Often in higher education, we think of the concept of stewardship from a perspective rooted strictly in philanthropy: cultivating and caring for a donor or prospective donor and then ensuring their gift is used responsibly and consistently with their intent.
At public institutions, we have had many conversations around the importance of stewardship as it relates to space and place – creating space for civic engagement in places of and for community. This concept was promoted in the 2002 American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Task Force report, Stewards of Place: A Guide for Leading Public Engagement at State Colleges and Universities. We continue to see the importance of campus as public square daily through, among other examples, increasing student activism related to the current presidential campaign and other critical emerging and re-emerging social and societal issues.
We in student affairs live and internalize this approach and it is likely you will find a commitment to civic engagement in most of our student affairs strategic planning and visioning documents. Indeed, it is a pillar of George Mason University’s newly implemented Patriot Experience program, in which we encourage and enable students to track their participation, engagement, and learning across four core co-curricular areas, one explicitly dedicated to civic learning and community engagement.
But in my current role as VP for University Life, I have come to feel much more urgency around the core concept of stewardship as it relates to the financial resources that undergird our public institutions. The patterns are clear: State funding of higher education continues to decline. In my own state of Virginia (not very different from most other states), we continue to experience an increasing financial shift from taxpayer to student. As a percentage of the total education and general budget, the state contribution has gone from 67% in 1985 to approximately 27% in 2016.
In addition, tuition and increasing student debt continues to energize the pubic conversations about higher education. Average student debt nationally continues to hover around $27,000, though we continue to see and hear about students who have racked up much more than that in order to stay in college. The overall return on investment for graduates is still higher and better when comparing lifetime earnings to those without a college degree, though that reality has not made its way into the public discourse in the same way. And as we welcome more first gen college students who are more reticent to borrow, focusing on total cost of attendance and success becomes even more important.
These factors have led to an intensified scrutiny around, among other things, ‘critical’ student services and legitimate questions about over-specialization. I continue to wonder how would student affairs look if we put stewardship front and center as our fundamental guiding principal. Would students be served differently? What shifts would the profession experience with this as the priority? What structural changes would need to be implemented? And, ultimately, would we serve more students, better, and graduate them earlier and better prepared for career and post-collegiate life?
At Mason, we are investing in a three-year Student Experience Redesign project that prioritizes the student experience over institutionally-designed organizational structures. The project, in full-scale partnership with our Academic Affairs, Enrollment Management, and Information Technology divisions along with participants from many of our colleges has lofty goals. We are working to create the ideal, integrated student experience from start to finish, identifying all the gaps and obstacles along the way taking into account the impact of institutional silos and processes – processes initially developed with all the best intentions, but which can also needlessly slow students down in their progress. We started the project by talking with students and combing through data about student wants and needs. We want to know where we hit the mark and where we miss it, listening for improvements and changes we can make to decrease student frustrations and increase overall growth, well being, academic success, and time to graduation. We are close to some initial year one recommendations in this redesign and I am hopeful that we will deliver on our most significant value as stated in our institution’s 10-year strategic plan, that ‘Students Come First.’
I do know this: Student affairs leaders have always been champions of students. Student service is paramount to our profession, and its many specializations. I challenge us all to consider whether we truly serve our students to the best of our ability when we build organizations that are complex, internally competitive, and put our own professional growth and professional curiosity (whether by developing new programs which may not be necessary, or by adding layers of staff within departments when we may be better served by collaborating across our organizations and across the institutions) without honest reflection on resources necessary to build our ideal student affairs environment. Resources aren’t infinite, and it is imperative to challenge ourselves to look beyond the barriers or our own professional perspectives and think about these issues through multiple lens.