In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Many professionals holding counseling degrees work in related fields such as college student personnel services. Some graduate counseling programs even offer degree programs in college counseling or counseling and college student services administration, as a degree option along with traditional programs in school counseling, mental health counseling, rehabilitation counseling, and so forth.
The required degree for most student affairs positions in the dean of students’ office, student activities center, student union, residence halls, and so forth is likely to be a master’s degree. Director and assistant director positions, however, especially at larger campuses, will likely require a doctoral degree in counseling, college student services, adult education, or a related degree.
Issues to Understand
A counseling background is an advantage for anyone working in college student affairs. Given the ubiquity of mental health issues in today’s collegiate population, training in recognizing and understanding mental health issues and making a timely intervention may head off student struggle and even tragedy (Kadison & DiGeronimo, 2004). However, counselors working in student services settings, such as the dean of students’ office, student activities, and residential life, must understand that counseling is not part of their job description. Because counselors are specially trained in empathetic communication, conflict resolution, and providing feedback, they may have an advantage over general student affairs professionals educated in programs other than counseling. A larger part of student services administration will involve good management and budgetary skills and the ability to plan and train students and professional staff. Many student affairs positions (such as dean of students’ office) may involve disciplinary hearings and sanctions, something in which counselors would receive little training. Student affairs professionals, especially assistant directors and directors, are likely to be heavily involved in management and staff supervision, leaving little time for assisting students with personal growth work.
Best Aspects of the Job
As a veteran of student affairs work in numerous departments during my baccalaureate, master’s degree, and doctoral study, my sense is that many student affairs professionals are drawn to the field by a desire to assist students in their growth and maturation. Student affairs professionals, particularly those serving the front lines, will have a lot of contact with college students (e.g., program advisor in student activities, hall director, and greek advisor). Many student affairs positions also hold 9- or 10-month appointments, thus providing them a natural summer break. Directors and assistant directors will usually hold 12-month appointments.
Challenging Aspects of the Job
For many student affairs professionals, the work will require more managerial skills than counseling skills. Directors and assistant directors will supervise staff; help recruit, hire, and fire staff; prepare budgets; and discipline students. Many of these responsibilities are ones counselors may not prefer. It has also been my experience in some 30 years in higher education that there remains a class distinction between faculty and student affairs professionals. Many faculty (though not all) will view student affairs staff as nonessential, if not unnecessary. Even student affairs professionals holding the doctoral degree will not get the same level of respect as faculty. As a professional who came up through the ranks of student affairs then switched over to the faculty, I was acutely aware of the class distinction between these disparate professions. This faculty– administration divide can create an uncomfortable (and unnecessary) division on college campuses.
Occupational Outlook and Salary
Student affairs jobs are still available on college campuses. The BOLS reports general salary statistics, most of which are targeted at director positions, where the median salary is very high. But as there are some 4,000 colleges, universities, and community colleges in the United States, most student affairs positions will usually be entry-level positions, and salaries will vary considerably depending on the type of institution (small college, community college, large university). Student affairs staff can expect a wide range of salary, with entry-level positions being in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. Directors and assistant directors can earn up to near $100,000, though such positions are rare, and usually more in the range of $60,000 to $75,000. The BOLS estimates a near flat growth rate of 2%, meaning the field is not expanding. Given the popularity of online degree programs, many student affairs may experience contraction in the future (especially in residence life).