Designing the Student Experience: Building Bridges across Student and Academic Affairs

In this issue:

If your institution opts not to "be all things to all people," but to offer a specific, defined student experience that it is uniquely positioned to design and deliver (a single experience for a private liberal arts college; a cluster of linked, cohort-based experiences for a regional public university), the next step is to consider how you will align the various academic, co-curricular, and extracurricular activities your campus has to offer in support of that experience -- and how you will align academic and student support services to ensure student success.

Kim O'Halloran, associate dean for the college of education and human services at Montclair State University, offers a few scenarios to illustrate.

Institution A provides a unique residential experience marked by a seamless learning experience in and out of the classroom. The experience this institution has designed might include residential colleges, living-learning communities, classrooms located in the residence halls, student leaders and club involvement in first-year experience courses, and/or faculty in residence.

Institution B emphasizes preparing students for service and active leadership in their communities. The institution invests resources in service learning, civic engagement, and internship programs, and brings in adjunct instructors or guest speakers from major nonprofit organizations and corporations to offer "real world" perspectives.

Each of these scenarios requires alignment and collaboration across different functions on campus; integrating the academic experience into all areas of campus life (residential life, student activities, community service, internships, etc.) requires building bridges between student and academic affairs. It requires shared responsibilities across departmental silos for defining the student experience offered, designing the programs and services that bring that experience to life, and for implementation and assessment.

Partnering Across Campus

Common institutional policies and practices often serve to keep student affairs and academic affairs siloed and separate. O'Halloran summarizes the most common barriers to meaningful partnership:

  • Competition for limited resources
  • Limited sharing of information as a means of protecting a unit's resources
  • Evaluation and rewards systems that do not incentivize working together (for example, faculty evaluation systems that prioritize research and under-emphasize service to the institution, or even leave service largely undefined, may make it more difficult for faculty to engage in collaborative, cross-campus initiatives)
  • Differing ways of measuring "student success" and a lack of understanding about the other unit's goals

O'Halloran suggests that to be most successful in moving the needle on student persistence and academic performance, units across student and academic affairs need to arrive at a common understanding of the educational experience that your institution promises, and the role each group has in reinforcing and implementing that experience.

A combined research initiative or mining of the institution's own data can be an initial step to bring faculty and student affairs professionals together to examine how best to design and deliver the educational experience.

"Conducting assessment as a partnership between student and academic affairs to identify the factors that contribute to and impede student persistence is a terrific way to start. This takes advantage of faculty research expertise and student affairs' expertise regarding the student experience at the institution."
Kim O'Halloran, Montclair State U

Such an effort helps both divisions see that they are striving toward one goal, and helps them construct a shared knowledge base. It should be agreed upon from the beginning that the results of the assessment will be used to develop and/or revise programs, support services, and structures that will support those factors that lead to student success and minimize those that serve as barriers.

Once you have the data, O'Halloran recommends undergoing shared strategic planning exercises to acquire a shared language and build a shared plan for moving forward:

  • Define "student success" for your institution
  • Define goals for improving student success
  • Examine together how each division can contribute to those goals

It's critical that the meeting be designed to help participants understand how each group conceives of its role.