Student Development

It’s been said that today’s best practices are tomorrow’s lessons learned. That rings true in higher education, generally, and in student development, specifically. In colonial America, poorly staffed colleges required faculty to serve as “live-in teachers who supervised the students in the dormitories and dining halls as well as in the classrooms” (Long, 2012). Centuries later, the idea of student development has matured. Beginning in the 1980s, the student affairs profession focused its efforts on supporting “the academic mission of colleges and universities” and fostering “the development of the student intellectually, psychosocially, and emotionally (Long, 2012). Research shows this focus on holistic student development will continue.

A decade ago, through its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2007) synthesized the college outcomes necessary for successful practice in 21st-century life:

  • Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world
  • Intellectual and practical skills
  • Personal and social responsibility
  • Integrative learning

Because these outcomes span the cognitive, social, and personal dimensions, achieving them requires more than information acquisition or even critical analysis. It requires transformative learning, or learning “to negotiate and act on our own purposes, values, feelings, and meanings rather than those we have uncritically assimilated from others” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 8).

Institutions of higher education strive to promote the healthy development of students along multiple dimensions. They seek to create environments and learning experiences that support the capacity to: build healthy relationships, achieve financial security, work effectively in teams, collaborate across differences, become discerning consumers of information, find purpose and happiness in their own lives, and seek to serve others in meaningful ways. These goals present challenges that are daunting and exciting. With the observations and comments below we seek to identify the trends that impact this endeavor in higher education and at Providence College.

Integrated Learning

Research has shown that students benefit when academic and co-curricular learning occurs in a manner that is intentionally integrated. This is often discussed in the context of “high impact practices” (Kuh, AAC&U, 2008, McCLellan, 2015). Institutions of higher education widely seek to offer learning experiences that are “transformational.” Student affairs/student development professionals often focus on service learning, learning communities, and internships – high impact practices. Other high impact practices usually addressed in the academic area include: field experiences/practicums, student research, capstone courses, and portfolios. These practices seek the integration of learning that occurs in and outside of the classroom. These initiatives also seek deeper engagement of learners and even paradigm shifts in how students think about themselves, knowledge, and the world.

The Carnegie Foundation identifies four domains for integrated learning:

  • Technology and Analytics
  • Teamwork and Relationships
  • Communication and Influence
  • Professionalism and Work Ethic

In looking at these categories, it can be easily seen how integrated learning approaches use a range of practices (internships, courses, mentors, workshops, campus leadership experiences, etc.) to be most effective. At Providence College, the Center for Career Education and Professional Development has begun to pilot professional skills programs in support of these domains.

Career Development

Almost universally, institutions of higher education strive to promote the development of their students along multiple dimensions. “College students, their families, and the American public all expect that college is a transformative experience that leads to great jobs and great lives” (Gallup-Purdue, 2016). Students and parents often examine closely how effective colleges are in preparing students to succeed in a changing world. In a Chronicle of Higher Education report, career services was ranked as the third highest priority for spending – after diversity and mental health needs

Return on investment (ROI) is a term that has migrated from the investment community to higher education as colleges seek to provide more data to students and families regarding career outcomes for graduates. Liberal arts colleges are seeking to make the case for liberal studies in a somewhat skeptical environment. Nevertheless, the Chronicle reported (June 9, 2016, also Inside Higher Education Jan 20, 2015 & June 30, 2015, Harvard Business Review, Jan.29, 2016) that there are many good jobs for liberal arts graduates, but they need specific skill sets such as technology, data management, graphic design, and programming. These are skills that can be obtained by taking courses, learning online, in an internship, or even in supplemental workshops offered by the College. Employers also speak of the importance of non-cognitive skills related to grit, persistence, and communication skills (NPR, May 28, 2015).

Career education services have been moving to a coaching approach to help students not only match up their courses and skills with possible career paths, but develop the skills to effectively explore career paths on their own. Career education has been called to go far beyond the placement assistance of the past. Career education may become involved in internships, mentoring, shadowing programs, experiential learning, and technology training. Group discussions, assessment tools, self-reflection, and one-on-one meetings may be used to deepen learning and readiness. These departments are striving to attend to the unique needs of various populations of students, including students of color, first-generation students, and women.

Residential Life

Some observers have noted a competition among colleges to build student housing that is more attractive and has more amenities than competitor schools. Suite and apartment-style housing is now common. Older style hallway arrangements are seen as less desirable. However, this architecture encourages more interaction and can make it easier for first-year students to get to know each other. Some campuses offer in-house fitness centers, elaborate lounge and game rooms, and even swimming pools. Residence halls have been identified as the second most important factor in attracting students to a campus (Caine and Reynolds, 2006).

Some institutions of higher education are choosing to minimize the costs of residential programs by contracting with private management companies to operate college housing facilities. These arrangements offer both opportunities and challenges. Institutions need to be clear about rates charged to students as well as questions of safety, security, staffing, and programming (EAB, 2012).

Residential Life programs, increasingly, are becoming involved in the educational mission of the institution. Long a practice at some schools, faculty are increasingly involved in the residential experience. Cohort groups are sometimes formed to focus on specific topics such as languages, science, building community, and social justice. Sriram and McLevain (2016) have argued that residential life programs can offer transformatational experiences with “environments that offer an integrated, holistic education that is vital to the mission of Christian institutions.” (p.72) (The Future of Residence Life and Student Affairs in Christian Higher Education, Journal of Christian Higher Education, Vol 15, 2016) Many schools have found benefits in residential programs that integrate the academic and the residential. “Residence halls can—and should—become that intersection of people, pedagogy, and place.” (Herman Miller, Room and Board Redefined, Trends in Residence Halls, 2007, p.6)

Safe and Inclusive Campus

Institutions of higher education, due to mission and government mandate, must establish campus environments that are safe and inclusive. Multi-million dollar fines and lawsuit settlements have been levied against institutions for failure to effectively manage compliance matters related to disability (including mental health issues), sexual misconduct, and discrimination.

A 2017 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education polled 112 presidents and student affairs vice presidents about their concerns and observations. Regarding major concerns outside of the classroom, 66 percent cited student mental health as a top concern, followed by diversity and multicultural services (40 percent) and campus safety (26 percent), which includes concerns about sexual assault.

The report also found that student affairs divisions are “being given more priority in strategic, long-term planning.” The report predicts that student affairs will play a larger role in helping with retention and success of students. Additionally, more attention will be given to students with economic disadvantages. Inclusion and diversity is discussed in more detail in the Future of Higher Education section called “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”

Health and Mental Health (See also appendix I for examples of institutional support)

Some experts have claimed that there is a “crisis of mental health on our college campuses” (Heck, 2015), and with good reason. In a 2015 survey by the American College Health Association, 13 percent of students reported a diagnosis or treatment for depression in the preceding 12 months, and 16 percent reported a diagnosis or treatment for anxiety. Students also reported high rates of negative emotions; these included feeling overwhelmed (86 percent), emotionally exhausted (82 percent), and very sad (64 percent) or lonely (59 percent) (Provost’s Committee, 2016).

Similarly troubling results were found in a 2016 Healthy Minds Study, which was based on criteria in the APA’s (American Psychological Association’s) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. This survey of more than 16,000 students nationwide “suggested that 35 percent of college students [met] the criteria for at least one mental disorder in the prior 12 months. Moderate or more severe depression was present in one-fifth (20%) of students and 12 percent met criteria for major depression […]. One-fifth (20% percent) of students met criteria for anxiety, with 40 percent of these meeting criteria for severe anxiety” (pp. 4-5). Still another recent survey by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State showed that “[m]ore than half of students visiting campus clinics cite anxiety as a health concern” (Hoffman). This was a nationwide survey of more than 100,000 students.

Amidst these trends – and despite limited resources – college counseling centers are seeing more students than ever before. According to Dan Jones, former president of the Association for University and College Counseling Centers, a typical center “can expect to service 10 percent of the student population at least once” (Heck, 2015). Meanwhile, many other students will go on suffering in silence, striving to appear happy and “put together” when they are not.[1] For while millennials have benefitted from the gradual de-stigmatization of mental illness in their greater acceptance of others with these types of afflictions, “millennials still carefully craft how others perceive them: Fewer than 50 percent of [those surveyed] said they would be able to talk to friends and family about seeking help” (Heck, 2015). Thus, even on campuses where support for mental illness is fairly robust, the overall mental health of the student body can be exceedingly poor, albeit invisible to the naked eye.

Research suggests that the “mental health crisis” is the culmination of a trend that has been spiraling downward for more than half a century. While cross-generational comparisons can be difficult to make, “data clearly suggest increases in levels of stress, depression, and anxiety at least since the 1980s. Consider that one study found that the average high school student in the year 2000 ha[d] the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient did in the 1950s” (Henriques, 2014).[2] Others have attributed increases in mental illness to maladaptive patterns of behavior. For example, according to a February 2014 article in Psychology Today, while many college students average just over six hours of sleep a night and wear sleep deprivation as a “badge of honor,” their “poor sleep patterns are not to be taken lightly and are likely significantly associated with mental health problems in other domains” (Henriques, 2014).

Beyond these proximate causes, however, there is evidence to suggest that the roots of the current “mental health crisis” go much deeper. In a seminal study that examined data from the 1930s to 2007 and found substantial increases in psychopathology among college students, Twenge (2010) cited “cultural shifts toward extrinsic goals, such as materialism and status and away from intrinsic goals, such as community, meaning in life, and affiliation” (p. 145). According to this same study, college student (p. 146). They were also less likely to say that they have close friends they can confide in or that they are interested in public service. Finally, fewer college students agreed that “it is important to develop a meaningful philosophy of life” (p. 146). Findings like these should, and do, engage us as a Catholic, liberal arts institution.

In fact, a failure to engage the “mental health crisis” could be quite detrimental to our future students and the college community. Demographic data suggest that students’ mental health may only become more acute in the next decade. Efforts to make colleges more inclusive may increase the number of students on campus who are not fully prepared for college life. Under-preparedness for the rigors of college will be stress-inducing for many; but readiness, or the lack thereof, will be one among many potential sources of angst.

According to a 2013 study at the University of Texas at Austin, “Students who are ethnic minorities often experience several different compounding layers of stress. […]. African-American students were more likely to feel stress directly related to discrimination. Asian-American students often reported experiencing ‘imposter feelings’ when people didn’t believe they deserved the success they’ve achieved” (Heck, 2015). These kinds of self-perceptions can often “play out in the students’ perceptions of themselves — and that can include how much success they expect of themselves.” Meanwhile, for many students of Hispanic or Latino/a descent, the stress of being away from family, or of being forced to choose between school and family obligations, will be a major factor in their persistence and success.

Navigating and negotiating these various stressors will be a major challenge, and colleges and universities must be ready to offer appropriate supports. It is nearly impossible to hire enough therapists to treat everyone who might need or desire it. Alternative population-based prevention and education initiatives need to be considered. New therapeutic methods and technologies are being implemented to identify students at risk, as well as to teach them more effective coping skills, promote resilience, and enhance community support.


As you can see, student development and the work of student affairs goes far beyond party planning and lending a sympathetic ear. Challenges are conquered and new challenges arise on a daily basis. Some of these challenges involve mental crises, alcohol abuse, and unsafe behaviors that actually become questions of life and death. Addressing these challenges by using best practices and subsequent lessons learned is a mission-critical, institution-wide task.


Caine, D., and Gary L. Reynolds, “The Impact of Facilities on Recruitment and Retention of Students,” Facilities Manager, March/April 2006, pp. 54-60,, accessed 1/29/2007

Heck, Laura (2015, Nov.)  “A generation on the edge: A look at millennials and mental health.”  VOX Magazine.  Columbia, MO: Missouri School of Journalism.  Available at

Henriques, Gregg (2014, Feb. 15).  The college student mental health crisis.  Psychology Today.  Available at

Hoffman, Jan. (2015, May 27).  Anxious students strain college mental health centers.  New York Times. New York, NY.  Available at

Kuh, G. D. (2008). “High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Long, D. (2012). The foundations of student affairs: A guide to the profession.  In L.J. Hinchliffe & M.A. Wong (Eds.) Environments for student growth and development: Libraries and student affairs in collaboration (pp.41-57). Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

McClellan, G.S.&  Stringer. J., (Eds) (2016) The Handbook of Student Affairs Administration 4th Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. and Associates (2000).  Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mistler, Brian J., Reetz, DavidR., Krylowicz, Brian, & Barr, Victor. (2013). The association for university and college counseling center directors annual survey. Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.  Available at

Provost’s Committee on Student Mental Health. (2016). The state of student mental health on college and university campuses with a specific assessment of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Available at

The Advisory Board Company. “Considerations for Private Management and Ownership of Student Housing.” (2012).

Twenge, J. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938-2007.     Clinical Psychology Review 30(2), 145-154.


[1] “Researchers and mental health professionals explain the gap between college students’ tireless efforts to appear put together and their inward unraveling as the ‘duck syndrome.’ […] The idea is this: Picture a duck swimming across a lake or pond. On the surface, the duck seems to be gliding along effortlessly, gracefully. But beneath the surface, the duck’s webbed feet are busy paddling — frantic, fraught, desperate — to keep itself afloat” (Heck, 2015).

[2] This increasing psychopathology has been attributed to a variety of causes. These include everything from “mounting academic pressure at earlier ages to overprotective parents to compulsive engagement with social media” (Hoffman). With the escalating pressure of high school – to get the best grades, to be well the most well-rounded, etc. – many students arrive on college campuses “preloaded with stress” (Hoffman). For many of these individuals, intensive parental oversight throughout high school – such as ‘lawnmower parenting,’ in which parents mow down the obstacles in their children’s way” (Heck) – has left them unable to cope with adversity, make decisions independently, or develop critical life skills. And, with social media as a “gnawing, rolling constant,” many suffer from what is commonly referred to as FOMO, or the fear of missing out: “As students see posts about everyone else’s fabulous experiences, the inevitable comparisons erode their self-esteem” (Hoffman, 2015).

[3] It is important to note that MU’s Contemplative Practice Center won the Best Practices in College Health award by the American College Health Association in 2015. This Center will be a good resource as Providence College contemplates its own mental health support structures.

Appendix I

Some institutions have already started to ramp up resources and support for student mental health. For example, many college counseling centers, including the center at the University of Central Florida, have instituted a variety of ongoing workshops and therapy groups (e.g., “Keeping Calm and in Control”) to help students who are struggling with (social) anxiety, depression, and their various triggers. UCF has also developed “a new app for treating anxiety with a seven-module cognitive behavioral program, accessible through a student’s phone and augmented with brief videoconferences with a therapist” (Heck, 2015).

Meanwhile, staff at the University of Missouri have taken several steps to augment awareness and education for mental health. For example, “In a big step toward acceptance of mental illnesses […], Active Minds successfully petitioned the administration to put the MU Counseling Center’s number on the back of student ID cards. That’s vital […] because it shows that mental health is just as important as other forms of personal safety” (Heck, 2015). Student demand at MU has also led to the development of credit-bearing, mindfulness-based classes, some for credit. In addition to these classes, MU’s Contemplative Practice Center offers sessions on meditation, stress reduction and biofeedback.[3]

Finally, MU’s “Behavioral Health Center and the Counseling Center have non-white therapists who work with students, including a therapist fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. In its second year, a People of Color support group through the Counseling Center allow[ed] minority students to discuss problems such as encountered racism, micro-aggressions and living on a majority-white campus” (Heck, 2015). These types of initiatives demonstrate the potential for colleges and universities to take a proactive approach to the “mental health crisis,” and to create cultures in which stressors are openly acknowledged and discussed. But these kinds of programs also require purposefulness, both in terms of outcomes and resource allocation.