The Value of Higher Education Professionals

By Hope Miller Miles
Stevenson University

As Student Affairs Professionals we are always searching to prove ourselves and legitimatize ourselves among the academic community at our institutions. We all fight to be recognized as important parts of the Higher Education experience and we are always trying to solve this problem of how to be seen as equals in partnership with academics to make a student’s college experience matter. Well, I was thinking this morning as I blow dried my hair that we ARE important. We ARE partners. And the way I was breaking it down looked a little like this:

Imagine for a moment that you are taking a cruise. You are excited to go on the ship. You are excited to go to the ports and see the different scenery and eat the exotic foods and take pictures. So you get on the boat. You go to the ports. Then you go home. You did it, you went on a cruise. Your trip is complete. But there's something missing.

How did you get there? What was your experience like? Who did you connect with? What types of entertainment did you experience? How did you engage with the other vacationers? How did it all feel?

We can experiment with our imagination by seeing two different travelers. 

Traveler 1 (let’s say her name is Amy) goes on a luxury cruise ship with beautiful amenities, a friendly staff, and fun activities to pass the time while sailing on the ocean, all while still forging ahead to multiple destinations. 

Traveler 2 (we’ll call him Bob), is on a transport barge. He’s sitting around. He has no amenities, a plain state room, and nothing to do to pass the time as he sails on the same ocean to the same destinations as Amy. 

Amy and Bob are headed to the same destination. They see the same sights and take similar pictures, and at the end of their trips, they each get back on their respective ships and start their journey back to the end of their cruise. But each has a completely different experience. 

Amy is living it up, playing bingo with new friends she has met, watching shows, experiencing a meditative yoga retreat, dancing with new friends, reading a new book in the ship's library, viewing the art exhibit, staying fit on the jogging track, attending an interactive seminar, getting on stage with the comedian, eating delicious foods, and enjoying herself as she remembers her experiences and reflects on them. (It's a long trip.)

Meanwhile, Bob is sitting on a bench on the deck of the transport barge, reading a book and wishing there was something to do. There’s no one to organize any activities or get people together to increase the enjoyment of their experience.

Back at the port, Amy and Bob pick up their luggage and go their own ways. The next day, a friend asks Amy, “How was the cruise?” Amy responds by telling him how amazing her experience was. She told him about the food and the games and the fun shows. She told him about all that she learned about herself on the journey during the seminars and meditation. And of course, she told him about the ports, too. It was all important. The experience on the boat and at the various ports had collectively created a wonderful memory and a great feeling for Amy. 

Bob slogs back to work on Monday and his buddy says, “How was the cruise?” and Bob responds with, “It was okay.” Bob got to see the same things Amy saw and took the same pictures, but how about the journey along the way? What completed the experience for him? Nothing. Bob’s friend says, “I am thinking of going on a cruise. Would you recommend this cruise line?” and Bob has no feelings about it. “It was fine if you just want to see the sights. But there wasn’t much happening while I was on the boat.” Amy’s friend asks the same question, but her reply is different. “YES! I would definitely recommend this cruise line. They took great interest in making sure I was happy, well fed, relaxed, and entertained. There was so much to do and see and learn. They even had Free Pizza Night. Everyone on board thought it was a great time and we had fun together at the ports and were excited to get home to tell everyone about it!” 

I will bring it back around. So we are looking at a lesson in competitive advantage. Both ships cost the same. Both ships take the passengers to the same ports and back again. Both are safe with skilled captains and workers that keep things going. The difference is that Amy’s ship had a competitive advantage. It had experiences that were much more fulfilling for its passengers. And because of that, Amy is more likely to tell a friend or a family member that she had a great experience and that they, too, should try that cruise. Bob, on the other hand, is indifferent. He arrived at the same places but his experiences were not convincing as a great advocate for that cruise line. Amy’s cruise is going to be a better business, because they have created a better experience.

Student Affairs professionals, I implore you. Use your imagination and see yourselves as those people that make the cruise more enjoyable and the ones that help create memories and experiences for the passengers, our students. Without these things, the college experience would be just a transport barge to the same diploma. It is us and those that support us that make students love their college experience and tell others all about it. This gives me optimism. We need more administrators to see that we as Higher Education Professionals in Student Affairs and Student Activities as an integral part of the business plan for a successful institution of higher learning. Great activities, great connections, great learning, and great experiences lead to great results. At the time of this writing, it’s August people. Keep your chins up and your heads high and be proud.

As part of our ongoing research and development at Collegiate Empowerment, we have found that at many institutions, up to 90% of students never get involved on campus. That means that they don't go to events, they don't join organizations, they don't run for leadership positions, and they don't contribute much to the culture of campus life. 

We can't say how engaged they are with their academic career, but we know for sure that there are many PCP campuses where the students go from Parking lot to Class to Parking lot. (See, PCP, not the drug.) There are other campuses where the students go from their room to class to a dining hall and back to their room. Perhaps RCDR students? Whatever. That is not the college experience; that's more like high school. 

Most students go to college and get a degree, but not an education. Most students take their education higher, but not deeper. Most students don't get a life outside the classroom. That's where we all come in. We help students get an education. We help students take their higher education deeper. We help students to get a life outside the classroom where they apply what they learn and, in the process, learn about who they are, what they want, and what they're going to give back to the world. 

Our one job as Higher Education Professionals is to help students feel comfortable and confident enough to make the most of their experience, thereby living outside of their comfort zone, thereby actually getting involved and engaged, thereby increasing retention rates, thereby increasing graduation rates, thereby improving overall stats of the college, thereby increasing enrollment. 

That's the real value of a Higher Education Professional. That's your value and no one can take that away from you...or the students you serve.