Where Have We Come from and Where Are We Going? A Review of Past Student Affairs Philosophies and an Analysis of the Current Student Learning Philosophy

By Doyle, Jeff A. | College Student Affairs Journal, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Where Have We Come from and Where Are We Going? A Review of Past Student Affairs Philosophies and an Analysis of the Current Student Learning Philosophy


Doyle, Jeff A., College Student Affairs Journal


This article reviews three of the most widely-known guiding philosophies of student affairs for the past 65 years. The article analyzes the rise, dominance, and fall of the student services and student development philosophies and then explores the emergence of student learning as a guiding philosophy. The results of two research studies on the successful integration of student learning within student affairs are used to examine challenges and priorities for student affairs in coming years.

For most student affairs practitioners, the daily challenges of solving problems and supporting students takes precedence over philosophical issues surrounding the profession of student affairs. However, it is the understanding of student affairs theories that will best guide student affairs professionals in their problem-solving and relationship-forming. This article examines three of the most prominent student affairs philosophies of the past 65 years, including an in-depth analysis of student affairs' integration of the current philosophy of student learning. The first part of this article traces the progression of student affairs guiding philosophies from the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View to the introduction of the student learning philosophy in 1994. The second half of the article explores some of the research on the integration of student learning as a guiding philosophy and summarizes a few of the challenges lacing student affairs professionals as they attempt deeper integration of the student learning philosophy.

The Historical Foundations of Learning in Student Affairs

The work of student affairs has existed as long as has higher education in the United States. In the first 200 years of American higher education, professors, tutors, and presidents served in the role currently implemented by student affairs (Rudolph, 1990). The faculty was responsible not only for students' intellectual development, but also for their moral development. Tutors often lived with students and served as mentors and counselors (Blimling & Alschuler, 1996). Blimling and Alschuler note, "What are today separated as academics and student affairs were once a seamless integrated responsibility of all people holding positions in colonial colleges" (p. 204).

In the second half of the 19th century, however, the role of faculty in American higher education began to change, reflecting the influence of the German model for higher education that emphasized the search for "pure knowledge" through empirical inquiry and basic research. As faculty members became more invested in their research and scholarly work, they were less interested in investing in their students' learning. "If investigation was the principal aim of the university, then giving one's energy to immature and frequently mediocre students could seem an irritating irrelevance" (Veysey, 1905, p. 144). According to Rudolph (1990), "What now mattered was intellectual performance in the classroom, not model behavior in the dormitory or the village tavern" (p. 348). The solution for many colleges and universities was to hire a dean or other student services specialists (e.g. registrars, chaplains, house mothers) who would monitor and discipline the students for their behavior outside of class (Boyer, 1987; Loy & Painter, 1997). Thus began the growing distinction between students' learning and growth inside and outside of class. Eventually, one dean was not enough for most colleges, due to the exponential growth of the student population and students' growing interest in extracurricular activities (Rudolph, 1990). In 1899, William Rainey Harper recognized the importance of understanding students' development and predicted the rapid growth of a field focused on student issues:

In order that a student may receive the assistance so essential to his highest success, another step in the onward evolution will take place. This step will be the scientific study of the student himself. …

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