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Kevin Kruger on the Business of Students

January 2016

By By Michael Hager

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The investments that a campus makes in its student health and wellness, and its counseling centers, are closely connected to the academic mission, argues Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. “As we look at the array of institution expenses, one challenge is to appreciate the contributions these particular services make to the bottom line: They help students stay in school.” 

In this interview with Business Officer, Kruger discusses the partnership between chief business and chief student affairs officers. A continuation of the conversation online at highlights pressures that today’s students face and how student affairs divisions are responding.


From the perspective of student affairs officers, what are the most pressing issues facing campuses today?

At least for the short term, compliance and regulatory concerns are a priority, including mandates from the federal government and from states with regard to sexual assault. The time and resources required to address these issues and to review policies, training protocols, and prevention strategies are substantial. Yet, even more pressing is how to provide the full range of wraparound services that focus on student success at a time when fiscal resources are so constrained. Student affairs staff also face increasing complexity in their operations and growing demands in areas such as mental health. Then there are subsets of issues that vary depending on the campus, such as aging infrastructure of key student service facilities—student unions, recreation facilities, and housing—that add pressure on institution budgets. 

You mention compliance concerns. How can chief business and chief student affairs officers work together on the issue of gender-based violence, given widespread allegations that colleges and universities are not adequately responding to these reports?

Campuses must invest in Title IX officers, perhaps more than one. They will either have to hire a sexual assault investigator or develop a relationship with local law firms or a magistrate to investigate these cases. All must invest more in prevention efforts and population-level training, so that every student gets the same information about available resources. Working together on this front will entail determining where outsourcing may make sense. For instance, some campuses are pooling resources to develop training coalitions. Probably the greatest need is identifying what is required to meet compliance and regulatory demands. 

For the most part this collaboration already exists at the cabinet level. Campus leaders understand that failure to respond can result in lots of negative consequences, not the least of which is being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights. 

NASPA’s recent survey of chief student affairs officers suggests that they spend about one-third of their time on administrative tasks and only 13 percent interacting directly with students. What is consuming their time?

The reality is, at the point you become vice president of student affairs, the time you spend with students is largely after-hours at events or taking part in student activities. Our members will tell you that the job today looks nothing like it did 10 years ago. The modern student affairs division can include up to 30 departments. The supervision and management of functions, including budgeting and planning, are becoming more critical. There is also much greater collaborative work taking place at the cabinet level, and many more vice presidents of student affairs are spending time on fundraising and developing alternative fiscal resources. The complexity and seriousness of the issues they deal with has evolved dramatically. And, growing fiscal constraints for most institutions coincide with the arrival of greater numbers of low-income and first-generation students who need more wraparound services, including more academic and advising support.

How can we better support the influx of low-income and first-generation students arriving on our campuses? 

I think higher education will be judged in the next 10 years by how well we have addressed the needs of this demographic. These students often don’t understand how to take advantage of resources or how to navigate the institution. Likewise, how do we get them to engage in campus life so that they have meaningful interactions with faculty and staff, since evidence shows this contributes to student success? Bottom line, we must provide better mentoring, coaching, and advising support. All these services have a price tag, so the need to reallocate resources to better support our low-income and first-generation students means we will need to redesign some of our current functions.  

What specifically are you suggesting? 

During the past two decades, [the work of] student affairs has become very specialized. I think we must consider our work in more general terms. Staff need a broader set of skills to address deficiencies in personal contact with students, particularly our low-income students. Experimental programs, like those in which residence hall directors also serve as academic advisers or mentors, are the kind of thing we need to move toward, since we can’t keep adding positions. We know that boutique programs—designed for smaller groups of students, and that operate as learning communities—can boost completion rates, but these can be expensive. We have to figure out how to bring such programs to scale. 

We also need more creative approaches to organizational efficiency, which may mean combining departments. For example, I’ve seen efforts to combine health, counseling, and recreational wellness under one umbrella to save administrative costs without reducing services. The challenge is to live within our resources. The good news is that many student affairs divisions are becoming more entrepreneurial through fundraising efforts and seeking grants. 

What trends have emerged in student affairs that are of the greatest concern to your members, or that generate the most excitement?

One trend that concerns me is how quickly the student learning experience has become more virtual. We know definitively that personal contact with faculty and staff, and engagement within a learning community, make a difference in student success. When students spend 15 to 25 hours each week online in their own leisure pursuits and then more time online in course-related activity, this obviously presents a challenge to student engagement.

 Where I see a lot of positive energy and innovation is among our young student affairs professionals in particular who are using emerging technologies and social media platforms to develop a new engagement experience with students. While I’m not a big fan of outsourcing core functions, as we think about how to interact with students in more efficient and productive ways, we simply have to experiment with alternative approaches. For instance, companies are emerging in the area of online counseling, and so some of what we now do face-to-face could be offloaded in order to handle more students more effectively. This in no way should alter our commitment to the quality of service we provide students, but we must find ways to free up time for students who need us the most.

How would you characterize the nature of the relationship between the CBO and chief student affairs officer? In what areas are we in most agreement or disagreement?

As we talk to our newer vice presidents of student affairs in particular, they characterize this relationship as one of the most important on the president’s cabinet. Because student affairs historically has had a set of business functions and auxiliary enterprises related to housing, student unions, food services, and so forth, an alliance with the business office and the way in which student affairs manages a piece of that function is critical.  

What I appreciate about NACUBO and the work of the business officer is that they bring some science to the university environment around organizational effectiveness, management, and financial leadership. We look to the business officer as an ally in identifying resources for new and compelling needs that arise and to help find appropriate efficiencies such as coordination of purchasing across offices. Given the size of student affairs divisions today, this is valuable.

What questions should CBOs and chief student affairs officers be asking each other?

Because there is a fair amount of variability across student affairs professionals in terms of their fiscal background, understanding more about the financing of the institution puts into the context of the overall fiscal priorities the resource requests that the student affairs division might forward. 

For the CBO, specific questions I would ask my vice president of student affairs include where he or she feels that services are most stretched. Full understanding of the compliance and regulatory obligations under Title IX and the Office of Civil Rights guidance would also be helpful for the CBO, because these have significant resource implications. Likewise, it benefits the CBO to see the counseling center data. How many clients? How long is the wait list? How many emergency psychological transports did we have last semester? To understand the level of demand and the range of psychological services being provided sheds light on how severe some of these cases are and how many students we’re dealing with who require significant psychological support. This isn’t solely a need for CBOs. I think some faculty don’t fully appreciate the complexity of what we do and how it impacts student academic performance.

The rising cost of education is a significant concern. What ideas can you share with business officers as we grapple with the current business models of our institutions? 

I know many vice presidents of student affairs who say that if they can’t show that a program or service actually makes a difference in retention, persistence, or some other set of outcomes, they will discontinue it. We all must look at organizational efficiencies and press each other institutionally to make sure we have good data about the effectiveness of our functions. Identifying what we should stop doing can free resources for areas where we need to do more.  

MICHAEL HAGER is senior vice president for administration and financial services at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, where he previously served as assistant vice president for student affairs and executive director of residence.