to develop meaningful relationships with students and make connections between academic success and personal ambitions. 

Students who are treated as students as opposed to just another meeting or ID number will be able to have a greater sense of belonging on campus. The sense of connectedness with a staff member intrinsically creates a connectedness with the college or university. Whether through all staff meetings, trainings, HR newsletters or open houses, this information needs to be shared with everyone on campus. 

On the flip side, it is just as important to listen to all members of the campus community. Students, administrative assistants, custodial staff and student leaders have specific experience and knowledge on campus, and it is important for directors and upper administration to actively listen to the voices of those that the polices impact most. Everyone is a stakeholder in student success. The more we know about the services and functions of Student Affairs departments, the more we are able to accurately articulate their importance and necessity to our students and staff. This in turn drives enrollment, retains students and ultimately allows students to complete their degree. 

Empowering Student Affairs 

Campus engagement with the community provides a solid foundation for socioeconomic growth. When students, faculty and staff value the importance of pipeline initiatives that extends into the community, we create pathways that ultimately lead to educational enrichment. Student Affairs departments are key players in supporting this initiative through interactions with high schools at recruiting events/college fairs and the Upward Bound TRIO program, businesses at job fairs and non-profits for service learning.

When campus administrators recognize, value and appreciate the work that Student Affairs professionals do on a daily basis, staff’s mental health and a sense of purpose can be significantly increased. A welcoming and appreciative work environment retains employees. A college or university that invests time, resources and money into its staff is not only investing in its employees’ success but ultimately students’ success. When staff is well trained, developed and confident, they pour that into their students. 

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