The future of student affairs and services in higher education

Higher education appears set for major changes over the next 25 years including in the field of student affairs and services. By being active participants in planning for change, we position ourselves not only as forecasters but also architects of our futures. It is hoped that student affairs practitioners and scholars will spend time looking into the future, and thus help make it happen.

This article is drawn from the new book Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global foundations, issues, and best practices, Third Edition, and in particular from Section XIV on “The future of student affairs and services in higher education: Trends, directions and predictions” (pp 225-241). The predictions and suggestions for change were made nearly four years ago. Much has changed – though nothing as dramatic and encompassing globally as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roger Ludeman points out that there is relatively little trending, predicting or futuristic thinking taking place in the field of student affairs and services, or SAS. The literature reflects this clearly. It is uncertain what this means other than the fact that most practitioners, all around the world, are too busy dealing with everyday issues to be thinking about things down the road.

George Kuh looks at trends that may have serious impacts on higher education in the near and longer terms in “Through a glass darkly: Apprehending an uncertain future”. This essay outlines major near- and longer-term trends that potentially could substantially affect how tertiary institutions pursue their educational missions and allied functions.

Such projections are risky, as the present moment is not only ‘interesting’ but also a time when world events are increasingly unpredictable, a situation further complicated by an accelerating pace of change in almost every dimension of society.

In addition, countries and higher education systems around the world differ in many respects, and both are affected by unrelenting pressures from the external environment, including economic circumstances, a myriad political and social forces, and evolving student interests.

Against this backdrop, Ludeman posits that policies and practices at most institutions will be shaped to varying degrees by the following interrelated factors and conditions. Several of these trends have been recognised as challenges for decades.

Some trends

Students have varying academic and personal qualities shaped by their families and cultures of origin and prior educational experiences. In recent years the mental and physical health of students has been a growing concern as more students enroll with severe mental health issues, chronic illnesses or other debilitating conditions, all of which are obstacles to engagement, learning and success.

Yet, virtually all students want to succeed. They and their family members have been led to expect that institutions will provide advanced services, specialised care and individual support. However, in many instances, student support services are not structured or resourced to respond adequately to students’ needs and expectations.

Tertiary institutions happily have become more accessible to students from different backgrounds. This trend will almost certainly continue as the racial and ethnic composition of countries further diversify due to fluctuations in group birth rates and migration patterns.

While the presence of diverse students has been shown to enrich the learning experience, it also can introduce dynamics with the potential to disrupt traditional approaches to teaching and learning and an institution’s established cultural mores.

Although many countries have increased access to tertiary education for under-represented groups, lagging completion rates are often in part a function of large numbers of students being ill prepared academically despite decades of calls to reform and improve schooling. Too many students struggle to meet academic standards, become frustrated, and suspend their studies.

In certain parts of the world – the United States is a prime example – the cost of tertiary education has considerably outpaced inflation, resulting in substantial accrued student debt.

The perception that higher education is unaffordable (when it may be manageable) coupled with a depressed job market following worldwide recession, discouraged many families from accepting that tertiary education will provide a decent return on investment, even though data supporting the value-added proposition is still very compelling.

For private as well as public institutions, using tuition and fee increases to manage budget stress is no longer a viable option to fill revenue gaps.

Finances, technology and mobility

All but a select handful of universities now struggle with business models that are significantly strained. Governmental financial support for higher education has been in gradual decline for decades, and in some countries government is no longer seen as a reliable source of support.

In some parts of the world, such as Scandinavia and Germany, the cost of the largest portion of student participation in tertiary education is borne by the government. But in other countries – such as South Africa, Japan, Australia and the US – students contribute an increasing share of the cost. What appears to be public or governmental disinvestment in tertiary education has the greatest negative effect on low-income populations.

One effect of the combination of rising costs and employability concerns is the expectation that higher learning should be more closely aligned with workforce needs. Career guidance is receiving renewed attention even though the very notion of what constitutes a career is being questioned, given the changing nature of work and jobs.

Many undergraduates today are digital natives. Hundreds of institutions offer online degree programmes. Even post-COVID-19 it is unlikely that technology will displace traditional pedagogy at most institutions, but hybrids of conventional and technology-driven learning systems are evolving quickly, allowing many educational providers to cast a global net.

Harnessed appropriately, technology promises to address inequities in student access and accomplishment. Another key challenge will be to determine whether technology-enhanced education enriches or diminishes student learning

One way to reduce education expenditures is to trim the number of full-time teaching staff and increase the number of contingent or part-time instructors with substantially lower compensation but higher teaching loads. This seemingly inexorable trend is difficult to resist.

Students are increasingly mobile, not only in terms of often travelling long distances to attend classes, but also with regard to the number of institutions from which they earn credits on the way to completing a certificate or degree. This increased mobility adds an additional layer of complexity in assessing student proficiency and assuring educational quality.

Moreover, coupling student mobility with the increasing interest in competency-based learning makes it imperative that learning outcomes be assessed in ways that are translatable and portable for multiple purposes. These circumstances will likely shift the focus of documenting what students know and can do in the direction of the individual student.

In addition, the continued growth of technology-based educational alternatives along with entrepreneurial initiatives will almost certainly further increase the number of alternative and sometimes overlapping and competing credentials. The common challenge facing this bewildering and expanding array of credentials is assuring their quality.

Across the world, student affairs professionals – those persons whose focus is on the out-of-class experience, whose skills are in community-building – are in a key position to help this generation of learners become engaged and effective citizens. But this cannot happen without resources and the support of courageous institutional leaders who publicly affirm and inspire student affairs.

Global differences and tensions

Hans de Wit’s article on “Student affairs and services in a time of turmoil for European and international higher education”, points out that massification of higher education is ongoing in many parts of the world, with an aspiring middle-class demanding access and governments and higher education systems struggling to respond in a qualitative way.

Challenges with growing privatisation, differentiation, access and equity, autonomy and academic freedom, quality of education and the academic profession, access to jobs and a mismatch between graduate supply and labour market needs, are manifest in emerging and developing economies.

On the other hand in Australia, North America, Japan and Western Europe, demographic factors and strong student choices for humanities and social sciences, result in an oversupply of higher education on the one hand and, on the other, a shortage of students, scholars and professionals in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and some other disciplines.

Countries are recruiting international students more aggressively not only for revenue but also to attract the talent and high-level skills knowledge economies need. But the new environment of increased competition for talented students, scholars and professionals is faced with a reaction of anti-globalisation, anti-immigration, anti-higher education and increased nationalism.

This is the case in Britain through Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in America, and similar trends in countries like China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland and Russia, as well as the rise of nationalist-populist parties in other countries. This spectre conflicts with the need for highly skilled immigrants, a tension felt clearly in immigration policies.

How do universities respond to these trends, and how does it affect the need for student affairs and services including those for international students? De Wit mentions some clear trends:

1. The commercial side of higher education will benefit from the current wave of nationalism and populism.

2. Attention to global citizenship and internationalisation of the curriculum will encounter more opposition.

3. Internationalisation in the UK and US, and probably also in the European Union, will see reduction in funding and support.

4. Other regions in the world will become more active players.

Impacts on student affairs and services

The first three trends are likely to have a negative impact on quality in higher education and in student affairs and services.

Many countries and institutions lack adequate services for national and international students. In Europe, as a result of the European programmes – in particular Erasmus+ – and the Bologna Process, much has been done over the past decades to improve student affairs and services.

The creation of a European Higher Education Area with a three-cycle system of undergraduate, masters and PhD, a European credit system, the development of related quality assurance and qualification systems and mechanisms, and policies to overcome obstacles to mobility during and after study, have provided a positive foundation for qualitative student services.

But even in Europe there is substantive dissimilarity between quality by country and by institution, and the new political climate in combination with limited resources does not provide a solid basis for further enhancement.

The ASEAN region announced initiatives for a similar model, adapted to its context and higher education culture. While in Europe itself as a result of Brexit and frustrations elsewhere with the unification process, the accomplishments of these reforms are challenged, one has still to see.

Student affairs and services, for both national and international students, is an essential part of the internationalisation process and in particular internationalisation at home.

Elspeth Jones asks the question whether it is appropriate to continue distinguishing between international and domestic student experiences, given the heterogeneity of the two groups. The traditional distinction between them may be difficult to sustain. This also implies “an integrated approach of delivering services and support across the international-domestic student divide”.

In other words, global and local, international and intercultural, domestic and international student affairs and services are more intertwined than ever. Universities challenged by an increasing international and intercultural student and staff population and the need to address global and local learning outcomes, need to look at student affairs in a comprehensive and integrated way. The political climate in Europe and the world makes that ever-more necessary.

Student affairs innovation hubs

“This is how we need to rethink the work of student affairs,” by Daniel Fusch and Caleb Tegtmeier, challenges people in student affairs and services to think differently about what their work will and should look like in future.

The challenges facing students and institutions are more complex than in the past, and no single, siloed office can address these challenges adequately. That is why some institutions have been forming student affairs innovation hubs to bring together a more diverse crew of creative minds from across campus and put them to work on improving the student experience.

One such institution is Seattle University. The authors interviewed Vice President for Student Development Dr Michele C Murray and Assistant Vice President for Student Development Monica Nixon.

Murray and Nixon suggested that the one-stop shop approach to serving specific student demographics (such as transfer students) has several flaws. When Seattle University set up an office to serve transfer students, Murray notes: “The great thing was that we had one full-time staff person completely committed to those transfer students. The downside was that the transfer students felt siloed, and that issue was replicated across multiple student populations.”

“Another unintended consequence of the siloed way of using one-stop shop areas to serve specific student demographics is that the students feel that we see them in only one way. When do we stop being ‘transfer’ students and become Seattle University students? the students asked.” There was a need to not just create new functions and offices, but also a new approach.

Nixon noted that this takes some humility. Most student affairs offices work well for some students but other students are not served as well as they should be. Seattle University’s goal is to flip this equation and deliver a transformative experience for the vast majority of students.

Domains for innovation

The university undertook a restructuring of student affairs, merging offices and eliminating siloed duplication of services.

Murray and Nixon emphasised the need to make tough decisions. In order to make the right tough decisions, programmes and student needs needed to be seen with fresh ideas and staff needed to work together to identify new possibilities. To achieve this, Seattle University:

1. Identified five domains for innovation, with coaching assistance.

2. Established an innovation hub to investigate how each intervention and programme on campus could help to pursue the innovation demands.

3. Began holding think-tanks to brainstorm, across silos, better ways to address student needs.

Defining domains for innovation in student affairs is a way of opening up conversation across offices about what all the work of student affairs needs to achieve, and how work can best be organised to do that. For example, Seattle University defined five domains needing innovation:

1. Understanding students’ changing demographics and their needs.

2. Use of integrative and adaptive technologies to the advantage of students and student development.

3. Preparing students for a changing world of (a) work and (b) diversity.

4. Providing a high value student experience.

5. Operationalising students’ search for meaning and purpose.

The innovation hub model helped to refocus the work of student affairs on the five domains, Murray commented: “We are developing new programmes and reshaping existing ones to meet the needs identified in the five domains.” Silos that existed have been slowly torn down. “And it is working. Light bulbs are turning on for staff; staff are thinking about different ways of approaching their work. That’s pretty amazing to witness,” Murray concluded.

Think tanks are a huge part of making all of this work. At Seattle University, these are ninety-minute sessions that invite student affairs professionals, students and academics to identify how student needs are changing and brainstorm approaches to serving students.

Concluding thoughts

We all are apparently in for major change in higher education over the next 25 years including in the field of student affairs and services. As the authors point out, however, by being active participants in planning for change, we position ourselves as not only forecasters but also architects of our futures, or destinies.

We often times just don’t seem to take forecasting seriously or we suggest that we don’t have the time to look at our future and what it might bring. Let us hope that student affairs and services practitioners and scholars will follow the lead of the authors of this article and spend time on a regular basis looking into the future – and, as a result, help make it happen.

Roger B Ludeman is president emeritus of IASAS – the International Association of Student Affairs and Services – and editor-in-chief of the IASAS-Deutsches Studentenwerk book. E-mail:

George D Kuh is chancellor’s professor emeritus of higher education at Indiana University in the United States. E-mail:

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston University in the US. E-mail:

Daniel Fusch is director of research and publications at Academic Impressions in Denver, Colorado, in the US. E-mail:

Caleb Tegtmeier is data analyst and strategic consultant at Ad Astra Information Systems, Overland Park, in Kansas in the US. E-mail: