On March 8, Student Affairs Live (a component of Higher Ed Live) hosted a live-casting of Contested Issues in Students at the ACPA Annual Convention. The session pitted 12 professionals, scholars, and scholar-professionals in the field against one another in six mini-debates on, as you probably guessed, contested issues in student affairs. Audio of the episode is available.
Three of the topics that I wanted to touch on are Master’s Required; Credentialing; and, Faculty vs. Practitioners. Understandably, my responses to these three are shaped by my personal experiences. I am breaking these down into three separate posts so they are more digestible.
Master’s Required: YES! I say this as a professional who began my career without one. I started working in housing right after graduating with a degree in Biochemistry. I needed to know that SA and HiED were things I wanted to pursue as a career before diving into graduate school. I wasn’t going to commit to an additional two years of school if I couldn’t see myself doing this work for the long haul. After my two years of working, I was still happy with my choice and grad school was the next step.
What I learned in grad school was essential to my success. The ability to learn and apply simultaneously was vital. More importantly, having supportive professionals and faculty members was crucial. I was entrusted to do good work but still had a strong safety net in case things went wrong. I was fortunate that these people wanted the best for me and provided opportunities to make that happen. I had that chance as a new professional without a graduate degree, but the level of expectation was also different. As a full-time professional, there is a LOT less wiggle room to make mistakes and missteps.
Recently, I have seen full-time professionals who don’t have a graduate degree, or are working towards one, rise to positions of prominence in certain offices. In a time of accountability, I have noticed through interactions and questions that there are key pieces of knowledge that these professionals are missing that I learned while in my program; a lot of it revolves around assessment. These individuals might be great at planning events and spending money, but there is little thought about how effective these events are and how this money is contributing to the student experience. There are considerable amounts of money going to these areas, yet very little to show for it in my opinion. Not to mention, much of the money being spent is student fee related. This is especially concerning when national conversations are intensifying around the cost of higher education.
Retention and graduation rates are two of the most important factors (out of ten total) in our division because of a performance-based funding system. We have determined for these two (retention and graduation rates), we, as student affairs professionals, can have the most impact. I WOULD ARGUE WE DON’T HAVE RIGHT PEOPLE IN THE RIGHT PLACES WITH THE RIGHT EDUCATION LEVEL TO DEMONSTRATE HOW WE ARE CONTRIBUTING. We also don’t currently have the right infrastructure to support, nurture, and educate a new professional on how to gain this knowledge and skills-base. That’s a problem. We need to show we are contributing, but don’t have the ability to do so.
I am also not naive. I didn’t learn everything about being a professional in my graduate program. That is impossible. Luckily, I had a great combination of course work and practical experiences that allowed me to do well as I continued my career. I still refer to texts (newer editions of them) I used as a grad student. I look back at notes and research as starting points for current proposals and ideas. It was the foundation that my program provided me that was most important.
Do I use student development theory every day? No, I do not. But I do use it. Could I look it up using a Google search? Of course. But reading about cognitive-structural development and knowing the stages is different than having a discussion about how we might see it manifesting in the students we advise. That is the experience that is missed by not being in a graduate program, and it is important. To serve students well, that base knowledge and the ability to see it and apply it is vital.
Even for those with graduate degrees, not all Master’s programs are created equally. Different faculty have different research interests and construct their courses around topics and knowledge they feel are most important to pass on to students. The structure of the program even plays a part in this. On the flip side, a Master’s degree doesn’t magically mean you are better than someone without one. There are plenty of ways to learn and get professional development opportunities to gain necessary knowledge and skills. The field encourages it through adopting professional competencies with varying levels of proficiency.
The other factor (and I wholly recognize that this is personal) are students who just assume they can do my job, like right now. Many of them only see the aspects of my job that I allow them to see. They don’t see the numerous meetings or proposals or the time I spend researching and writing on my own time for work. Could some of them do parts of my job? Of course, they could. I have been fortunate that I have had many capable students pursue careers in student affairs.
In summation, a Master’s degree is extremely important. Should it preclude people from getting jobs in higher education, specifically student affairs? No, not necessarily. But it is hard to deny that it isn’t becoming a more and more important benchmark when evaluating potential employees and colleagues. The best way to see this is simply looking at job descriptions. Master’s preferred is slowly becoming Master’s required. Ultimately, there is a lot on the line. Expectations are at an all-time high. The ability to make mistakes and missteps are far and fewer between. There is more at stake. We are becoming risk averse because of various reasons (litigation being one of the main ones in my opinion). With a Master’s degree, I assume there is a base knowledge and ability that will allow the professional to be successful. I know that I still have work to do as a supervisor or colleague, but the level of work I need to do is far different.