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Job Sector Guides - Student Affairs in Higher Education

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Job Sector Guides

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Student Affairs in Higher Education 



At colleges and universities, learning transcends classrooms. Opportunities for growth and development happen in residence halls, on athletic fields, and in social settings. Student affairs  professionals provide services, structural and relational support to students engaging in learning both inside and outside the classroom. According to National Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), a few core values within student affairs are encouraging an understanding of and respect for diversity, believing in the worth of individuals, and supporting students in their development.


Though most colleges and universities in the United States have a division of student affairs, the actual departments that fall under this division varies. Thus, careers in the field of student affairs vary greatly too. The Handbook of Student Affairs Administration and professional associations, NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education - and ACPA – American College Personnel Association – identify eight typical departments within a division of student affairs:


    • Academic Services: Academic services promotes the growth of students as scholars through comprehensive advising and support over the course of their academic journey. Jobs in this department can include academic advising, tutoring, success coaching, and evaluation of academic resources. Depending on level and particular school, college or university staff may have an adjunct role in academic services, such as serving as an academic advisor, to a more specialized role of leading assessment and research on a particular academic service.  


    •  Admissions and Financial Aid: Admissions and financial staff are responsible for a wide range of administrative duties, including: recruitment of undergraduate and graduate students (often separate offices); managing and updating student records; processing federal, state, private, and institutional aid; and supporting programming for first-year and transfer students. Roles within admissions and financial can include admissions counselor, dean of admissions, vice president of enrollment, registrar, bursar, financial aid advisor, and application processor. 


    •  Alumni Relations: Student Affairs Professionals in alumni relations are focused on cultivating and sustaining lifelong relationships between alumni and their respective alma mater. They do engagement work, which aims to create ways for alumni to give back to their school. Work in this department can include organizing fundraising campaigns, planning and hosting alumni events, and reaching out to alumni for annual report data. 


    •  Campus Life: The department of campus life generally oversees greek affairs, judicial affairs, religious services, the student center (or union), and overall campus safety. Additionally, most colleges and universities offer opportunities for leadership growth, social activities, and community involvement to help students develop socially, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. In this department, student affairs professionals can oversee and lead these opportunities as a dean of students, case manager, community service coordinator, college chaplain, and so on. 


    •  Counseling, Health and Wellness: Counseling includes career services (such as mock interviews, resume workshops, and job fairs) and prevention/intervention services by licensed mental health counselors, social workers and psychologists. Health and wellness is provided by the health center, which also provides medical care and public health education. Student affairs professionals in these careers typically need advanced degrees and/or certifications. 


    •  Diversity and Inclusion: Diversity and inclusion workers provide support for disability support services, international student services, and multicultural services at a college or university. Diversity and inclusion efforts at higher education institutions are intended to foster mutual respect and understanding among and for all people of different cultures, races, religions, sexual orientations, genders, national origins, socio-economic backgrounds, and physical abilities.


    •  Residence Life: Residence life provides housing, programs, and academic and personal/social support for students, and may include food services (such as meal plans, campus restaurants, and catering services). Positions in residence life can range from live-in positions, such as an area coordinator, to more auxiliary roles, such as overseeing student ID services. 


    •  Sports and Recreation: Athletics includes student services for student athletes in four-year college and university Division I, II, II athletics or community college athletics. Recreation includes fitness centers that provide noncompetitive recreation (such as weight rooms, pools, and intramural sports) for students. Roles in sports and recreation can include coach, assistant coach, personal trainer, fitness instructor, and gym manager. 



Salaries for positions in this sector vary based on experience, employer, and geographic area. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) gathers data each year on national employment trends, including salary. The table below synthesizes a glimpse at the sector, based on specific positions and corresponding average salary. Please note that for some positions the salaries were averaged with those doing similar work in other sectors, such as K-12 education and vocational education. 



National Mean Salary

New Jersey

North Carolina


Education Administrator, Postsecondary





Chief Executive





Educational Counselor





School Library Workers






To find more information about salaries in this sector:



Other benefits of working within a higher education institution may include tuition remission, funding for conferences related to the field, health benefits, and for those with children the privilege for their children to attend a college or university at reduced costs.



Most entry-level jobs within this sector will require a bachelor’s degree, with no particular preference for course of study. Employers typically prefer to hire candidates who have several years of experience in a student affairs setting. Some student affairs professionals work in the registrar’s office or as a resident advisor while in college to gain the necessary experience. A common entry into the field is working at your alma mater. Recent college graduates can usually secure a job as a program coordinator, counselor (career or academic), or department assistant at a majority of colleges and universities in the United States.


Student affairs professional who are seeking more administrative roles, such as program director, dean, or provost, will often require a graduate degree in their area of focus. These upper-level positions also place a heavy premium on experience, as many high value jobs will require year of prior experience in related work. Thus, the longer a student affairs professional stays in an administrative role the more likely they are to advance in their career. With an increasing focus on legal, financial, and liability issues in higher education, student affairs leaders may need education and training in finance and business management. 



Bonner Programs across the nation have six Common Commitments that unite them in leadership and service: Community Building, Spiritual Exploration, Civic Engagement, Diversity, International Perspective, and Social Justice. Many colleges and universities in the United States have a statement of purpose that more or less aligns with these common commitments. By extension, that means that student affairs professionals working in higher education institutions are also committed to building the institution’s capacity in one or more of these focus areas. In this way, Bonner Scholars and Leaders going into the higher education sector can continue to do impactful work as service leaders even after graduating from the program. 


There is a growing population of Bonner alumni at premier colleges and universities throughout the country in various student affairs positions, ranging from admissions counselors to community service directors to associate dean of students. In all of these roles, Bonner alumni have opportunities to engage both directly with students, as well as take on more indirect and administrative roles. It is through these interactions that Bonner alumni in student affairs/higher education are expanding the values of the Bonner Program beyond our 65+ partner institutions. Through their work, student affairs professionals are blazing the trail for more schools that are not affiliated with the Bonner Program to join in our mission “to improve the lives of individuals and communities by helping meet the basic needs of nutrition and educational opportunity.”


    • Building relationships with students
    • Professional development opportunities (i.e. conferences
      and leadership trainings)
    • Subsidized graduate school education
    • Access to campus amenities (i.e. athletics, performances, convocations)
    • Working with other dedicated faculty and staff
    • Compassion fatigue
    • Institutional bureaucracy (i.e. budget cuts)
    • Societal devaluing of education
    • Sometimes working nights/weekends 
    • Changing traditions and norms, “post-secondary life cycle”



How would you recommend students get involved in this field? What resources or opportunities can you share?



Curtis Ferguson II, Oberlin College ’05


“[Become] involved with NASPA and ACPA (American College Personnel Association). Both are large professional organizations dedicated to preparing young professionals to enter the field of student affairs. These organizations also have conferences that undergraduates can attend under special leadership tracks.”




Michael Zirkel, Stetson University ’13


“If there is a particular position that a student is interested in pursuing, he or she should talk with the person on their campus who is currently serving in that role. Ask them the hard questions. What do you find difficult about this work? What factors lead you to pursue this career path?”







  • Taylor Brendle, Davidson College ’17, Civic Engagement Fellow for the Center for Civic Engagement at Davidson College


  • Tim Krumreig, Oberlin College ‘12, Assistant Director of Community Service at Northeastern University’s Center of Community Service


  • Lauren Kinser, Lindsey Wilson College '15, Residential Counselor for the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science


  • Leo Schuchert, Wagner College ‘15, Associate Director of the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement at Wagner College


More information about Bonner Alumni can be found: http://www.bonner.org/alumni-profiles/. If you are a Bonner alumni and want to be profiled or listed as a resource, email the Alumni Network Manager, Arthur Tartee Jr. at arthur@bonner.org



For someone who is interested in learning more or possibly pursing a career in student affairs, look through the resources listed below. Included in the list are foundational books, articles, and professional organizations that are all dedicated to preparing prospective student affairs professionals to join the profession. Each of these resources were mentioned or referenced in Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession, a classic and comprehensive text for graduate students in student affairs, written by top scholars and practitioners in the field (Schuh, Jones, & Harper, 2010). 






Professional Organizations:




McClellan, G., & Stringer,  J. (2009). The handbook of student affairs administration. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 


Schuh, J., Jones, S., & Harper, S. (2010). Student services: A handbook of the profession. San Francisco,  CA: Jossey-Bass. 


U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017). Occupational Outlook Handbook 2017-18. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/home.htm