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Leveraging Student Affairs to Drive Student Success

Giving Student Affairs a prime seat at the table to develop institutional strategy is essential to serve students, the community and the workforce.

In today’s competitive market, attracting students is difficult enough let alone retaining them. But retention is key with the modern learner, who is looking for an institution to support their lifelong learning journey. And student affairs is a secret weapon most leaders forget about. In this interview, Russell Lowery-Hart discusses why senior leaders need to pay attention to student retention, how to use the student affairs department’s expertise and incorporate it into the institutional strategy.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for senior institutional executives to pay close attention to student retention and success?

Russell Lowery Hart (RLH): The higher ed world we live in now is all about two things: retention and success. We used to live in a world where it may have been more about the buildings we built and the enrollment numbers we had. But our commitment to our community and students doesn’t end with enrollment but includes retaining and graduating them with a skill that leads to a family-sustaining wage. It’s our purpose. Any other conversation is secondary to that.

Evo: What role can the student affairs division play in helping drive that student persistence?

RLH: What’s happening across in community colleges across the country is that student affairs units are emerging. If not already, they are becoming the center of our work with retention and completion.

We’ve learned what students need to be successful in the classroom, but they also need support outside the classroom like tutoring and advising. They need support from social workers, mentors and coaches. They need activities that don’t just serve them but also serve their families. They need ways to connect to the workforce and prepare for job interviews—everything that defines student affairs. That’s not secondary to learning anymore. Student affairs departments are partners and conduits for learning.  

Evo: Why have student affairs divisions historically been separated from the institution’s strategic core?

RLH: Historically, learning and AEM academics have always been at the center of an institution’s mission. Student affairs was perceived as add-on experiences. As our data shift, so does accountability for student success, retention completion, transfer and graduation to answer to our community, workforce partners and students. That led to a shift in the role student services plays and the importance of moving to the center of the work we’re doing.

It’s about time, and it’s exciting to see student affairs divisions take on leadership roles. They’re stepping in to lead institutional transformation, and there’s even a shift in presidencies. Many student affair professionals are now leading entire institutions. That speaks to the change occurring across higher ed. 

Evo: What does it take to provide student affairs with the resources it needs to contribute to more strategic institutional outcomes?

RLH: It’s an important question to ask—one that I don’t know that higher ed answers effectively. Often, people see student affairs as a cost center, but we need to see it as an investment with a return. If you look at impact, whether it’s advising, student engagement, transfer coordination, those activities keep students enrolled. They progress and then matriculate into the main campus or employment, adding to the institution’s bottom line. Student affairs contributes greatly to the college’s financial boom.

It’s time to start looking at student affairs as a source of ROI. We must invest in advisors, social workers and coaches to get a significant financial return on the back end for both retention and completion. We’re finally understanding that, even if the classroom is the center of the university, the outside supports are what ensure success in the classroom. They’re not separate anymore; they’re integrated. Student affairs provides the platform for that ROI. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about student affairs having a seat at the table when it comes to the institutional strategy?

RLH: Leading Amarillo College’s transformation means empowering a team of colleagues who bring expertise to the table, without an ownership of territory that they try to protect. When student affairs comes to the table, their expertise can benefit every aspect of college. They’re not there to only talk about engagement processes or advising numbers. If we’re going to truly transform higher education, which is a requirement for today’s world, student and academic affairs must be married in ways they haven’t been before. Student affairs isn’t a division we can tack on and see as fun or frivolous. It’s becoming a required centerpiece of our institution.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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