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The Importance of Student Affairs: A President’s Perspective

Providing nonacademic services and support can be the difference between students pursuing their academic paths and stopping or dropping out. Student affairs can be a key partner in achieving strategic outcomes—they just need to be included.

Recruitment and retention must be a priority in planning an institution’s future. They simply won’t survive. What’s more, student affairs plays a key role in driving these numbers, and higher ed leaders need to pay close attention. In this interview, Jim Shaeffer discusses why senior leaders need to focus on student retention, the role student affairs plays in driving it and how both groups can collaborate on the institutional strategy.

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

Jim Shaeffer (JS): When I came to Eastern Shore Community College, the financials were in serious trouble. Enrollment and its impact on your finances are critical, and as president recruitment and retention must be priorities. Leadership especially must, from a visionary point of view, look down the road at what’s around the corner, relative to enrollment.

We serve five high schools on the shore, and we’re working on a study to better understand our enrollment trends in terms of who is and isn’t coming and how we can change that. As a leader, you must pay attention to what faculty and staff need because they’re on the front line fostering student retention and support. Staying in touch with faculty and staff is critical to advocating for their needs. The president isn’t the one who’s sitting down one-on-one with students. So, it’s critical to support those who understand the students best to provide the best experience.

Evo: What are common reasons students decide to stop out or drop out of an education process?

JS: Our students have four major hurdles: housing insecurity, food insecurity, transportation and finances. The reason they often drop out is due to large life decisions. Addressing these nonacademic needs is a priority for Eastern Shore Community College because providing the nonacademic support is often the difference between stopping our or remaining enrolled.

Evo: What role can the student affairs division play in driving student persistence and ultimately success?

JS: We’ve established processes and procedures to meet most students’ needs. They’re not perfect, and we’re always trying to improve them. Our goal is: “Meeting the student at the door,” whether that’s a real or virtual door. The idea is, in that moment, we are trying to understand what the student wants to accomplish. We do this through coaching and advising to understand their goals and their needs. We don’t stop there—as a small college we can and do check in with them while they’re with us. We’ve had many student success stories come out of that.

Connections must be made—both inside and outside the classroom. Students need to feel involved, whether through clubs or other activities. The pandemic really put a damper on everything. Now that students are back on campus, getting students involved is one of our top priorities. Thanks to our faculty and staff, student activity is booming on campus again. Why is this important? It’s not all about what happens inside the classroom. What happens outside the classroom can be the difference between whether a student feels at home or not and whether they will persist or not.

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

JS: My knee-jerk reaction is we tend to concentrate on what we know, which is FTE, headcount and graduation rates to name a few. Our institution gets state money based on enrollment. What is lost sometimes is the important, vital role student affairs plays in recruitment and retention. When it comes to recruiting and retaining students, student affairs is at the tip of the spear. The beauty of a small college is we can and do contact every student, and we can do very efficiently. It is our student services personnel that make this connection. And the important piece for us is that we celebrate our student affairs office for the hard work it does and the impact it has on the college. My hope is that, through these celebrations, it is clear how central and important its role is at the college.

We also focus on students through our ESCC Cares Committee, which meets weekly. Faculty and staff identify students in need and send this information to ESCC Cares, which has a budget provided through our foundation to respond to these needs. Students in need receive things like gas cards, grocery stipends. I just signed a cheque to help cover someone’s rent. If I go back three and a half years when I first joined the college, student services identified a $30,000 gap in terms of what students needed so they could enroll. I went to members of our foundation and raised that $30,000 in an afternoon. While you can’t write a cheque for everything, the support ESCC Cares provides makes the difference in terms of enrollment and persistence.

Evo: What does it take to resource a student affairs division, so it can contribute to these strategic outcomes like retention and completion increases?

JS: You first must recognize the need, then make the plea for it. Find that need and talk to student services about how you can help them to work with students. The number one need is funds to support nonacademic needs. We must make sure we can provide them with the resources for that.

Just as important is the president needs to model behavior demonstrating support for student services. Today is what we call registration rally. The idea is to open the campus to students who need a helping hand. I get on the radio to talk about it, and it’s reported in the local paper. We see about 50 to 60 students between onsite and online. As president, I try to get the whole campus jazzed up and excited about it. Then I’ll go to student services to cheer them on. It’s through actions more than anything else.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about making student affairs a more central part of the university?

JS: This is my first presidency at a community college. I’ve learned a great deal, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here. There’s one thing we don’t do, and that’s career services. We don’t provide a bridge from school to work. If I were to give advice, it’s to ensure we’re providing workplace experiences for students. To bridge this gap, we’ve started a new program we call Contact to Career.  

One of the ways we show the importance of our student services area is to speak with alumni and donors. And it’s not just about scholarships. It’s also about seeking funds for student services. The message is: What you do here in student services is so important.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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