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Student Affairs as an Engine for Student Success

Student well-being is central to student success. And student affairs provides supports and services critical to ensuring both.

More and more, I am asked about the role that the Student Affairs Division plays in ensuring student success.

The formula is actually quite simple: Increased levels of student engagement lead to higher rates of student retention. Two of the most significant aspects of the current higher ed landscape are the renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and the shift to a model of holistic support for students. I am so happy to see both rolling out in their myriad forms across the national landscape.

At Bergen Community College, DEI work is all about creating a culture of belonging. Students—regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical and intellectual ability, or economic status—need to feel that they truly belong at your college. For our students, feelings of well-being, of connectedness, of knowing they fit in make the difference between completing a program or drifting off and becoming a statistic. So, how do you boost a sense of belonging? Faculty and staff need to show up at events to support students through their presence. Presence matters. The whole community needs to participate in a culture of care. If you need to know where your institution is on the spectrum, conduct a comprehensive climate survey.

The other thing that stands out for me is the growing number of partnerships with third-party experts who can work with a college or university to disaggregate the student success data and create meaningful initiatives that move the success needles forward. Partners come in different shapes across the spectrum of nonprofit organizations to private sector business experts. The best partners (Achieving the Dream comes to mind) actually hold institutions accountable for achieving milestones.

Of course, there are plenty of challenges when it comes to student engagement and retention. Finding enough champions for certain initiatives is a perennial problem. Turnover of leadership and the consequent change in vision creates challenges. Aversion to working with third-party partners can be a cultural hurdle. Data living in the system (or in the IR office) and never making their way out to staff, is a challenge. And aligning 100% of the staff with the community college’s mission can be daunting.

Student affairs, however, plays a major role in student retention by providing programs and services that support students’ overall well-being and success. This support includes advising, counselling, health services, career development, athletics and student life and development. These all help create a positive and supportive campus environment, which leads to increased satisfaction and engagement among students and ultimately higher retention rates. Additionally, the student affairs division works closely with academic departments to provide much-needed academic support and resources such as tutoring and supplemental instruction. 

Technology is key as well. We recently launched CRM Advise, a platform that helps us proactively communicate with students and assist at-risk students more effectively and efficiently. Coming soon will be the Bergen Community College Student Engagement App powered by Ready Education. The app will improve communication, support academic engagement, support student engagement in the campus community and centralize the student experience with the goal of driving student success. Technology, however, is only as effective as the support and services offered behind it. The Bergen Community College personal counselling staff provide guidance and emotional support to students. Support programs such as the Bergen Childcare Center, the Bergen Cares Food Pantry, the Office of Health Services and Threads (a clothing closet to support students who wish to dress for success) all holistically support students as they journey through their college experience.  

The International Student Center, Educational Opportunity Fund, Veterans and Military Affairs, Multicultural Services and Activities, Student Life and Development and Intercollegiate Athletics Departments all support student engagement, academic success, integration, belongingness, physical health and wellness and leadership development through a myriad of extracurricular activities. We know that students involved in extracurricular experiences are retained and succeed at much higher rates than their counterparts.  

At Bergen, the Office of Specialized Services supports the academic success and social development of students with disabilities, providing students with the opportunity to participate fully in the college’s educational programs and benefit from all aspects of campus life. The office promotes universal design principles through reasonable and appropriate accommodations. 

Persisting in programs of study is not easy for many of our students. The pandemic made things worse. Students at Bergen Community College are dealing with elder care issues, childcare, part-time work schedules and financial challenges, so understanding their needs and addressing them through the lens of equity is paramount. What’s the point of bringing in a new cohort of students from one fall to the next, only to watch a full third of that group disappear? 

Student satisfaction and support is a college-wide effort. With an engaged student affairs department that supports, counsels, provides for and advocates for their students, success rates improve.

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