Student Development in Higher Education

I. Questions I Wanted to Answer:

a.) What are the traditional issues faced by students as they enter and exit college?

b.) What are the unique needs of students in various higher education settings (e.g. community colleges, private, public, religiously affiliated, Hispanic serving institutions, etc.)?

c.) What issues do I need to be aware of regarding diverse student populations? How can I help students that identify with traditionally underrepresented groups to succeed in the college setting?

d.) Which student development theories can I translate into practical applications?

II. Introduction

Having transitioned into and out of college myself  and worked as an orientation leader at my undergraduate institution, I came to graduate school with some ideas surrounding the issues other students face. For me, one of the biggest issues I faced starting college was wondering whether or not I was going to be academically ready for college. Success on my first few tests helped me realize that I deserved to be in college. I also faced issues that come from moving away from my family and in with a bunch of strangers. I remember being terrified the last few weeks at home that I wouldn’t make any friends and that I wouldn’t be respected for who I was. I was also concerned about how I would maintain connections with my high school friends and how I would interact with the few students from my high school that would also be at my college. I was going to be a member of Army ROTC and I was concerned with how much time and energy that would take away from my studies and social activities. I think that many of the concerns I had as a new student are similar to the ones students face today and therefore I want to keep them as a frame of reference when I work with students who are new to my university.

My transition out of college was fraught with concerns over what I was going to do next and how I was (or was not) going to maintain the friendships and community I had built over the course of the past four and a half years. I was particularly concerned because I did not have any interest in choosing a job or career based on my undergraduate degree and therefore felt like I was back at square one. By the time I graduated in December 2002, I knew that I was going to be involved in AmeriCorps the following September but was unsure what I could do in the meantime to keep busy, make money, etc. I was faced with the challenge of deciding whether it was best for me to stay a part of the community I had built in college or move away in order to start creating a new life.

Working for orientation I developed a good understanding and first hand experience dealing with new student concerns. I remember creating schedules and registering for classes, making new friends, getting along with roommates, navigating campus and the surrounding city, getting good grades, and figuring out how to get involved in extra-curricular activities being key issues that students wanted to talk about. In addition to addressing these concerns, I also remember our program being designed to address academic integrity, safety on campus, living and working in a diverse community, and campus policies and procedures.

I did not come into graduate school with any intellectual or practical knowledge of the specific issues facing the specific needs or issues students face in various higher education settings. I had a very limited understanding of the diverse student populations on college campuses and no understanding of how a student’s identity could impact their college career. I was also unaware of student development theory and how it played into my work as an orientation leader or my future career in student affairs.

III. Hypothesis

a.) First and foremost transitional issues faced by both incoming and graduating/departing students are very similar. Colleges spend a lot of time helping students transition in because it helps with retention rates. On the other hand, students probably feel much less support during their transition out of the college. This is unfortunate because a success departure should speak equally well of a college’s overall commitment to its students.

Students who are transitioning to college are dealing with issues surrounding homesickness, friendsickness, loneliness, needing to fit in, adjusting to the academic rigor of college, living in a communal environment, and experiencing true independence for the first time. Students who are transitioning out of higher education are dealing with issues surrounding employment, researching and applying to graduate school, homesickness, friendsickness, adjusting to the working world, and experiencing additional independence for the first time.

b.) and c.)  The needs, goals, and affinities of students within diverse settings has less to do with the actual setting they are in and more to do with their individual identities within various student populations. In other words, a student who is older than average will face the same or at least quite similar issues at a community college, private college, or religiously affiliated university.

d.) Student development theories are just that theories. This is not a hard science; none of these theories are based on scientific evidence. People’s personal experiences cannot translate into solid facts and therefore student development theory will always be suspect. Creating programming or basing decisions on these theories may be necessary but it is also risky, because they are not as accurate as hard facts.

IV. Methods and Materials


AHE 599 First Year Students: Programs and Philosophies

Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student: A Handbook for Improving the First Year of College

Instructing U-Engage course

Instructing ALS 199 Wellness Learning Community

Navigating the Research University: A Guide for First-Year Students

b.), c.) and d.)

AHE 552 Theories and Practices of Student Development Theory 1 and 2

Analysis of Rites of Passage using student development theory

Analysis of student development theory through songs blog-pop-up-manual1 and you can find the videos that correspond here

AHE 599 Multicultural Competency in Student Affairs

Term paper analyzing the issues faced by first-generation college students

NODA Internship

Student Development in College: Theory, Research and Practice

New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development

V. Data and Analysis

a. New Freedom vs. New Responsiblity Identity Issues •  Shifting Academics Expectations  •  Self-Evaluation

b.) Identity Support (or Challenge) Community College Student Needs  

c.) International Students and Academic Integirty Issues  •  Self-Efficacy •  Issues Surrounding Identity Development

d.) First Year Students, Conduct and Chickering •  Overload of Challenge and Support •  Kohlberg and Conduct •  VARK and Exploratory Studies  •  The Role of Educators  •  Personalized Learning • U-Engage assignments

VII. Conclusions

a.) As a student affairs professional it is my responsibility to address the transitional issues I mentioned above as well as stay up to date on new issues that students whom I work with face. While I still hold to my hypothesis that the transitional issues faced by incoming students are similar to those faced by outgoing students, I do not believe that colleges should treat the two groups in the same way. After all, one of the goals of a higher education is to make students advocates for their own success. While incoming students need to receive more information and direct, mandatory support in dealing with their transition into the university setting, students leaving should have resources at their disposal, but not be mandated to use them. I think that most colleges offer up a number of useful services for students who are looking for jobs, graduate school programs, and other post-college activities, however I think that something that must be further addresses through voluntary seminars or classes are more emotional and social aspects of transitioning out of college. This is a service I hope to explore more as an entry-level professional.

b.) and c.) My hypothesis on the subject of the various needs and challenges of students in different educational settings was quite simplistic and definitely didn’t take into account any of the knowledge that I have gained through my classwork in student development theory or multicultural issues. I now realize that every student comes into college with a wide variety of needs, goals, and affinities and that they may in fact choose a particular college with those exact things in mind. Or their needs, goals, and affinities may be defined or pronounced by a college’s own strengths and weaknesses. In addition, most, if not all students will experiences changes in their needs, goals, and affinities during their time in college and institutions that can support and embrace these changes will be most likely to retain students.

d.) In a weird way the origins of student development theory are very similar to the origins of scientific thought. Someone had to observe a pattern and then investigate what was be causing it. The main difference of course is that the scientist can systematically get rid of all of the things that can disrupt the pattern, hence the term controlled experiment. Student affairs professionals aren’t so lucky; they must contend with all the other influences that may disrupt their patterns and hence their theories. That is why it is important to recognize that every theory cannot be applied to every student; nor can the same theory be applied to the same student throughout their college career. Ultimately, I think the weakness of student development theory- it is never complete, it is always evolving- is also its strong point. There will always be external conditions that make student development theories suspect, but without a baseline, the changing needs, goals and affinities of students will never be recognized.


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4 Responses to “Student Development in Higher Education”

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I’m interested in your comment about theories and their validity. You state:

“Student development theories are just that theories. This is not a hard science; none of these theories are based on scientific evidence. People’s personal experiences cannot translate into solid facts and therefore student development theory will always be suspect.”

So what is “hard science” and “scientific evidence” exactly? I can think of plenty of theories we studied that were developed by researchers using rigorous research protocols and have stood the test of time. And while I agree that the term “fact” is debatable in any context, what standards should be used to judge a theory as “good” (reliable, valid)?

I would like to first point out that the quote you have posted was from my hypothesis section and therefore was an overview of my “educated guess” regarding student development theory. My original thoughts were primarily influenced by my science background and therefore I am fully aware and hopefully have shown that they were incomplete and have evolved during my time in graduate school.
As for your questions regarding the definition of hard science and scientific evidence well I would hesitate to comment on universal definitions but I’ll provide my thoughts. I think that hard sciences, as opposed to social sciences, tend to involve subjects, procedures, research and results that can more easily be controlled. The further one gets away from being able to control the internal and external influences of a research project, the less likely it is that the project can be repeated time and again producing the same results. By this same token, I would say that scientific evidence includes patterns, observations, qualitative and quantitative data, etc. that remains consistent over time. Based on this definition, I would agree that certain student affairs research protocols are indeed scientifically backed. In saying this, I would assume that these protocols are often designed to minimize the various uncontrollable factors that influence research.

As for what makes good facts… well I think that this can go one of two ways. Great facts either incorporate so many diverse viewpoints and variables, that they can be used in a universal fashion OR they are so specific and detailed that they can only be applied to a small number of things. Either way these facts will be reliable and consistent, which are other characteristics of good facts. On a more personal level I think that good facts can be personalized so that people/institutions can apply them based on their own values, goals, missions etc.

Portfolio Evaluation Comments: Again, thorough explorations that certainly meet the outcomes. You cover your bases here in that you examine Psycho-social, Cognitive, and Typology theories as they apply to student affairs work. I appreciate that you give specific consideration in your hypothesis and conclusion to students transitioning out of the institution. We can’t neglect the fact that students are still negotiating developmental challenges, even though they are seemingly more capable and comfortable in the post-secondary environment.

I had a thought as I was re-reading the blog posts and looking at your theory project. First, your blog posts almost exclusively consider theory objectively – as it might apply to hypothetical student or students. Even places where you consider specific incidents in your experience (U-Engage and the Chickering paper, Sanford and the first year students and San Jose), you talk about students in the aggregate and never really say, “For example, this one student…”. I’m wondering if you’ve had specific students enter your thoughts when you’ve thought about theory. Your theory project reads the narrative voice created by a songwriter through the lens of theory. That is a creative and subjective application, but it still is a disembodied voice. What I’m going to suggest likely violates the letter of the law of the scientific method, but I think you have total license to stretch the metaphor. Consider your “laboratory” the last two years (Conduct, CAMP, U-Engage, UESP, etc.). Do specific student stories come to mind that illuminate theory? Can you blog about one or slot this type of example into existing posts? Obviously you can’t name names, and you want to protect the identity of the student (s). Don’t force it if it doesn’t feel natural, but such a post might be a nice supplement to your objective examinations and demonstrate theory in action.

One other thought in this section, and I’m probably treading the line of competency cross-referencing with this one: do you have any relevant artifacts from the Multicultural Competency class? Perhaps you could include a link to your “first-generation student” paper. This also might be another way to incorporate local flavor/OSU specific examples into this section. Your “Environmental” scan post seems relevant here. Perhaps you can comment on the impact of OSU environments in identity development. Theory also seems to inform some of your teaching posts. I think a link to those is warranted as well.

Regarding Eric’s question about whether or not I feel like we should develop student development theories if they will always be suspect and ever-changing:
One of my take home lessons from graduate school has been that people use various frameworks in order to construct their realities. These frameworks help people learn; they help people interact with others; they help people understand and deal with issues. Development is essentially the formation of new frameworks or the re-working of old ones to fit new situations, new learning, new interactions with people. Student development theories are a framework with which to see my work in student affairs. They help me to learn and process what I am observing and reacting to in my various positions. I must always keep in mind that they are dynamic as well as culturally and personally based and therefore can never explain a situation or influence my actions completely. However, they have been and will continue to be a building block for my understanding of students and the field of student affairs.

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