ACPA’s Evolving Influence on Student Learning

James P. Barber
College of William and Mary

The higher education landscape was quite different in 1924 when the National Association of Appointment Secretaries, a job placement organization that would later become ACPA – College Student Educators International, was founded. A trajectory becomes clear in reflecting on 90 years of ACPA’s history. Student affairs practitioners (formerly, student personnel workers) demonstrate an increasing interest in student learning, and learning is gradually repositioned as the core purpose of the Association. In this essay, I explore the ways in which ACPA – College Student Educators International has affected college student learning over nearly a century.

The Past: Facilitating Learners’ Journeys

ACPA and its predecessor groups (National Association of Appointment Secretaries, National Association of Personnel and Placement Officers) focused primarily on helping students find employment and roles in society where they could use their learning. The pioneers in the field indirectly affected the student learning environment in establishing the foundation for the profession by bringing together those college employees with interests in “student personnel” work. This focus on job placement was typical of the early years of the student affairs profession, and ACPA was not out of the norm in its priorities. Looking to the American Council on Education’s 1937 Student Personnel Point of View, student learning is not explicitly discussed as a primary role for student personnel workers. In fact, the word learningdoes not appear in that seminal document (Barber & Bureau, 2013).

The Journal of College Student Development is one of the most substantial ways ACPA – College Student Educators International has influenced learning in the past (and continues today). Founded in 1959 as the Journal of College Student Personnel, ACPA’s research journal has become a well-respected publication. The journal was a vehicle for much of the early research on student development theory, influencing both faculty and practitioners in the teaching and learning environment.

In the late 1960s, ACPA (then a division of the American Personnel and Guidance Association), took a major step toward embracing learning as a professional value with the launch of the “Tomorrow’s Higher Education” (T. H. E.) Project. Robert Brown authored a 1972 monograph for the project that examined the relevance of the emerging field of student development theory and made the argument that student affairs practitioners needed to reposition themselves as behavioral scientists, in addition to their accepted roles in student support functions.

Student personnel staffs are going to have to possess new sets of competencies….they are going to be needed to design programs that will change the environment and provide a setting for optimal student growth…for classroom settings as well as residence hall settings, for academic programs as well as student activities, and for all students as well as the most visible. (Brown, 1972, p. 47).

The move toward a more active and academic cadre of student affairs practitioners had a lasting impact on the direction of student personnel work and solidified student development theory as a cornerstone of professional practice and the graduate preparation curriculum. Although student learning was not explicitly deliberated in Brown’s monograph, the shift to a profession more invested in personal growth and development was unmistakable.

ACPA made a clear statement of its commitment to student learning as a central mission in 1994’s Student Learning Imperative (SLI), which called for the establishment of “The Learning-Oriented Student Affairs Division” (p. 1). The document greatly influenced student affairs professionals’ approach to learning and began to make a distinction between the concepts of student development (well established and accepted in the field by 1994) and student learning. The SLI mentioned these two elements by name, but asserted that “the concepts of ‘learning,’ ‘personal development,’ and ‘student development’ are inextricably intertwined and inseparable” (p. 1). ACPA’s Student Learning Imperative aligned well with Barr & Tagg’s (1995) call for a shift in higher education from a teaching paradigm focused on the instructor to a learning paradigm centered on the student.

The SLI was followed by a Joint Statement from ACPA, the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE), and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) titled Powerful Partnerships: A Shared Responsibility for Learning (1998). This document was important for the way that it defined and contextualized learning. This was the first time that the term learning was described separately from student development by the association. In Powerful Partnerships, learning was defined in a series of ten statements, including one unpacking the concepts of learning and development: “learning is developmental, a cumulative process involving the whole person, relating past and present, integrating the new with the old, starting from but transcending personal concerns and interests” (p. 5).

Along with Principles of Good Practice in Student Affairs (released a year earlier in conjunction with NASPA in 1997), Powerful Partnerships marked the beginning of a series of lasting partnerships among higher education stakeholders that would characterize ACPA’s attitude toward learning for the next decade and introduce the present era of influence.

The Present: Partnering to Advance Student Learning

In the present era, ACPA – College Student Educators International has positioned itself as a leader and advocate for improving student learning. Building on the strong reception of Principles of Good Practice (1997) and Powerful Partnerships (1998), the Association collaborated with other leading student affairs professional associations to further define student learning and shape practitioners’ approaches to promoting better learning.

The Learning Reconsidered volumes (Keeling, 2004, 2006) are the most direct and influential documents ACPA – College Student Educators International has coauthored to date with regard to student learning. Learning Reconsidered (2004) “advocates for transformative education – a holistic process of learning that places the student at the center of the learning experience” (p. 1). These publications continue the trend of differentiating the concepts of learning and development, expertly illustrating how the two are distinct but related. In the Learning Reconsidered work of the mid-2000s, student learning is paramount, a different approach from the T. H. E. project of the 1960s and 70s which served to establish and prioritize the emerging student development literature. Learning Reconsidered positions student development as a learning process and proposes “an integrated vision of learning and development” (ACPA & NASPA, 2004, p. 10), supported with research drawn broadly from educational psychology, adult learning, and personal development literature (e.g., Baxter Magolda, 1999; Caine & Caine, 1994, 1997; Kegan, 1994; King & Kitchener, 1994; Mezirow, 2000).

In 2006, ACPA – College Student Educators International released the ASK Standards (Assessment Skills and Knowledge) to prepare student affairs professionals to assess student learning outcomes. These standards encourage practitioners to be leaders in assessment on their campuses and highlight the Association’s commitment to preparing student affairs administrators to be well versed in both creating effective learning experiences, as well as assessing student learning. ACPA has also developed professional development resources that influence how practitioners frame their own learning. The Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Practitioners (2010), coauthored with NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, offer a series of basic, intermediate, and advanced skills to be expected among student affairs professionals. One of the competency areas is “Student Learning and Development;” this area “addresses the concepts and principles of student development and learning theory. This includes the ability to apply theory to improve and inform student affairs practice, as well as understanding teaching and training theory and practice” (p. 26). This particular competency will be a focal point for the future work of ACPA – College Student Educators International as it relates to student learning.

The present era has seen much progress in terms of refining the working definition of student learning and considering means for improving learning experiences for all students. ACPA – College Student Educators International remains a strong advocate for the benefits of diversity to student learning, and its work, independently and in cooperation with other higher education stakeholders, decisively makes the case for inclusive environments. Although the recent momentum has been quite positive, major changes lie ahead in our constantly transforming postsecondary environment. Next, I address the ways in which ACPA – College Student Educators International might continue to impact student learning in the future.

The Future: Experts on How Students Learn Best

As ACPA – College Student Educators International looks toward its centennial, I see three main areas where the Association can continue to have a positive impact on student learning: (1) advancing professional knowledge on how people learn; (2) embracing and leveraging technology to enhance student learning; and (3) infusing global perspectives into student learning.

It is crucial for student affairs practitioners to understand current theories of how people learn. This will require revisions to the curricula of many higher education and student affairs programs, as well as a reallocation of attention in the Association’s programming. Most higher education graduate programs offer at least one course (if not several) on college student development theory, focusing on how students grow and change in the college environment. However, there is rarely a companion course examining how students learn. Although some learning theories are included in traditional student development courses (Kolb’s Model of Experiential Learning is frequently included), theories of adult learning (e.g., metacognition, transfer, Knowles’ concept of andragogy) are largely absent from our collective curriculum.

This concept was mentioned in Brown’s 1972 monograph Student Development in Tomorrow’s Higher Education: A Return to the Academy:

In tomorrow’s higher education it will be essential for student development staffs to be able to know, understand, and to program for changes in students that will be consistent with developmental growth. This means that the staffs will have to have some expertise in learning theory, growth and development, campus ecology, management theory, and evaluation. (Brown, 1972, p. 42)

ACPA – College Student Educators International and the student affairs field as a whole have cultivated many of these areas of expertise in the past 40+ years, but learning theory has too often been included as a subset of development theory. ACPA has the resources and reach to promote the acceptance of learning theory as a more prominent part of the college educator’s toolkit. Learning Reconsideredopened the door wide to learning theory, and ACPA is well-positioned to advance this initiative. This shift can transform the direction of student affairs work, moving beyond student personnel or student advising to becoming experts in how people learn best and integrate learning across contexts (Barber, 2012).

Technology is transforming our daily lives in ways unimaginable when ACPA was born in 1924; it has forever altered how we read books, how we listen to music, how we take photographs, and how we watch television. It is not surprising that technology is changing the face of higher education as well. With an increasing number of students participating in eLearning, blended courses, online components, or fully virtual degree programs, the profession will need to reexamine student learning as it relates to eLearning initiatives.

The Association can work to develop resources to support college educators in reaching students who may rarely (or never) set foot on a traditional campus. How can ACPA – College Student Educators International position itself to be a leader in promoting student learning among those who interact with teachers and fellow students through technology? Knowing more about how people learn best (see above) will be critical to this effort. Foundational models such as Sanford’s (1962) notion of challenge and support and Astin’s (1984) involvement theory certainly have application for students learning via technology, but implementation may need to be reimagined for a new population of learners who may not be 18-22 years old, live in a residence hall, and attend football games.

Finally, in considering how ACPA – College Student Educators International will impact student learning in the future, there must be continued advocacy for the inclusion of all types of diverse learners. Neurodiversity is an area in which the Association can be a leader. As more students with different ways of processing information enter higher education (including the Autism Spectrum and ADHD), student affairs practitioners will need resources for supporting this group of learners. Likewise, inclusion must reach beyond national and cultural borders. The numbers of international students studying in the United States continues to rise, and a growing number of American-born students are choosing to study abroad (Institute for International Education, 2012). These trends create an environment in which student affairs practitioners need to be globally competent and well-versed in cross-cultural approaches to learning. The learning theories curriculum proposed above should not be limited to American or Western research on learning, but rather address multiple views on how people learn.

Among the most effective ways to provide practitioners with a global perspective is to provide opportunities to leave the country and experience different cultures. The global initiatives ACPA – College Student Educators International already has underway are a strong foundation; forging strategic partnerships with organizations similarly invested in internationalization (e.g., American Association of Colleges & Universities, Institute for Shipboard Education /Semester at Sea, NAFSA-Association of International Educators, International Association of Student Affairs and Services) can bolster the impact of existing initiatives and create new opportunities. By providing professional development resources and affordable study abroad options for practitioners, ACPA – College Student Educators International can continue to influence learning for college educators and the students they serve.

In conclusion, ACPA’s journey over the past 90 years is one that has brought it ever closer to student learning. The organization has transformed from a placement service for college graduates to a key partner and stakeholder in higher education, and has great potential to become an association known for expertise in how people learn. Members of ACPA – College Student Educators International should be proud of the progress that has been made over nine decades and excited about the possibilities that await in the next 90 years of influencing learning.


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About the Author

James P. Barber is assistant professor of education at the College of William & Mary.  His research interests include integrated student learning and development, college student learning environments and experiences, and internationalization in higher education.

Please e-mail Inquiries to James P. Barber.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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