What is Student Affairs?

Updated October 12, 2022 · 2 Min Read

Student Affairs in higher education is made up of professionals dedicated to supporting the academic and personal development of individuals attending college or

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What is Student Affairs? (in higher education)

The field known as student affairs in higher education is made up of professionals dedicated to supporting the academic and personal development of individuals attending college or university. Other common names for this sector include student services, student success or student personnel. Those who work in the field specialize in assisting students with a wide array of aspects related to the pursuit of a post-secondary education. There are positions within the discipline that focus on administrative tasks and those that are more geared toward hands-on assistance. Let's take a look at the history of this field, along with the various ways in which students may be served by these higher education experts and what it takes to enter the profession.


While the field evolved in various ways throughout the world, the focus here will be on its U.S. history. It was in the late 19th century that structure surrounding the development of students began to arise. The first position charged with this sort of formal role was the "Dean of Women" or "Dean of Men." In the United States, universities were residential, and these deans lived in the dormitories with their students. Their role was to maintain discipline and to ensure propriety of conduct. The philosophy guiding this model was known as "in loco parentis", which translates to "in place of parent." The purpose of these early student development practitioners was to serve as a surrogate parental figure and, in a sense, take responsibility for the actions and success of the students in their care.

Between the early to mid 1900's, professional organizations began to arise in order to represent the values and needs of student affairs workers. A guiding document known as "The Student Personnel Point of View" was written in 1937 and updated in 1949. As new psychological and developmental theories began to arise, the field began to see a departure from "in loco parentis" to a more holistic view of the student in which the focus became the emotional, physical and mental needs, rather than simply maintaining discipline. Known as "the student development movement", this philosophy burgeoned in the 1960's and placed emphasis upon helping students to gain mastery of their own thoughts, meaning-making and identity. Student support personnel were there to help their students to reach their full potential.

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There is no one accepted path to becoming a student services worker, as many roles exist within the field. However, it is common that the majority of positions do require at least a Master's degree in some aspect of educational development or leadership, along with a hands-on assistantship in order to gain practical skills. Upper administrative roles usually require a Doctoral degree in a related area of study.


The task of guiding student development is broken down into a number of specialty areas. Most institutions will have similar types of departments or divisions within their structures. Academic Services covers the areas of academic advising, tutoring, assessment, research and student support. Another branch is that of Admissions, Enrollment, Financial Aid and Orientation. The title is rather self-explanatory regarding the offices it comprises. Alumni and Advancement/Development is geared toward meeting the needs of alumni, connecting them with current students and reaching out to them for continued financial support. Campus Life focuses on the recreational and leadership needs of students. Activities, Greek Life and Veterans Affairs are examples of departments you'll find here. Diversity and Inclusion is important to all post-secondary institutions. These offices provide support for minority students and work to promote inclusion and education across campus. Another prominent division is Residence Life, which handles the living and dining accommodations of students.

Student success is a concerted effort on campuses across America. It requires a wide variety of professional in various disciplines to help guide student development as a whole. Student affairs in higher education is an important, yet not often understood, role.

Related Resource: The 25 Best Online Master’s in Higher Education Administration