Fostering Student Speech and Expression While Maintaining Campus Civility, Safety, and Functioning

Fostering Student Speech and Expression While Maintaining Campus Civility, Safety, and Functioning

Image of Neil H. Hutchens

Neal H. Hutchens
Pennsylvania State University


Kaitlin Quigley

Kaitlin Quigley
Pennsylvania State University

Periodically, students’ speech and expressive activities result in legal conflict in regard to institutional regulations designed to address when, where, and under what circumstances students may engage in speech and expression on campus. In one recent illustrative incident that attracted media attention, a community college in California faced a lawsuit after a student challenged institutional rules that restricted him from seeking signatures for petitions outside the college’s designated free speech zone (Masatani, 2014). The college settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay the student and his attorneys $110,000 and to revise its speech policies to make most areas of campus available for speech and expressive activities. For this column, we examine legal conflicts that potentially arise over institutional rules related to the time, place, and manner of students’ speech and expressive activities on campus. Specifically, we focus on instances involving student speech or expression in seemingly ‘open’ or ‘public’ areas of campus, such as sidewalks or plazas, and when students must gain institutional approval to engage in activities that include handing out flyers or seeking signatures for petitions.

Overview of Legal Standards Impacting Student Speech

Public/Private Distinction, Contract, State Laws

Several legal factors determine the extent of student speech rights and accompanying levels of institutional authority to regulate student expression. An initial distinction often of legal significance involves a college or university’s status as public or private. Public institutions, unlike their private counterparts, must adhere to legal standards mandated under the First Amendment when exercising authority over student speech and expression.

At both public and private colleges and universities, standards derived from sources such as student handbooks are frequently legally relevant. While many courts are careful to avoid defining the student-institutional relationship as solely contractual in nature, contract standards provide a legal framework often used by courts to evaluate institutional actions. This includes in relation to student speech issues, where courts may turn to standards and rules articulated in student handbooks and codes of conduct to evaluate the permissibility of actions taken against students.

Private colleges and universities typically possess much greater discretion than public ones in exercising authority over student speech and expression. From a contract perspective, the key issue involves consistent treatment of students that aligns with established institutional policies and practices. Even while generally possessing greater discretion to regulate student speech, a private college or university must follow, in a fair manner, its own rules in the treatment of students to withstand legal scrutiny.

State laws and constitutional standards are also potentially germane in terms of the legal protections available for student speech and expression. At least one state, California, has a law that requires secular private colleges and universities to grant students the equivalent speech rights that exist for students at public institutions. State laws can also impact public colleges or universities by providing legal protections beyond those granted through federal constitutional provisions. For example, Illinois has mandated that public institutions must provide greater legal protections to student media than potentially provided under federal constitutional standards. Just as with contract standards, state law can play a meaningful role in terms of institutional authority to regulate aspects of student speech and expression.

The First Amendment

The dominant legal imperative for public colleges and universities in the realm of student speech and expression comes from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969) stands as a foundational United States Supreme Court decision in this area. While involving secondary students, the legal rules and principles derived from the case have been extended to public higher education. In Tinker, the Supreme Court decided that high school officials could not prohibit students from wearing armbands as a means to engage in a form of silent protest to the military conflict in Vietnam. The court held that school officials could not restrict the speech unless it would substantially interfere with the educational environment or impair the rights of other students.

Campus areas often differ in relation to the First Amendment rights available for student speech and expression. Institutions are able to exert heightened authority over student speech in specific parts of campus, such as classrooms, libraries, offices, or auditoriums. That is, the nature of the campus location—or forum as it is often referred to in legal decisions—where speech occurs is often legally significant in determining the applicable speech rights available and the corresponding level of institutional control over aspects of such speech. Accordingly, some locations, or fora, on campus are subject to enhanced institutional authority because they have not been designated by the institution or traditionally recognized as some type of open forum for student speech and expression.

For example, classroom spaces—at least when class meetings are taking place—do not constitute locations that have been made generally open for student speech and expression. As such, courts have typically granted substantial authority on the part of public colleges and universities to regulate such learning environments to prohibit disruptions to the educational process. Other spaces on campus not generally open to unconstrained student speech and expression, at least at certain times or for certain purposes, include administrative offices, libraries, and locations for performances and athletic events.

In contrast, some places on campus can constitute places either traditionally recognized or designated by the institution as generally available for student speech and expression. The United States Supreme Court has recognized that students possess substantial First Amendment rights in such forums. A key legal decision establishing this principle is Healy v. James (1972). In this case, the Supreme Court—declaring that First Amendment protections apply to public college students’ speech—rejected the contention that a group of students suffered no First Amendment deprivation when they were denied access to use campus facilities in the same way as other student organizations because they could still meet off campus. The administration’s refusal to grant the organization the right to meet and distribute information on campus was based on fears that the group would engage in disruptive and violent behavior. According to the Supreme Court, while the university could require students to follow reasonable campus rules, it could not seek to silence students on the basis of expressing views disfavored by school officials.

An important point to emphasize is that campus spaces can serve multiple purposes, which means that student speech rights in a campus location can also shift. For instance, an auditorium might be made available at some times for students to reserve to engage in speech or expressive activities. At other times, this same auditorium could be used for performances or lectures and not be an open forum for student speech and expression. Similarly, a university may make classroom spaces available to students when not being used for instructional purposes. When classrooms are made available to students under such circumstances, the institution possesses less authority to regulate aspects of student speech and expression than would often be legally permitted during a class meeting. The remainder of this column will focus on student speech and expression in seemingly open or public areas of campus, including sidewalks and other walkways, courtyards, and other campus areas generally available to students.

The First Amendment and “Open” Campus Areas

Apart from spaces not considered open on a general basis for student speech activities unless by special designation—e.g., classrooms, auditoriums, libraries, and offices—what about the legal status of seemingly open or public areas of campus, such as sidewalks, courtyards, or plazas? Students may reason that, because these spaces are generally open for student use, they constitute fora for expression. This is not always the case. At times, public college and university officials have clashed with students over the legal classification of such spaces. This has led to legal disputes over the types of regulations that institutions are permitted to impose on student speech and expressive activities in such campus areas.

Some institutions have argued in litigation that the legal standards associated with limited or non-public fora should apply to these types of campus areas apart from designated free speech zones. Such a designation generally vests institutions with greater legal authority to control access to these campus spaces in relation to student speech and expressive activities. In contrast, students have contended that rules associated with the traditional or designated public forum should apply to many open areas of campus, at least in relation to students. A traditional or designated public forum is government-controlled property generally open for citizens to engage in speech activities, though still subject to content-neutral regulations based on time, place, or manner. Any type of content-based restriction on student speech or expression is typically subject to heightened legal scrutiny.

Issues related to exactly what kind of forum exists on particular areas of campus, specifically open areas, can be legally complex, at times requiring consultation with institutional legal counsel. Public colleges and universities should be aware that courts may be becoming increasingly wary of institutional efforts to characterize most campus areas as a limited or closed forum and then designate a relatively small free speech zone to serve as a designated public forum for student speech and expression.

An illustrative case involving the University of Cincinnati dealt with restrictions placed on open areas of campus that limited demonstrations, picketing, and rallies to a small portion of campus (University of Cincinnati Chapter of Young Americans for Liberty v. Williams, 2012). The university also required groups of students to provide at least five days notice before engaging in speech and expressive activities. The university argued that all of its campus area constituted a limited public forum in which requirements such as a prior notice could be imposed.

A federal district court in Ohio granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the students that halted the university’s enforcement of the standards. The court discussed in its order that more recent legal decisions, including from the Supreme Court, had treated open areas of campus at public colleges or universities as a designated public forum in relation to students. According to the court, it was unaware of any legal decisions that established that “a public university may constitutionally designate its entire campus as a limited public forum as applied to students” (p. 5). It stated in its order that permitting this level of institutional authority over student speech would be “anathema to the nature of a university,” which is supposed to serve as a marketplace for ideas (p. 5). In a later order, the court approved of a revised policy where student groups of less than 25 engaging in expressive activity such as collecting signatures did not need to gain prior approval or to obtain a permit for speech and expressive activities in the institution’s specified free speech zone as well as other open area of campus, such as plazas and sidewalks.

In another case, a federal court of appeals considered regulations at the University of Texas at Austin that prohibited anonymous leafleting (Justice for All v. Faulkner, 2004). The court held that open areas of a campus should be viewed as an open forum in terms of the student population. The university had contended that such campus spaces should be viewed as a limited public forum and subject to greater institutional control. Upholding the lower court’s decision in the case, the court of appeals determined that the university, as expressed in institutional rules and statements, had “given its students too broad a guarantee of expressive freedom now to claim it intended its campus to function as a limited public forum” (p. 769). In the case, the lower court had also discussed in its opinion that the weight of authority in previous legal decisions had determined that campus grounds (at least open spaces) constituted a type of public forum for student speech and expression. Under the standards applicable to such an open public forum, the court of appeals decided that a prohibition on anonymous leafleting was an unreasonable regulation on the part of the university.

In a case involving Oregon State University, another federal appeals court held that the institution had violated the First Amendment in restricting the placement of news bins for the distribution of a student newspaper produced by a recognized student organization (OSU Student Alliance v. Ray, 2012). Looking to the university’s own administrative rules, the court determined that public areas of campus constituted a designated public forum for students. Furthermore, the court discussed in its opinion how the rule enforced against the student organization and its newspaper was unpublished, unpublicized and applied selectively to only this one publication. Other publications available on campus, including another student newspaper, local newspapers and USA Today, were not subjected to the policy.

Even when courts provide substantial discretion to public colleges and universities to regulate what areas of campus are available for student speech and expressive activity (i.e., what spaces constitute a limited forum versus a designated public forum), institutions must enforce standards in an even-handed manner. Otherwise acceptable time, place, and manner restrictions must contain clear standards and be enforced fairly in relation to students and student organizations.


In responding to instances involving student speech and expression, colleges and universities are faced with more than parsing out specific legal standards for given situations. At its best, the higher education experience provides a unique time and place for students to stretch their intellectual boundaries and to engage in a process of discovery about themselves and the larger world. As part of this journey of intellectual examination and growth, an accompanying function of the collegiate experience is to help strengthen the ability of students to participate in and contribute to democratic society. At the same time, institutions must balance the interests and needs of other members of the campus community, including making sure that environments are safe and that other institutional activities aren’t unduly hampered. These commitments to encouraging the free exchange of ideas and fostering a civil, nurturing educational environment can at times come into conflict and create administrative difficulties for higher education institutions. Student affairs professionals are tasked with determining how best to strike a balance between these multiple interests without running afoul of applicable legal standards.

Discussion Questions

  1. To what extent and in what locations should colleges and universities be permitted to regulate student speech?
  2. Are there laws in your state that affect the way your institution must treat student speech? What are the implications of these laws for you as a student affairs professional?
  3. In what ways does your institution regulate student speech? Are these regulations applied in a fair and consistent manner?
  4. In what ways is it possible to cultivate a campus environment in which free speech and civility peacefully co-exist? How can student affairs professionals aid in creating this environment?


Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972).

Justice for All v. Faulkner, 410 F.3d 760 (5th Cir. 2005).

Masatani, M. (2014, December 4). Citrus College to pay $110,000 to settle students First Amendment lawsuit. Pasadena Star-News. Retrieved from

OSU Student Alliance v. Ray, 699 F3d. 1053 (9th Cir. 2012).

Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).

University of Cincinnati Chapter of Young Americans for Liberty v. Williams, 2012 WL 2160969, No. 1:12-CV-155 (S.D. Ohio June 12, 2012).

About the Authors

Neal H. Hutchens is an associate professor in the Higher Education Program at Pennsylvania State University.

Kaitlin Quigley is a Ph.D. student and graduate assistant in the Higher Education Program at Pennsylvania State University.

Please e-mail inquiries to Neal H. Hutchens.


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

Life Off-Campus: A Personal Reflection

Marisa Vernon, Cuyahoga Community College

I recently changed jobs, taking on more administrative responsibility and strategic leadership. My current position has brought me to another large community college only a few hours from the familiar campus where I learned to fully embrace and understand the role of the two-year college in our educational system.

In the three years I spent at Columbus State Community College, I learned how to truly lead others and also how to navigate the politics, processes, and strategies of a large urban community college.  Leading an advising office through the peaks and valleys of institutional change, I began to understand how to inspire others to focus on student needs, provide exceptional support to the campus community, and push others to dissect the student experience.

Though this professional experience has, undoubtedly, added a valuable layer to my administrative foundation, the most profound impact from my time in Columbus, Ohio, was not gained on campus. Rather, I now find myself most grateful for a personal challenge I decided to accept in order to connect even closer to the students I served.

This article takes a bit of a detour from my regular, less personal commentary on issues facing community colleges, though I am convinced we become better educators when we share interesting, rich experiences from an honest perspective.

Poverty and Education: The Beginning of a Passion

As a kid growing up, I shook things up a little bit. I was relatively reserved, though balanced with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and experiences that had to have been utterly exhausting to two young parents. I asked questions often, and I cannot imagine most of them were easily answered or satisfied with a yes or a no.

Colleagues know my brain has not changed much, and now rather than exhausting my parents, it can at times exhaust me as a professional. A never-ending stream of intake, processing, and reflection means I rarely exit experiences without takeaway. Like many who work in two-year college environments, layers and layers of experiences have slowly stoked the social justice fire within. I carry it around often, and am blessed to have a career where open dialogue is not only appreciated, but encouraged.

I first came to the community college world after a seven year experience at an open-enrollment regional campus of a large University, which was a wonderful bridge. The two environments were similar in terms of access missions, retention challenges, and low tuition costs. I understood the student population, trends, and stigma associated with open access education, which supported my smooth transition into a community college culture. I happily settled into a nearby suburb, and got to work.

In an effort to meet my new colleagues and connect further with students, I joined a learning community, open to faculty, staff, and students, focused on diversity issues. The dialogue was richer than I had experienced in previous environments, and our group conversations often touched upon the great, unspoken factor linked to success in life: wealth. While I, perhaps intellectually, understood that wealth could facilitate choices, achievement, and further attainment, I had not fully connected its power in education until then.

Almost immediately after engaging in raw, uncensored dialogue through the campus learning community, I began to see differences in the student population that had initially seemed familiar. I no longer simply heard student stories about struggles related to transportation, lack of book money, childcare conflicts, and domestic struggles; rather, I really listened to the stories and tried to comprehend their impact on the students’ ability to complete a degree. Suddenly, the standard excuses I had heard from students for nearly a decade began to seem deeply individualized, intertwined, and complex. One barrier to success seemed to be tied to another, and untangling the web of challenges facing our campus’ urban population presented a daunting task.

My lens is that of a middle class, majority, heterosexual, graduate school educated professional. I could have left it at that, and tucked myself away into a pocket of the world that feels comfortable, safe, and familiar. I have, many times, felt as though I don’t belong in conversations about race, class, sexuality, or culture. During those moments, all internal alarms signal to run back to safety. But on many occasions while working at community colleges, I have ignored that internal alarm and challenged myself to understand how these forces may apply themselves to educational attainment.

Making the Move

As I began to interact with more students, hear their stories from my Academic Advisor supervisees, and engage in dialogue at the campus level, I felt a disconnect between work focus and my personal life. Daily, I immersed myself in developing strategies to increase attainment and success among first-generation, minority students from impoverished backgrounds. At the end of each day, I returned back to a comfortable suburb packed with dining and shopping options, two-parent families, and an esteemed school system. The gap between the two environments was pervasive and a bit unsettling, especially as I developed a deeper understanding of the challenges poverty presents to community college students.

After several years on the job, my husband and I decided to begin looking for a home to buy. We quickly realized many of the suburbs were financially out of reach given our preference for disposable income. I had become familiar with the area near the community college campus, an old neighborhood seeing its fair share of challenges. The area was exceptionally diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and income levels, with boarded up homes next to newly renovated ones. I knew many of the college’s students lived in the area, and was aware of the challenges as the neighborhood fought to find equilibrium.

We worked on an abandoned home for several months before moving in. And in the months to follow, I learned more about the issues facing the students with whom I worked than I could have ever imagined.

Experiencing Challenges Firsthand

While working with urban community college students in an academic advising capacity, safety, transportation, access to quality food, and a lack of social support are often described as barriers to success in education. These concepts often made me reflect on my own educational journey, which was relatively void of serious challenges and free of barriers. Looking back, I realize how simplistic my advice may have seemed to the students with whom I worked. While I logically knew students relied on a complicated bus system to access the community college, I did not fully understand this impact on course scheduling, the ability to engage while on campus, and the time invested in travel. I listened to students’ stories about their responsibility in caring for family members with chaotic lives, often prodding them to focus on themselves and their education. I could not understand why a student struggling financially would decline the student loans intended to help him or her obtain an education, or why another may jeopardize his or her financial future by maxing out Financial Aid each semester. I even sat in student affairs meetings and wondered whether or not the campus truly needed a food pantry, and why some students seemed to rely so heavily on the campus community to provide even more than just access to an education.

I did not realize how difficult these success barriers were to untangle until I lived in the same community, attempted to overcome the same barriers, and saw firsthand the lack of resources available to those who live in a deteriorated neighborhood.

As an avid runner, I felt trapped by my concerns about safety past dark. This simple unfulfilled ritual forced me to think about what a student walking home to the neighborhood from evening class may encounter. In addition, I found myself thinking about related issues, such as stress management, health, and overall wellness, and how these aspects of a student’s livelihood may be impacted simply by his or her address. Sure, an individual can make a conscious choice to select a different means to an end (in this case, outdoor exercise), but doing so requires additional steps, complications, and intrinsic motivation.

Similarly, I was immediately able to see why the area from which many of our students came had been deemed a “food desert”. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” Save a few urban gardens and a recently added co-op, the nearest grocery stores required access via automobile or city bus. Even as a new member of the community, I could envision how, without reliable transportation, access to food could become a cumbersome chore to those already juggling roles as students, parents, caretakers, and employees.

This observation was exacerbated by a robust discussion among neighbors via an online forum. One individual posted a long rant about a national pizza chain that refused to deliver to her home based on her address. The issue sparked an ongoing debate about access to services, and how limited services may be for those who live in neighborhoods deemed “poor” or “unsafe.” While pizza delivery served as a trivial issue on the surface, the example was a simple display of the differences in convenience, commodities, and service available within less developed sections of American cities.

Previous to my move, I had been involved in several campus meetings focused on initiating a campus food pantry. As a student affairs administrator, I had always supported the idea, and joined active committees to push the idea forward. However, I can honestly say I did not fully understand how such a resource could alleviate stressors for our students until I placed myself directly in the same environment. While my experience was far different than my neighbors’ due to my earnings, even minimal exposure to a food desert was enough to show me how students may be struggling to meet basic needs while attending community college.

As I observed the neighborhood through a lens of privilege, I began to notice that the most profound factors were actually intangible and difficult to describe. Each year in my previous neighborhood, middle- to upper-class families proudly displayed banners in their front yards, boasting high school graduation and the name of the student’s destination college or university. Celebrations of success were not present on the blocks surrounding our new home, though I knew students attending the campus on which I worked lived behind those doors. Such intangibles, immeasurable details, are the differences that I continue to reflect upon even now that I have moved on to a new community college system.

These subtle social nuances between the “haves” and the “have nots” surely play a role in the resiliency, persistence, and motivation it takes to complete a college degree. While I am not a social science expert or researcher by trade, I can tell a deep shift in my approach to working with students who juggle multiple stressors on their way to a degree. Students who start off with few resources are far more likely to experience bumps in the road more frequently, are more fragile than their privileged peers, and perhaps experiencing greater stress than others will ever encounter.

The Take-Away

The social issues impacting our students are complex, and so are the lenses through which we view them. However, sitting back and looking through the lenses we were given has its limits. By pushing the limits of a comfort zone, we cannot help but learn and question in order to adapt. In turn, we are better educators, supporters, and guides for students who face challenges that may be different from those with which we have personal experience.

The return on pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone is that we can no longer ignore large-scale social issues when we are close to them. When issues like food deserts, income gaps, access to quality education, and transportation serve as inconveniences in our own lives, we begin to take notice. For educators who appreciate the process of learning, choosing to be part of the solution means watching from the sidelines is no longer an option. It’s not a matter of settling for less; it is a matter of leaning into uncomfortable experiences knowing the return will help us be better, know more, and empathize more deeply.

As faculty, staff, and administrators, moving to a new neighborhood, worldwide travel, or additional education may not be feasible to all. However, small attempts to push our personal boundaries can help to chip away at the walls that often prevent us from supporting students in the best way possible.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some small ways you can learn more about what your students may be experiencing in their lives off-campus, and how can your institution address some of these issues?
  2. Reflecting upon your experience, have there been student success initiatives your college or university may have explored that you did not support? Looking back on these initiatives, can you view them with a different perspective?
  3. What are some of the invisible or visible privileges you have that may prevent you from fully understanding certain students’ experiences while in college?


A Look Inside Food Deserts. (2012, September 24). Retrieved November 12, 2015, from

About the Author

Marisa Vernon is Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree.  The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.


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.

Overcoming the Competition and Ensuring Higher Education Quality in a Growing Global Market

Tadd Kruse, American University of Kuwait

The mobility of populations is an ever-present concern given ongoing global conflicts and plights, resulting in the highest number of refugees since the Second World War.  In addition to the political and economic impact of migrations, the global mobility of students is expected to increase, as seeking a high quality university degree is an essential necessity for career development and advancement.  Access to education and tertiary degrees is greater than ever, making competition for institutions of quality and reputation even greater.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects that the international student population will increase from five million in 2015 to eight million by 2025, showing a growth rate of 60% in overall global mobility over the next decade. This significant growth and projection is important for educators to take note, as international student populations present a number of benefits and challenges for institutions.  Overall, and aligned with internationalization or global learning initiatives on campus, these populations serve as valuable resources to both campus and local communities.  Many United States colleges and universities internationalize their campuses strategically and invest considerable resources to attract students by offering internationally focused curricula, by recruiting international students, and by enhancing their international programs and services.

For decades the United Stated and Europe were the hubs of tertiary education, drawing in over half of the world’s students studying outside of their home country.  According to the 2015 Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education released in November, the United States reached a record-breaking number of international students at universities with 974,926 (10% increase) in 2014-15 academic year.

Although, these are significant figures, and the United States remains the leading study destination, the United States share of the global population dropped by nearly 10% during a twelve-year period since 2000.  Additionally, the recent IIE report indicates an overreliance on China and India who sent 44.8% of the almost one million international students noted above.  Notable shifts are occurring in student mobility and these factors will shape the landscape of international education over the next decade.  These shifts appear to be currently driven by increasing regional educational hubs, growing middle classes in Asia, regional mobility over global mobility, and increasing competition.

The latter causation, increasing competition, is one to take pause and warrants deeper consideration.  Competition has not just increased in the usual leading destination countries, but continues to develop on other European, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations.  Demand from Asia has been the greatest driver, but a number of important emerging markets will play a key role moving forward.  Competition is shifting and includes more widely distributed destinations, including increases in non-English-speaking countries.

Destinations for international students are expanding, and growing more competitive as institutions look to increase international populations on campus to enhance fiscal, academic, and diversity initiatives.  Systems and tools to rank institutions and compare institutional data (particularly outcomes), ultimately serve as an aid to students making decisions about higher education opportunities, are expanding and becoming key factors in how competition is perceived.

Competition in Perspective – Higher Education International & National Ranking Systems

In a global marketplace, a prospective student must begin to filter through the thousands of institutions of higher learning to determine quality and fit.  One such mechanism has been the utilization of ranking or scoring systems.   These systems are attempts to compare people’s perceptions of institutions resulting in a compilation of supposed public perception, a direct impact on brand recognition.   However, there are a lot of ranking schemes, comprised of varying methodologies (often including inputs on selectivity, faculty resources, spending, and research productivity), and each striving to identify how well-regarded an institution is perceived against a peer group.

National rankings have existed for decades and have been recognized for years as a guide to quality.  US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings is more relevant than all the global rankings given its history and structure. The same goes for national rankings published in the United Kingdom such as The Times Good University Guide or The Guardian University League Table.  National ranking systems are growing around the globe with thirty-two new national ranking systems put into place since 2005. National or regional systems are often developed on multi-leveled metrics and apply different criteria to evaluate institutions of higher learning on different criteria.   In 2015, US News & World Report for the first time published the overall Best Arab Region Universities and subject rankings, featuring 91 schools (from a directory of more than 800) across 16 countries.  There is helpful information in a growing higher education market. However, unless one read the methodology they would not be aware that the rankings were based solely on publications and only those from one citation database.   This is a very limited scope given the common perception associated with ranking systems as indicators of quality.

However, international rankings of universities, which have existed for approximately a decade, are establishing a new avenue for consumers to consider the strength of institutions outside of the United States and Europe.  Examples include Times Higher Education World University Rankings (UK), QS World University Rankings (multi-national), Academic Ranking of World Universities (China).  Equally, these systems are often developed on metrics not easily decipherable to most, and evaluate institutions of higher learning on different criteria.   For example, the Academic Ranking of World Universities from the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China) has been in existence since 2003 and uses four criteria: Quality of Education (10%), Quality of Faculty (40%), Research Output (40%), and Per Capita Performance (10%).  However, the QS World University Rankings utilize eleven criteria and over 50 indicators: Core Criteria (50%), Learning Environment (16.67%), Specialist Criteria (16.67%) and Advanced Criteria (16.67%).

The IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, established formally in 2009, is an international association of ranking organizations and universities aimed towards the improvement of the quality of academic rankings and the quality of higher education in general. The body is interested in gathering information on all relevant ranking activities in the field of higher education, yet it notes that very limited information is available on national university rankings. National rankings are an integral part of the world’s higher education landscape and are much more developed, more comprehensive as on the national level universities operate within the same cultural and legal system and a rich body of comparable data is available.

Regardless of the system or ranking body these structures do influence perspectives.  In a NAFSA (Association of International Educators, the largest association of professionals committed exclusively to advancing international higher education) report A Utilitarian View of Rankings, Alan Ruby addresses the importance of ranking systems as they influence young people’s decisions about institutional quality and where to study, especially for prospective international students.   Systems utilize varying methods to assess an overall institutional rank, but many rankings systems also focus on a particular field (i.e. academic discipline, institution type, research, or specialty programs).  These systems vary greatly in scope, structure, and reliability from the applied methodology to the resulting ranking figures which are often misleading.  Common interpretation would be the higher the rank, the better the product, but institutions of higher learning are complex systems that provide a multitude of services to students. Therefore, it can be challenging to understand what factors are incorporated into each ranking.

Competition in Perspective – Accreditation, Quality Assurance, and the College Scorecard

Accreditation and Quality Assurance are essentially a systematic review of programs to ensure that acceptable standards of education, scholarship and infrastructure are being maintained.  UNESCO and the OECD created in 2005 an educational quality assurance framework that cultivates a culture of quality in higher education known as the Global Initiative for Quality Assurance Capacity (GIQAC) .  This framework is outlined in the Guidelines for Quality Provision in Cross-border Higher Education and serves as a guide for institutions and nations around the globe to develop processes which will enable monitoring using a set of commonly agreed-upon standards.

In the United States, higher education accreditation began in the 1880’s and was developed to protect and serve the public interest.  The process later evolved in 1952 into regions in a post-World War II America, and the rapid expansion of higher education as a result of the GI Bill. Processes were based on peer-evaluation amongst institutions and accrediting agencies, and the development of regulation, legislation and oversight by state and federal governments.  With the creation of the United States Department of Education and under the terms of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the United States Secretary of Education is required to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies determined to be reliable authorities on the quality of education or training.  The United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) both recognize reputable accrediting bodies for institutions of higher education.

With criticism of the current United States structure existing for more than a decade, accreditation in recent years has been ever present from presidential candidate speeches to the President’s State of the Union address.  More recently, in September 2015 United States Senators Bennet and Rubio introduced a bill that establishes an alternative, outcome-based quality review process to authorize “innovative, high-quality education providers” to undertake quality review based on stipulated performance measures of student learning, completion and affordability/benefit to students as set by the United States Department of Education. In short, it would test federally approved alternatives to accreditation, federal performance measures for providers, including student learning, and performance-based access to federal student aid.

Critiques of the current system include too much emphasis on processes and input measures (i.e. faculty credentials, research, etc.) and not enough on performance outcomes (i.e. student learning, retention and graduation rates) which should be at the core of quality assessment.  Access, affordability, accountability and student debt are at the forefront of concerns with current practices, followed by making this information easily accessible to the public.  How to disburse the most useful information about institutions of higher education to students and parents in a way that’s not overwhelming and that includes key information is challenging.  The United States Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator tool, a top priority on the Obama administration’s higher education agenda, provides updated information on institutions, but was felt by many to be too overwhelming.

The United States Department of Education’s College Scorecard was designed to be an easier means to provide consumer information to assist students in choosing the best college, and allow users to search for institutions by name and by metrics such as cost, graduation rate, average amount borrowed, and employment data.  Some critics state that until a student unit record system exists, the College Scorecard data offers a much-needed step towards transparency in higher education. However, readers must also be warned of the confusion of correlation with causation when presenting data (especially related to earnings, as many factors impact a graduate’s salary potential). There are a number of limitations in the College Scorecard including: (1) exclusion of institutions primarily awarding certificates; (2) many metrics available are limited to data on students who received federal aid; and (3) average salaries for each institution are based on very wide ranges.  Overall, the College Scorecard is a positive step in providing outcomes and output based information to the public including some data not available outside of this system.

Each of these systems exist in an attempt to provide to the public access to outcomes based useful information related to the affordability, accountability and value of a higher education.  Information can be accessed through the specific program websites, the United States Department of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics, or the websites of various regional accreditors.


As mobility and competition for students internationally continues to grow, universities must become savvy and engage in the changing global market.  As student affairs practitioners, it is important that we acknowledge these shifting factors in how our institution, and those to whom we compete, are perceived.  We further must act to ensure quality education amidst a climate of increased accountability.  So how do we prepare?

Ask questions: “How are we using rankings and dataset information? What does it say about us?  What doesn’t it say about us?”  This is critical information guiding fine decisions between schools in the same type, field, price point, or rank.  Identify what are the institution’s communications efforts which highlight what sets it apart from its peers.

Understanding the basis of the ranking systems, accreditations, or college data dashboards to which you assume your students or their families may consult, will allow you and your colleagues to address rankings based on merit and not misaligned perceptions.  Ranking systems and even outcomes based data present one view of a college or program, so it is important for professionals to be aware of institutional strengths and be able to equally highlight further areas that are notable (i.e. new student center, enhanced security measures, expanding academic program).  Be ready to address the variability within, as some programs inside an institution may be ranked higher or lower than the overall institution itself, or may be greater attributes than others. Recognize these special attributes or niche of your institution and identify methods to highlight these in your programs, recruitment strategies, services, and strategic plans.  For the recruitment and retention of students choices will often come down to a series of factors including programs, location, cost, selectivity, reputation and diversity.  Be equipped with complementary information providing a wider perspective to enable students to look beyond the narrow scope of rankings systems or datasets and see the whole institution.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the figures and make-up of your international student population on campus?
  2. Are you in a state or institution hosting the most international students (see Open Doors 2015 “Fast Facts”?  How do you see the international population on your campus growing over the next ten years?
  3. Where does your institution rank in the US News & World Report Rankings?  How do you and your campus utilize the rankings in recruitment and retention strategies? How does your institution utilize accreditations and scorecard figures or other data dashboards to maintain a competitive edge?
  4. How can you as a Student Affairs practitioner be informed on applied strategies at your institution?  How can you support your colleagues to be more informed on quality assurance best practices? What can your department and you do to emphasize institutional strengths?

About the Author

Tadd Kruse is Assistant to the President for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness at the American University of Kuwait (AUK).  With over fifteen years of higher education administrative experience and having worked at institutions in the US, UK, and in the Middle East, he has spent more than a decade working abroad. He has experience in international education on a variety of fronts including international student housing, study abroad, exchange programs, and he co-founded and still oversees the Student Affairs Graduate Summer Internship Program at AUK.  Tadd has served as Senior Student Affairs Officer, founded a department at a start-up institution, and worked in a variety of professional fields within Student Affairs. He currently serves as a Leadership team member for the International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS).

Please e-mail inquiries to Tadd Kruse.


The opinions expressed by Developments author(s) are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Ethical Perspectives on the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies

Jonathan O’Brien, California State University Long Beach

A new version of the Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Educators (ACPA & NASPA, 2015) was released in August 2015. In this column I will focus on two of the changes that are related to ethical practice. One is replacing the term attitudes with dispositions, to describe the values and assumptions that practitioners bring to their practice. The other change is the decision to combine two competencies, Ethical Professional Practice and Personal Foundations, into a new one called Personal and Ethical Foundations. I will conclude with some questions to prompt reflection and discussion on these topics.

Attitude? Disposition? What’s the Difference?

Each competency lists multiple outcomes that reflect the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of good practice. In this revision, the Task Force started using disposition, rather than attitude, because they felt that the latter is a more comprehensive term. They also noted that many accreditation agencies use disposition. Indeed, most student affairs programs are housed in colleges of education where K-12 teacher preparation is the predominant academic function. Ensuring that candidates have suitable dispositions for teaching is an important part of the credentialing process.

I applaud this change, which is more than just a revision in terminology. Attitude and disposition are different concepts. I was never fond of attitude, which refers to the positive or negative outlooks we hold about people, ideas, things, and places. They can change easily, based on feelings or environmental factors. Dispositions, on the other hand, are a combination of several cognitive functions, including awareness, values, motivations, and inclinations that shape the habits that lead to our actions. In an earlier column, I described them as “enduring influences on our behavior that others come to perceive as our character.” Dispositions are the mental precursors to our professional conduct.


Our field has been concerned with the qualities of good practitioners for some time. For example, the Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS, 2006) publishes a list of 50 Characteristics of Individual Excellence, describing the exemplary values, behavior, and commitments of student affairs practitioners. However, not all of the characteristics on the list qualify as dispositions, as they blend skills and knowledge together with dispositional attributes. Missing from this list are characteristics representing the motivations and inclinations that influence our practice.

There are at least three features that distinguish dispositions from characteristics and attitudes and underscore their importance in practice. In particular, dispositions are:

  • Context-dependent. Dispositions are more stable than attitudes, but they don’t reveal themselves until they are triggered by a particular situation, including the place and the people involved. We do not know how we will respond in the future, but we can identify our triggers and prepare to meet them.
  • Shaped by motivation and inclination. Each of us has personal reasons for why we respond in certain situations. We also have preferences for how we respond and when we decide to take action (or not). These may not always match what our colleagues think and do. Owning our idiosyncrasies and discussing them with others can diffuse potentially awkward situations in the midst of crisis.
  • Grounded in our character. Dispositions arise from who we are, not always what we know or do. We can learn new facts or replace obsolete skills, but it is awkward or even distressing to change our dispositions substantially in order to comply with a supervisor’s directive or an institutional mandate we do not accept.

Dispositions in the Real World

So what do dispositions look like in practice? To illustrate, I use Tina’s experience as coordinator of a brand new, grant-funded sexual-assault intervention program. One morning, the university president emailed Tina directly, asking for “any promising data” to share with a group of potential donors that afternoon. Tina collected surveys a couple weeks ago, but she had no time to look at them, much less compare the findings to benchmarks.

When she took the job, Tina knew the program’s budget was tenuous and she would have to prove its effectiveness to secure more funding. She did not want to delay a request from the president and miss a chance for additional support. On the other hand, if she responded in haste she risked distorting the data and possibly discrediting the program in the eyes of important stakeholders. What should she do?

This situation could play out in many ways. In any of them, Tina’s dispositions would play a pivotal role. Although it’s highly unlikely she thought about it in the moment, an outcome from the Assessment, Evaluation, and Research (AER) competency obliges Tina to

Identify the political and educational sensitivity of raw and partially processed data and AER results, handling them with appropriate confidentiality and deference to organizational hierarchies (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 20).

In reality, Tina was a bit rattled by the president’s unexpected email. It triggered her awareness that a rare opportunity for additional resources was being offered by a powerful player in the organization. Tina was personally invested in the program. She truly valued being of service to students, educating them about personal safety and advocating for survivors of assault. Her motivation was to respond immediately to the president, with any data she had, to show how the program made a positive impact. Tina’s inclination intervened as she realized that the president’s request was tied to a high-stakes funding negotiation. In similar circumstances she would consult her supervisor first.

These thoughts swirling in Tina’s head are the building blocks of her dispositions toward competent data management, at least in this context. They included a sense of purpose, integrity, respect for authority, and creativity. These dispositions, in turn, led Tina to call her supervisor immediately, so they could strategize together how to meet the president’s urgent request for credible data in a timely manner.

Why are Dispositions so Important?

Student Affairs is the “moral conscience of the campus” (Brown, 1985, p. 68) and our individual dispositions contribute significantly to this reputation. As a profession, I think we do a good job of educating our practitioners about self-awareness (e.g., identity, job duties, etc.) and sensitivity to the cultural complexities of the campus environment (diversity, bias, crisis, etc.). However, we are less adept at helping practitioners to recognize how their dispositions align with the profession and, simultaneously, the places where we do our work (e.g., institutional type and culture, functional areas, etc.).

While factual knowledge and skills can be taught and evaluated in controlled, classroom conditions, dispositions arise from individual experiences, values, and biases, making them difficult to teach or change easily. Nonetheless, they are a critical element in sustaining the credibility of our profession and the partnerships we cultivate with students, faculty, and administrators. Supervisors and graduate faculty are key to the formative evaluation of foundational dispositions in new practitioners.

In my graduate program, for example, advancement to candidacy is an academic milestone that prompts an individual discussion with each of our candidates about their dispositions, academic progress, and professional development. In a candid and affirming way, we discuss dispositions using multiple sources of data, including classroom observations and feedback from practicum supervisors. It takes time to do this and a few discussions can get tense, particularly around a student’s espoused priorities and work ethic. We conclude with a personalized plan of action and resources to help the student to be successful. After six years of doing this, I am convinced that the investment in our students’ development is rewarded by increased levels of confidence and professionalism in field placements and subsequent employment.

Before moving to the next topic, I will note that our colleagues in teacher education have grappled for decades with how to teach and develop dispositions in their candidates (Katz & Raths, 1985). In fact, some reject the concept of dispositions outright, viewing it as a distraction from what matters most: explicitly discussing the moral conduct of individual educators and their obligation to improve the lives of all students (Burant, Chubbuck, & Whipp, 2007). This is a good segue into the Task Force’s decision to merge ethical practice and personal foundations into a single competency.

Ethics is an Inside Job

The new Personal and Ethical Foundations (PEF) competency calls on practitioners “to develop and maintain integrity in one’s life and work; this includes thoughtful development, critique, and adherence to a holistic and comprehensive standard of ethics and commitment to one’s own wellness and growth” (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 12). While I support the new competency, I feel that scant justification was provided to support the “apparent interdependence” (p. 5) between personal foundations and ethical practice. Most certainly there is a connection. I would just like to be clear about why we are doing this.

I reached out to a few Task Force members who graciously explained that the intent is to illustrate the strong link between our inner lives as practitioners and the ethical codes, principles, and theories in our field. The Task Force seems to be saying that ethics is an inside job, that our obligation runs deeper than merely learning a set of ethical codes to avoid mistakes or getting caught. Student Affairs, like every other profession, needs ethically competent practitioners who can apply its codes and principles in real life situations with the courage of their convictions, despite what critics may say. I completely agree.

Are We There Yet?

In reviewing the list of new PEF outcomes, I noted that a half-dozen or more amount to “healthy habits for better living” (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 16), such as work/life balance and maintaining supportive relationships. It seems like the outcomes from the former competencies were juxtaposed rather than synthesized. Given that the Task Force found little evidence to support keeping Personal Foundations as a stand-alone competency, the merger of these outcomes feels like an attempt to retain the (important) idea that we should take care of ourselves. While I wholeheartedly support wellness as a lifestyle, I’m not sure how precisely this fits with ethical professional practice.

Conflating ethical competence with healthy behaviors is problematic for me. Sure, ethics and self-care have been discussed together before, by none other than Michel Foucault (1987); however, he wasn’t talking about eating a balanced diet, exercise, and time for family. He was referring to the ancient Greek practice of unflinching self-criticism and restraint that ethical persons did in order to liberate themselves from petty distractions and worldly temptations. Obviously, self-care is absolutely necessary in our field, but it deserves a singular emphasis and its own place in the competencies or elsewhere. Forcing them together in a single competency muddies the importance of both.

In my opinion, there is still some work to do to synthesize the PEF outcomes. To be sure, many outcomes from the old personal foundations competency should remain, like those related to self-awareness, passion, excellence, self-direction, curiosity, and tolerance for ambiguity. In a subsequent revision, I suggest revising the healthy lifestyle outcomes so that they reflect the moral dimension of practice.

A Moral Turn for Student Affairs?

Taken together, the move to dispositions and creation of a new competency focused on the role of self in ethical practice is a noteworthy moral turn for our profession. I’m aware that moral has a lot baggage for many of us, evoking oppression, religious hegemony, or cultural biases. Although we may be loath to name it, my hope is that we can reclaim both the word and the meaning so that we may distinguish among our profession’s need for ethical competency and our moral character as expressed through our dispositions.

All of this mirrors the on-going debate in teacher education concerned with the moral conduct of individual practitioners and how that impacts the quality of service to students and colleagues. Even if this moral turn in Student Affairs amounts to a bump in the road, it is worth pausing to reflect on the important role that character plays in being a competent professional.

Discussion Questions

  • What are some key dispositions related to the competencies in your work?
  • To what extent are wellness and ethical practice connected? How and why?
  • Is there a “moral turn” in student affairs? Should there be? Why or why not?

About the Author

Jonathan O’Brien is assistant professor of educational leadership and coordinator of the Student Development in Higher Education master’s program at California State University, Long Beach. He teaches law and ethics and qualitative research methods. Jonathan has worked at public and private universities in Missouri, Kentucky, and California. His consulting and scholarship focus on assisting students in personal crisis and promoting professional conduct in student affairs practice.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jonathan O’Brien.


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


American College Personnel Association, National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (2015). Professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners. Washington, DC: Author.

Brown, R. D. (1985). Creating an ethical community. In H. J. Cannon and R. D. Brown (Eds.), Applied ethics in student services, New Directions for Student Services, No. 30 (pp. 67-79). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Burant, T. J., Chubbuck, S. M., & Whipp, J. L. (2007). Reclaiming the moral in the dispositions debate. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(5), 397-411.

Council for the Advancement of Standards (2006). CAS characteristics of individual excellence for professional practice in higher education. In Council for the Advancement of Higher Education (Ed.), CAS professional standards for higher education (6th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Foucault, M. (1987). The ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom: An interview with Michel Foucault on January 20, 1984. In J. W. Bernauer & D. M. Rasmussen (Eds.), The Final Foucault (pp. 1-22). Boston: MIT Press.

Katz, L. G. & Raths, J. D. (1985). Dispositions as goals for teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 1(4), 301-307.

O’Brien, J. J. (2015, Spring). A model for ethical professional practice and leadership. Developments, 12(4). Retrieved from developments

Strengths as a “Career Compass”: Helping Undergraduate Students Navigate their Career Development through Strengths Awareness and Development

Krista M. Soria, Brooke Arnold, & Katy Hinz, University of Minnesota
Jeremy Williams, University of St. Thomas

Career development professionals in higher education institutions are increasingly implementing strengths-based approaches in their daily practice with undergraduate students (Janke, Sorenson, & Traynor, 2010; Reese & Miller, 2009; Soria & Stubblefield, 2014; Soria & Stubblefield in press-a, in press-b; Stebleton, 2010; Stebleton, Soria, & Albecker, 2012). One of the most well-known tools to help college students discover their strengths is the Clifton StrengthsFinder, an online assessment that identifies areas where an individual’s greatest potential for building strengths exists (Asplund, Lopez, Hodges, & Harter, 2009).  These identified areas, referred to as talent themes, are naturally-recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors which, when refined with knowledge and skill, can be developed into strengths (Hodges & Harter, 2005). The StrengthsFinder assessment helps individuals to identify their personal five most salient talent themes out of 34 natural talent themes, often known colloquially as an individual’s “top five strengths.”

One of the fundamental principles underlying strengths-based perspectives in higher education is that college students who capitalize upon their best qualities will experience greater success in a variety of outcomes than if they spend time remediating their weaknesses (Clifton & Harter, 2003; Lopez & Louis, 2009). Scholars have contended that strength-based interventions in higher education promote college student engagement and retention because students who identify and apply their strengths in their lives will be more focused on their academic and career goals (Soria & Stubblefield, 2014; Stebleton, Soria, & Albecker, 2012). Yet, even as over one million college students in the United States have discovered their top five strengths and strengths-based approaches continue to gain steady momentum in colleges and universities, little research exists that empirically describes the benefits of strengths-based practices. In particular, little is known about the potential benefits of strengths-based approaches as a tool to elevate college students’ career exploration and career planning.  Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine college students’ own perspectives on the utility of strengths-based approaches and strengths awareness in their career development.


In fall 2011, the Office of Student Engagement at a large, public research university located in the Midwest offered the StrengthsFinder assessment to all incoming first-year students at no charge. Before they arrived on campus for matriculation, 5,122 first-year students (amounting to 95.4% of the first-year class) took the online assessment and received their top five talent themes. All first-year students attended a strengths seminar during a weeklong concentration of programming prior to fall classes. Many first-year students also encountered strengths-related discussions in first-year seminar classes, housing and residential life offices, and in many other areas across campus. At the end of their first semester, all first-year students were invited to participate in an online survey measuring their strengths-related engagement across campus. To encourage participation, a lottery incentive was offered to participants, in the form of a chance to win one of four $25 university bookstore gift certificates. In the survey, students were asked to provide insights into how they had utilized their strengths within their first semester of study at the University.  These data were then used in the present study.


The student response rate for the survey was 27.8% (n = 1,493). White and female students were slightly overrepresented in this sample when compared with the first-year student population (which was 52.2% female and 75.4% White).  The sample was 61% female, 3% Black, 13% Asian, 1% Native American, 3% Hispanic, 4% international, and 76% White.

Data Analysis

In the survey, students responded to several essay questions, one of which asked students to “provide specific examples of where strengths has benefited your first-year experience at the University.” We used NVivo 10 software (QSR International, 2007) to categorize and code students’ responses to the survey item. Data were analyzed using in vivo, open, axial, and selective coding procedures (Creswell, 2007). In the process of integrating the data and refining the categories, central themes emerged that explained relationships among the data. Both codes and themes were sorted and reviewed for similarities and differences until the point of saturation: the point at which additional analysis does not offer any additional insight (Creswell, 2007). To enhance the credibility of our qualitative data analyses, we used direct quotes to authenticate the findings (Merriam, 2009). Codes and themes were verified by the authors, a step which enhanced the validity of the analyses (Creswell, 2007).


In analyzing the qualitative data, two key themes emerged that conveyed how some students perceived applications between strengths and their career exploration and development. The first theme described below conveys how strengths benefitted students’ career development by enhancing their self-awareness and increasing their career decision-making abilities. The second theme describes how students used their strengths self-awareness to obtain employment or engage in experiential opportunities. Collectively, these two broad themes suggest that strengths awareness enhances students’ self-awareness in ways that benefit areas related to short-term career opportunities and long-term career development pathways.

Using Strengths as a Compass in Career Development Decisions

In responding to the prompt asking students to cite specific examples of where strengths benefited their first-year experience, several students noted the applicability of strengths with regards to their career exploration.  For example, one student noted that he used strengths in “discovering what career path would fit me,” while another student reflected that strengths were useful with regards to “looking into my future career path.” A third student focused on the holistic benefits of strengths in career decision-making in stating:

Knowing my strengths gives me a good idea where I stand. I understood more about myself after the survey, and with some research, what kind of career would be good for me. I used them as the compass to discover the way I should be heading during my career.

In addition to discovering their top five strengths, students learned more about the types of work environments that would suit them best.  For example, one student wrote:

I realized that I don’t want to go into a job where I am doing basically the same thing every day. My top strength was “learner.” I knew that, but I never realized it or thought about it. My strengths helped me see that I really want/need to be in an occupation in which I am always learning and discovering new things.

Determining this student’s top five strengths improved this student’s ability to be more selective when pursuing jobs and their associated work environments.

While many students discussed how they were going to apply their strengths while making decisions along their career paths, several students also felt affirmed that they were already making appropriate career decisions after learning about their strengths.  For instance, one student noted that her strengths awareness “helped me to reassure myself in my chosen career/major path. My strengths fit my choice.”  Similarly, another student wrote, “It was helpful for affirmation that I’m looking at the right career paths.” These affirmations point toward an increase in students’ career decision-making abilities, as students became more confident that they were making the most appropriate career development decisions for themselves. In particular, one student’s reflection conveyed a deep understanding and application of strengths in consideration of a career path:

I would say that strengths has increased my self-awareness and has also reinforced some of my ideas about potential career paths. For example, my strengths: learner, intellection, input, restorative, and achiever fit my goal of becoming a doctor because it is necessary to be a lifelong learner, to be able to set and accomplish tasks, and to be able to solve problems.

Strengths gave these students the skills to help discover their career path, further their identity development as it relates to their chosen career, learn the environments where they work best, and reaffirm their career field choices.

Using Strengths to Obtain Jobs and Experiential Opportunities

Several students reported that they used their strengths in obtaining employment during their first year of study.  For example, one student noted, “My strengths were crucial in getting me the on campus job I wanted. My employer and I had a lengthy conversation about my strengths and how they could be applied in a job setting.” Likewise, another student wrote, “During my first interview, I told my manager about my strengths and how they are related to the job that I was applying to. She was very impressed.” One student effectively leveraged his awareness of strengths in a job interview.  He commented, “The question asked was, ‘if asked, what would your peers and professors say are your top traits or strengths?’ Because I knew what my top five strengths were, I answered the question with little difficulty.” These students interacted positively with employers through having knowledge of their strengths.

One student declared that he did not obtain the employment position to which he had applied.  However, the student’s positive attitude about his new-found strengths vocabulary helped him envision how he could reference his strengths in a future employment interview.  He stated:

It gave me a way to talk about my strengths and skills in a job interview on campus. I didn’t get the job, but they told me I was a strong candidate and actually recommended me to someone else searching for student workers. I think that having the vocabulary to talk about it helped me explain it better than I could on my own, which probably helped me make a good impression.

As in this student’s case, knowing how to verbalize strengths has the potential to open new career opportunities.

Beyond obtaining employment, students also related that they utilized their strengths in engaging in volunteer positions as well.  For example, one student noted she “was able to put some of my strengths on my application for the volunteer position of [Mascot] greeter, and I think the way I talked about how I could use those during my interview really helped get me the volunteer position.” Another student stated, “Strengths helped me during my job and volunteer position interviews.  I was able to discuss the strengths I would bring.”  Both of these students shared the benefit knowing strengths can bring to civic engagement-related positions.

Students frequently expressed learning specific ways in which they could use strengths in future job positions and in their future, long-term careers.  For example, several students noted that they listed their top five strengths on their resumes.  One student wrote, “I can point out strengths when employers ask, ‘What attributes will you bring to the table?’” Another student discussed future application within volunteering or employment: “It made me aware of what I might be better at doing, i.e. in a job or volunteering experience.” A third student projected her knowledge of how companies are utilizing strengths in their workplace as she envisioned being able to apply her strengths in those future contexts: “Knowing my strengths will help when I start applying to jobs because a lot of companies use strengths.”  Comparably, these students demonstrated the utility of using strengths both immediately and throughout their careers.

Discussion and Recommendations

The results of our qualitative data analyses suggest that many first-year college students saw great applicability of strengths awareness in their current employment searches, potential for post-college employment searches, and in serving as a compass to lead them on a career path that takes advantage of their natural talents. Overall, the use of strengths-related programming on this campus helped many students to enhance their self-awareness and career decision skills, in turn positively impacting their career development. The following paragraphs provide several recommendations that career development practitioners can utilize in their implementation of strengths-based approaches with college students.

First, we recommend that practitioners help students to gain an awareness of their strengths by encouraging them to take assessments to discover their strengths (e.g., the Clifton StrengthsFinder). Strengths-related conversations can begin by asking students to describe their strengths in their own words and think of examples of how they have utilized their strengths in the past.  Student affairs practitioners are also encouraged to discover their own strengths by taking the StrengthsFinder to facilitate connections with students and demonstrate how their own strengths are used in their professional practice (Soria & Stubblefield in press-a, in press-b).

Second, practitioners can help students to strategically use their strengths in a job search. When creating elevator pitches, resumes, and cover letters, students engage in powerful analysis when using their own words to describe in-depth examples of their strengths being utilized. For example, students could simply list their top five strengths on their resume or, to reflect upon their strengths on a deeper level, a career counselor could help students create bulleted action statements to help students discuss their the top five strengths without stating the StrengthsFinder themes.

Third, to take the strengths application a step further, career counselors can help students examine a job description and analyze how their strengths could be utilized in that role. As previously mentioned in student examples, students can seek job descriptions reaffirming their career path decisions and jobs with work environments more conducive to their strengths.  It is essential for career counselors to help students understand that their top five strengths do not necessarily equate to one specific job or career.  Instead, many strengths can be used for any job or career.  What matters most is how an individual maximizes his or her strengths to be successful in a specific role.

Last, strengths can be used for interview preparation.  Interview skills can be enhanced by career counselors asking students to create a chart with a list of experiences on the horizontal axis (e.g., work, volunteer, leadership in an organization, etc.) and their top five strengths on the vertical axis. In each box, students can identify examples of times they used their strengths in those experiences. By practicing those statements aloud, students will be more prepared for their interviews.

The StrengthsFinder assessment can be very useful for students as they plan their college experience and careers, particularly if they make their own meaning of the words and apply their strengths. The data from the survey shows that many students who took the assessment found the results helpful for choosing a career field, and when applying for jobs, interviewing for jobs, and engaging in other experiential opportunities.  These findings demonstrate the important role strengths can play in a student’s career development. Strengths can serve as a career compass to direct students on their path, and career counselors can facilitate this process by helping students make these connections.


In conclusion, the results of this brief qualitative report suggest that students see the potential for the applicability of strengths in their career development. In particular, students identified that knowing their strengths enhanced their self-awareness, contributed to their career decision-making abilities, and aided them in obtaining employment and experiential opportunities, thereby positively impacting their career development. We recommend that future researchers continue to examine the potential benefits of strengths-related approaches in higher education and that practitioners continue to develop new approaches to help students utilize their strengths in their career development.

Reflection Questions

  1. What do you think are some additional ways in which strengths awareness and strengths-based approaches can facilitate students’ development in higher education?
  2. How can you serve as a strengths-based practitioner in your daily work with undergraduate students?
  3. What are some alternative ways in which undergraduates can utilize strengths in their career development journeys?

About the Authors

Krista Soria is an analyst with the Office of Institutional Research at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests focus on understanding the experiences of underrepresented students on college campuses, developing high-impact practices to support students’ success, and leveraging opportunities to facilitate students’ leadership development. Krista is also an adjunct faculty with the leadership minor at the University of Minnesota, for the English department at Hamline University, for the educational leadership program at St. Mary’s University, and for the higher education administration program at St. Cloud State University.

Brooke Arnold works in the Carlson School of Management Undergraduate Program office at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.  As an academic adviser and career coach, she has the opportunity to help students discover, develop, and maximize their strengths during their collegiate experience and beyond.

Katy Hinz works in the Office for Student Engagement at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Prior to that she worked in career services and continues to be passionate about how to help students use their strengths in the career exploration and career planning process. 

Jeremy Williams has worked in multiple career fields over the last decade with the primary goal of helping people.  Currently, he is a second year graduate student in the Leadership in Student Affairs program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. 


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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Keeping Student Services Relevant in a Virtual World

Christopher Giroir & Christine Austin, Arkansas Tech University

There are not many guarantees in higher education, but one that is certain is change.  Failure to embrace the changing trends impacting higher education can have tremendous impacts on many divisions on a university campus, including student affairs.  Close to 32% of today’s college student population has taken at least one academic course online with the trend predicted to grow even more in the coming years (Sheehy, 2013).  This trend requires closer examination and a response from the student affairs community on how to best serve online students’ particular needs.

The majority of college students have been traditional-aged (18-22 year olds) and residential at four-year institutions, so many of the services and activities offered to students are designed for face-to-face delivery (Thelin & Gasman, 2011).  In a recent study conducted by Van Der Wef and Sabatier (2009), universities predicted only half of their student population in 2020 will be traditional-age, full-time students.  This indicates a more diverse student population with different needs to be considered when looking at what services, programs, and activities will be offered at universities, including those from student affairs.  This article examines the characteristics of online students, how theoretical frameworks can assist student affairs administrators in meeting the unique needs of this population, and how some institutions are presently serving students who strictly attend classes online.

A Unique Student Demographic:  Online Students

It is difficult to determine a clear picture of the new college student, but research has helped identify common characteristics.  Based upon the Van Der Weft and Sabatier study (2009), approximately one third of higher education institutions estimate 60% of students will complete their entire academic coursework online.  Online education is becoming an integral part of many colleges and universities, with 65.5 percent of chief higher education administrators reporting online education is an essential component of the strategic plan (Lytle, 2011) for their institution.  These reports indicate higher education is embracing online learning and is recognizing online students as essential to the growth and sustainability of higher education.

Administrators need to gain an appreciation for the mindset and demands of online students if they hope to retain and increase their online student population (Floyd & Casey-Powell, 2004).  Many online students and their parents are exploring higher education through a retail lens by wanting quick, convenient, and instant service (Selingo, 2013).  They not only expect customer service in meeting their academic needs but also in the traditional services commonly provided by student affairs.  Higher education institutions have devoted financial and human resources such as online platforms, technology support personnel, online instructional designers, and massively open online courses (MOOCs), to help address the academic needs of the online student (Haynie, 2013a).  Administrators need to consider how these same resources might be used to give students exposure to the needed services commonly associated with student affairs.

Using Theory to Connect to Online Students

Failure to consider how to serve online students and their demands could drastically impact the need for student affairs divisions all together (Moneta & Jackson, 2011).               According to Cawthon, Boyd, and Seagraves (2013), “[f]actors such as economic conditions, increased accountability, increased focus on student learning, campus retirements, and changing student demographics are impacting the organizational structure of student affairs divisions” (p. 5).  By being proactive and taking measures to show how services provided by student affairs can be modified to meet an online student’s needs, student affairs divisions can confirm their presence as a necessary and relevant entity in a collegiate environment.  Student affairs professionals have often justified the benefits associated with their services by using student development theory as a foundation for their work with a traditional, residential student (Upcraft, 1998). Student services areas now need to use the same theories with the online student as the main focus.

Student Development Theory

Unfortunately, there has not been much discussion in the literature about how traditional student development theories can be applied to the online student.  One of the foundational theories student affairs professionals reference when developing programs or services (e.g. Astin’s Involvement Theory) can be easily adapted with the online student in mind.  The theory stresses the importance of connecting students to the campus through active and quality involvement that can create a positive impact on the student’s overall development and satisfaction with the campus.  Online students in particular need the feeling of social presence and connection to create conditions for optimal learning (Aragon, 2003).

Today’s student is a multi-tasker with many obligations and commitments, and student affairs administrators report difficulty in trying to help connect students who are physically on campus to get involved (Roper, 2007).  The challenge only escalates when trying to find ways to promote involvement for online learners.  Student affairs professionals will need to investigate how they can creatively use technology or other resources at their disposal to help online learners feel connected and involved with the campus.

Social Network Theory

One way to encourage the type of involvement advocated by Astin (1984) is by examining the ways in which students seek connection in other parts of their lives.  There is a rich variety of social networks to which students belong and contribute their time.  Knowing how to create or enhance these networks can contribute to online learning success “due to the isolated nature of these instructional settings” (Aragon, 2003, p. 61).  One theory closely related to the involvement perspective of student development is social network theory (SNT) (Kilduff & Tsai, 2003; Thomas, 2000; Webster, Freeman, & Aufdemberg, 2001).  Initially designed for use in sociology, social network theory is useful when examining the way in which students, particularly online students, interact with their distance education.  A distance student’s requirements are focused more on his or her own individualized needs.  Through the use of data analytics and algorithms (Kilduff & Tsai, 2003) SNT tracks the interaction of the individual within the larger network, and identifies the building of community through a series of interactions.  It views the social relationship as a series of nodes (individuals) and ties (relationships) (Kapucu, Yuldashev, Demiroz, & Arslan, 2010).  In SNT the ties or the links between the individual and other agencies within the network demonstrate the importance of the relationship.  Rather than the individual driving the interaction, it is the quality of the interaction that contributes to success (Thomas, 2000).  By understanding the patterns of navigation that online students take as they maneuver through student services, student affairs administrators will be able to provide and refine the services that online students demand to create the community and social networks they need to be successful in a virtual educational environment.

Translating Student Services to the Virtual Environment

Understanding the paths by which online students seek assistance in the varied types of student services necessary to their successful retention and ultimate completion of a college degree is essential to ensure that we serve them effectively. Learning the ways in which students seek information about services as varied as campus activities, admissions, career and health services, and academic advising will assist student affairs professionals to be present in the virtual world our online students inhabit.

Campus Activities

One way to promote involvement and community for online students is through the creation of online student groups and organizations.  Many institutions, such as Penn State (“Penn State students create,” 2010), offer online students the opportunity to join a virtual student group.  Many of the online groups center around an academic major focused on helping these students become successful in their chosen academic field (Kolowich, 2010).  The following are some examples of online student organization activity.  Conducting resume and networking webinars and presentations from professionals working in their chosen field on current topics via a live video feed are examples of using technology to meet online students’ needs.  Students can post comments about the presentations, hold an active discussion by calling in and conducting a group chat, or make use of other technology programs like Second Life (n.d.), where students can meet and talk in a virtual context.  Holding organizational meetings online where students can participate by watching a “live video feed” and typing in their questions or comments is another effective way of interacting.  The questions and responses from these organizational meetings can be archived for future use and can provide a record of the organization’s activities.  All of these activities can create opportunities for online students to participate in student organizations (Underwood, Austin, & Giroir, 2008).


Online students want to feel connected to their institutions and experience a true collegiate bond with their classmates, faculty, and staff (Pokross, 2012).  Some institutions, such as Utica College in New York, are giving registered, online students an opportunity to have an official student identification (ID) card, giving these students tangible evidence of being a part of the university community (Utica College, 2014).  Having a student ID gives online students the opportunity to access many of the services for which they pay fees such as library access, entrance into university athletic events, and access to health services, among others.

Career Services

Career services is also a common student affairs functional area of which online learners want to take advantage (Haynie, 2013b).  Much like traditional on-campus students, online learners want opportunities aimed at helping them find employment (Floyd & Casey-Powell, 2004).  Using the telephone, e-mail, or video calling programs with smart phones are just some examples of how career coaches are helping online learners gain access to career searching resources (Haynie, 2013b).  Institutions, like Central Lakes College (2014), are giving their online learners access to practice interviewing strategies through a computer program entitled Interviewstream.  The software has general or industry specific interview questions it can ask the online learner and records their responses.  The user can then send the recorded interview via e-mail link to career coaches or advisors on the campus for feedback (Interviewstream, 2014).  Online learners can send resumes via e-mail to counselors for feedback; and it is not uncommon to see many universities hold virtual career fairs.  Employers post job announcements on a career services web-site and both on-campus and virtual students can submit their resumes and applications for these positions electronically to the employers for their review (Virginia Tech, 2014).

Health Services

Another common student affairs functional area adapting to meet the needs of online learners is health services.  While not able to perform full medical appointments over the Internet, Santa Fe College nonetheless created a resource site for online students, which includes a number of internet-based resources (Santa Fe College, 2014).  Students are invited to use programs such as to learn about the effects of alcohol, drugs, and stress, as well as to learn more about various health and wellness issues.  Santa Fe College online students, as well as on-campus students, have access to the Student Health Care Center staff via the Internet for any health-related questions they may have as well as a host of links to other health-related information.

Academic Advising

In an effort to assist online students with their holistic development, many student affairs functions are exploring ways to provide effective services in a variety of areas for their online students.  One functional area that ranks as a top priority for online learners is academic advising.  Good academic advising is essential for traditional and online student success and many institutions are exploring a variety of advising techniques, with some specifically designed to meet online students’ needs.  Intrusive advising (Cannon, 2013) is a type of academic advising commonly being used with online students at Arkansas Tech University (ATU) in the accelerated bachelor of professional studies (BPS) degree program (ATU, 2014).  This approach is more than just asking a student what classes they want to take for the upcoming semester, it is a holistic approach looking at all the different factors that impact the student and could have an impact on their academic success.   Student affairs professionals need to be knowledgeable about the institution and the resources available; many times, they are the sole contact for the student regarding university issues, such as registration, curriculum changes, or financial aid, so it is vital for student affairs professionals to be aware of those resources (Albecker, 2012).  By using a holistic approach which reaches out to the student rather than waiting for them to ask for assistance, online student services create interrelationships that influence the student’s academic success (Upcraft & Kramer, 1995).


Student affairs professionals need to face the challenge of a changing student population and begin to seek ways to use technology to get students involved and connected with their institutions.  Understanding the needs, from both a theoretical and practical perspective, of online students will assist in placing resources judiciously to offer distance students the interaction and community that will make them successful.  Students are very clear about what they need to be successful and several institutions have made that connection to their students.  Adapting and modifying services to meet the needs of online students will demonstrate how professionals are using many skills from the equity, diversity, and inclusion professional competency area and  enhancing the relevance and function of student affairs for all students, both those on campus and those in the virtual university.

Discussion Questions

  1.  What are you currently doing at your institution to help online students be successful both in and out of the classroom?
  2. What services do you think online students may need or want from student affairs at your institution and what are ways you could provide these services?

About the Authors

Christopher Giroir and Christine Austin are both Associate Professors of College Student Personnel (CSP) at Arkansas Tech University (ATU).  The CSP program at ATU gives students the option to complete their master’s degree entirely online, so both authors have research interest in online student success and learning. 

Please e-mail inquiries to Christopher Giroir.


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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Thelin, J. & Gasman, M. (2011).  Historical overview of American higher education. In J. H. Schuh, S. R. Jones, S. R. Harper, and Associates (Eds.), Student services: A handbook for the profession (5th ed., pp. 3-23).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Thomas, S. L. (2000). Ties that bind: A social network approach to understanding student integration and persistence. The Journal of Higher Education 71(5), 591-615. Retrieved from:

Upcraft, M. L. (1998).  Do graduate preparation programs really prepare practitioners?  In N. J. Evans & C. E. Phelps Tobin (Eds.), The state of the art of preparation and practice in student affairs: Another look (pp. 225-237).  Lanham, MD:  American College Personnel Association.

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Unprepared First Generation Students: Developing Autonomous Learning Strategies through College Academic Coaching

Kimberly M. Florence, University of Nevada Las Vegas

In the United States, billions of dollars are spent yearly toward remedial education to ensure students academically unprepared for college level study are equipped to meet the demands of post-secondary learning (Carter, 2013). For example, Complete College America (2012) revealed that upwards of three billion dollars in both state funds and student monies went toward remedial education courses. As a result, support programs such as academic coaching have been developed to hinder the reliance on remedial education and increase student retention rates. The purpose of this article is to outline how college academic coaching can develop independent learning strategies in Unprepared First Generation Students (UFGSs) by linking academic self-discipline to academic performance. If UFGSs develop independent learning strategies then they are more likely to persist through the demands of post-secondary learning. Thus, academic coaches can increase academic success rates for unprepared first-generation students through the development of autonomous learning strategies.

Unprepared First-Generation Students

Bettinger, Boatman, and Long (2013) describe the unprepared college student as someone who confronts academic, social, and financial issues. Consequently, if these issues are not managed, low self-esteem, frustration, and a greater propensity to drop out of college can result (Bettinger, Boatman, & Long, 2013). First-generation students are defined as individuals from families where no parent or guardian earned a baccalaureate degree (Soria & Stebleton, 2012). Thus, unprepared first-generation students characterize a demographic in need of further examination because of an increased likelihood to have difficulties transitioning into higher education (Soria & Stebleton, 2012).

The first-generation college student has commonly been described as being (a) female, (b) older than the traditional first-year college student, (c) Black or Hispanic, and (d) from a lower socioeconomic background (Engle, 2007). Coffman (2011) used a social constructivist lens to explore how these characteristics, specifically race and culture, influenced first-generation students’ perceptions of themselves in comparison to their non-first-generation peers. Findings indicated that low socioeconomic status and inadequate secondary preparation decreased the propensity for academic achievement. However, Coffman (2011) added that higher education institutions could overcome these social constructs by (a) not marginalizing students based on race, (b) providing supplemental learning opportunities on campus, and (c) fostering support networks for continued academic success.  Thus, Coffman’s (2011) work supports the need for first-generation college students to improve learning outcomes through specialized and/or extended campus services.

Concurring the contention that institutions can support first-generation students, a panel of academic professionals and first-generation students organized by the Huffington Posts’ “Huffpost Live” gathered to discuss the varying needs of first-generation students. Sara Lipka, senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, asserted that instituting additional advising centered on both academic and career-based assistance was particularly helpful in serving this specific student demographic (Lipka as cited in Menendez, 2013).  Academic and career advising improved the development of self-efficacy and enhanced study skills (Young-Jones, Burt, Dixon & Hawthorne, 2012). It is from the development of self-efficacy and study skills, which are linked to college success, that enable long-term positive changes to occur. Lorna Contreras from the organization Students Rising Above, a non-profit founded in 1998 to help students manage the academic, social, and emotional challenges of college, stated that by upholding an initiative to help first-generation students remain committed to higher education, they are 93 percent more likely to have children who will be committed to post-secondary learning. Thus, their children acquire a college-going ideology that can be passed down from generation to generation (Contreras as cited in Menendez, 2013). In terms of UFGSs, academic coaching is an advantageous service for procuring long-term academic commitment to post-secondary learning.


Academic Coaching

Cheug (2012) described academic coaching as a service used to retain incoming students based on one-on-one mentoring. Generally established under the umbrella of academic affairs, academic coaching has been practiced through a variety of forums that include but are not limited to semester long courses, summer bridge programs, peer mentoring, and private sessions with academic advising professionals. The purpose of this service was to generate and apply varying strategies designed to enhance learning outcomes, such as organizational management diagrams, test taking strategies, goal setting plans, and motivational techniques. For example, InsideTrack, a company independently contracted to provide academic coaching services on behalf of colleges and universities, developed a comprehensive system of coaching, analytics, programs, and support services to improve student success rates and increase enrollment numbers. InsideTrack conducted a study that evaluated the effectiveness of their system across eight institutions (Bettinger & Baker, 2013). Results showed that academic coaching that took place within the first year of college increased persistence by five percentage points (Bettinger & Baker, 2013). The use of academic coaching to enhance learning strategies proved effective for InsideTrack. However, first-generation students are still more likely to leave a four-year university before their second-year of college (Irlbeck, Adams, Akers, Burris, & Jones, 2014).

Despite success in academic coaching, retention rates among unprepared first-generation students (UFGSs), especially first-generation students of color, remain low. In a 2012 article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly 90 percent of first-generation college students failed to graduate within six years because institutions were not prepared to confront the financial, personal, emotional, social, and educational challenges associated with this demographic (Greenwald, 2012). Therefore, institutions must consider how to best reach first-generation students who are failing to complete college. Self-regulation is a strategy students can use to help improve learning outcomes and to persist with post-secondary learning (Stefanou, Stolk, Prince, Chen, & Lord, 2013). The following sections outline how institutions with academic coaching programs can assist UFGSs in developing self-regulated learning strategies.


An essential trait for any college student seeking long-term academic and professional success rests primarily on the ability to self-regulate learning. Self-regulation is a person’s aptitude to self-direct mental abilities into task-oriented academic skills therefore, forming the capacity to self-monitor, self-instruct, self-evaluate, and self-reinforce (Zimmerman, 2013). The development of self-regulation among UFGSs is particularly important due to the multitude of internal and external variables that can impact overall academic performance. Naumann, Bandalos, and Gutkin (2003) found that variables associated with self-regulation are better predicators of first-generation students’ overall academic success when compared to ACT scores. The purpose of their research was to “determine the predictive validity of self-regulated learning variables in comparison to traditional college admission test scores of first generation students” (Naumann, Bandalos, & Gutkin, 2003, p. 5). The researchers conducted a quantitative study designed to examine a variety of independent variables, three of which included (a) generational status, (b) ACT scores, and (c) self-regulated learning. These variables were assessed in relation to the grade point average (GPA) of both first-generation and second-generation college students (Naumann et al., 2003). Thus, the findings indicated that self-regulatory behaviors are significant to UFGS’s overall college success when compared to their second-generation counterparts.

Self-Regulation and Academic Coaching

Contrary to other services and programs devised to guide students toward academic success, academic coaches work with students to enrich their learning, develop academic accountability, and improve learning effectiveness (Webberman, 2011). Carol Carter, an international success expert for students grades K-16, said “at the core of the coaching relationship is always having the coach ask powerful questions to help students become as self-sustaining as possible” (as cited in Webberman, 2011, p. 19). To that end, academic coaches must guide UFGSs through inquiry with the aim of developing autonomous learning strategies.

The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning

The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning (CPMSRL) illustrated the continuous process students encountered when developing self-regulated learning skills. The model consisted of three phases, which included (a) Forethought phase: Task Analysis and Self-Motivation; (b) Performance Phase: Self-Control and Self-Observation; and (c) Self-Report phase: Self-Judgment and Self-Reaction (Cleary, Callan, & Zimmerman, 2012). Assessment of the transition between phases was conducted through the use of Self-Regulated Learning Microanalysis (SRL Microanalysis), a methodology used to measure the self-regulatory beliefs and reactions of students while they were engaged in real-time context-specific tasks. For example, Zimmerman and Cleary (2012) used SRL Microanalysis as an assessment measure for Self-Regulation Empowerment Programs (SREP). The programs required SREP tutors to assist at-risk middle and high school students set goals, implement learning strategies, and self-record outcomes. The CPMSRL was the process by which self-regulated learning behavior was developed. SRL Microanalysis was the procedure used to measure the CPMSRL. If both the CPMSRL process and SRL Microanalysis procedure were utilized by academic coaches to understand self-regulatory behaviors of UFGSs, then the following five-step procedure would be used (see Figure 1).

Fig1 - cyclical phase model self regulation

FIGURE 1: The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulation and the SRL Microanalysis steps are referenced in accordance to developing self-regulatory behavior.

In the first step, the coach and student identify an impending academic task, activity, or assignment that must be completed by the student. In order for proper application of the SRL Microanalysis, the task should be suitable for evaluation by the academic coach, such as studying for a final examination. The second step requires the student and the academic coach to identify the self-regulatory sub-phase most relevant to productively completing the task. This is important to further the student’s ability to self-assess what is useful in executing the task. In other words, if a student can assess that crafting a strategic plan, which would fall under the task analysis sub-phase, is constructive to learning, then there is a greater propensity for identifying future tactics useful toward eventual success. Next, the academic coach transitions into the performance phase of the CPMSRL.

The third and fourth steps require the academic coach to develop Likert scale related, forced choice, open-ended, closed-ended or free response questions that measure the real-time academic activity. For example, the academic coach asks, “What steps within your strategic plan do you believe will be helpful in receiving a passing grade on your final examination?” This question has been presented prior to the student actively utilizing a learning strategy like flash card memorization. As the student performs the flash card memorization task, the academic coach may ask, “Do you have a system for keeping track of flash cards with concepts you did not remember?” Then, the academic coach poses self-reflection questions once the student has performed the task, such as “Why do you think you incorrectly defined the concept on your flash card?” In other words, the academic coach asks questions consistent with self-judgment and/or self-evaluation. Next, the academic coach examines the student’s responses.

The fifth and final step includes scoring and evaluating the process. Upon completion of the assessment, the academic coach evaluates the assessment based on the types of questions posed. The results of the evaluation inform both the academic coach and the student how the self-regulatory process comprehensively impacted the effectuation of the academic task. Therefore, it provides insight into which strategies do and do not work. According to Cleary, Callan, & Zimmerman (2012), if the strategy used has proven to be ineffective, then students are “more likely to infer that they needed to adapt their strategic methods to perform more effectively on the task in the future” (p. 15). Subsequently, the CPMSRL can be reexamined through the SRL Microanalysis to further contextualize what learning strategies are effective.

An important feature to the Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning is the continuous application toward context-specific tasks. This allows the coach to work with a student as they jointly navigate learning strategies. Academic coaches have UFGSs self-report what learning strategies work for them. This report, as well as the coach’s evaluation, is used to monitor progress in relation to the task at hand. Therefore, academic coaches can reapply the CPMSRL and monitor overall growth as the student continues their coaching sessions.

The outlined five-step procedure can be conducted over a few sessions at roughly 15-20 minutes per session. The number of sessions dedicated to CPMSRL have been largely determined by the UFGSs success at completing a given task or, if additional factors such as self-efficacy and study skills need to be enhanced in association with the task. College academic coaching programs that utilize CPMSRL in conjunction with SRL Microanalysis when working with UFGSs will find the process beneficial to understanding UFGSs and the requirements necessary to help them become autonomous learners.

Expected Results

The application of the Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning, assessed through the SRL Microanalysis, is anticipated to result in multiple benefits for unprepared first-generation students, academic coaches, and higher education institutions. First, when serving students through the acquisition of self-regulatory skills, academic coaches will gain the opportunity to help UFGSs identify their limitations while also building the skills necessary to establish behaviors and thinking that are autonomous and personalized to their learning. As a result, more UFGSs will be prepared to matriculate through college coursework and handle the difficulties of transitioning from student to professional. Second, higher education institutions will be able to retain and educate UFGSs that would have previously strayed from their college degree aspirations. Specifically, academic coaches will receive a greater competency in understanding their students’ challenges as well as provide strategies necessary to guide them towards academic success. The only foreseen limitation is the amount of academic coaching time available. If an academic-coach has a high student-to-coach ratio then time per student may decrease, which may limit the capacity to properly implement the five-step procedure. In conclusion, by assisting UFGSs to become autonomous learners, both academic coaches and higher education institutions will experience benefits such as student persistence and active learning engagement that are residuals of student’s improved academic performance.


Unprepared First Generation Students comprise a population with absolute distinction. They are entering the postsecondary environment with issues that influence the way institutions serve them. Although colleges have taken great strides to improve retention among UFGSs, it is also important to ensure that these students generate a deep understanding of themselves and the approaches that will advance their academic goals. The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulation based on SRL Microanalysis serves as a strong foundation for developing autonomous learning strategies dedicated to the short-term and long-term success of UFGSs.

Reflection Questions

  1. How can autonomous learning strategies impact long-term academic outcomes for unprepared first generation students?
  2. How can the CPMSRL, examined through SRL Microanalysis, help college academic coaches understand the individual academic needs of unprepared first-generation students?
  3. How can post-secondary institutions practically apply the phases/steps of the CPMSRL within current student academic advising/ coaching programs?

About the Author

Kimberly M. Florence is a Higher Education, PhD student and graduate assistant at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Her research interests include academic success and retention among first-year students, underrepresented students, and students of low SES backgrounds.

Please e-mail inquiries to Kimberly M. Florence.


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


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Historical Keys to Open Access in Community Colleges Between 1940 and the Mid-1970’s

Deborah Anderson, Ivy Tech Community College – Southwest/Wabash Valley Region

The Commission on Student Development in the 2 Year College is sponsoring this series to expose readers to the past, present, and future of open access institutions. Open access institutions are colleges that are nonselective in their admission standards. Primarily two-year or community colleges provide open access to students.    For many at-risk students with low academic performance, open access institutions are the only gateway for pursuing higher education.  With the pressure to meet new standards for graduation rates set forth by the American Graduation Initiative, the mission of open access is at risk.  Admitting students with little to no academic resources while dealing with external pressure to increase graduation rates could force some institutions to movewhile dealing with external pressure to increase graduation rates ents with the en access I away from their traditional mission and create academic standards that would bolster graduation rates and meet the demands of the Federal government.

The purpose of this article is to map the historical events and markers to open access postsecondary education relative to community colleges in the United States (U.S.). In this article, I will provide a discussion of key moments impacting open access in community colleges between 1940 and the mid-1970’s.  Additionally, I will share context regarding events prior to 1940 that influence the chronological history of open access and community colleges in the U.S.  Lastly, I will discuss these mile markers and how they have shaped contemporary community colleges.

Prior to 1940

The emergence of junior colleges profoundly affected thinking about the structure and purpose of U.S. higher education.  Junior colleges first appeared in the decade of the 1900s, but multiplied in the 1920s.  In the summer of 1948, Jesse P. Bogue, Executive Secretary for the American Association of Junior Colleges, addressed faculty in an essay titled, “The Community College,” for the bulletin of the American Association of University Professors discussing the origin of the community college. He shared:

It was William Rainey Harper, first President of the University of Chicago, who crystallized general concepts and gave inspiration for the establishment of the first public junior college in 1902 at Joliet, Illinois.  Although Decatur Baptist College, Decatur, Texas, celebrated its half-century of existence in 1947, Joliet is the oldest public junior college operating today.  President Harper is regarded as the man who coined the name ‘junior college’ and is considered by educational historians generally as the father of the movement.  This is most certain true in the sense that his organizing genius was applied to the concept and that he really did something about it. (Bogue, 1948, p. 286)

Following the establishment of Joliet, there was a proliferation of junior colleges within the U.S. that continued to multiply over the next several decades (Geiger, 1999).  Junior colleges, along with other institutional types such as teachers’ colleges, municipal colleges, women’s colleges, and business schools, provided educational opportunities to students and appealed to widely diverse student populations (Geiger, 1999).  Recognized as “booster colleges,” the development of the two-year “junior college” came of age predominantly in the West and Midwest between World War I and World War II (Thelin, 2004, p. 206).  By 1930, six states had ten or more public junior colleges:  California, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kansas (Brint & Karabel, 1989).

Between 1940 and the Mid-1970’s

Cohen (1998) defines the period between 1945 and 1975 as the Mass Higher Education Era and noted within those 30 years enrollments grew by more than 500%.  Also, public community colleges increased enrollments from two million to five million (Cohen, 1998).  In 1940, 60% of the community college student population was male, and by 1950, enrollments temporarily increased to 70% due to veterans returning home to attend community colleges (Cohen, 1998).  In 1944, Congress introduced Public Law 346, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, also called “the G.I. Bill of Rights,” which passed by a Congress fearful of mass unemployment when millions of servicemen were demobilized (Cohen, 1998, p. 182).

The G.I. Bill 

The G.I. Bill built upon smaller federal student aid programs developed at the end of the Great Depression and represented the federal government’s first attempt to provide student aid on a large scale.  This effort helped to break down the economic and social barriers to attending college (Vaughan, 2000).  Under the G.I. Bill, any honorably discharged veteran who had served 90 days or was injured in the line of duty was entitled to a free college education up to four years.  The government would pay $500 per year for tuition, fees and books at any approved education institution.  This resulted in over 2.2 million veterans returning to college, 3.4 million in other schools, 1.4 million in on-job training, and 690,000 in farm training, resulting in 40% of veterans who received a higher education.  Thelin (2011) wrote

By the fall of 1945, eighty-eight thousand veterans had applied and been accepted for participation.  By 1946, GI Bill college enrollments surpassed one million, and total benefits paid out by the federal government as part of the act exceeded $5.5 billion.  By 1950, of the fourteen million eligible veterans, more than two million, or 16 percent, had opted to enroll in postsecondary education as part of the GI Bill. (p. 263)

Thelin (2011) added that while the GI Bill enhanced postsecondary education opportunities for modest-income veterans, the terms of the GI Bill carried no requirement that participating institutions demonstrate non-discrimination (Thelin, 2011). One notable feature of the program was the benefits were awarded to individuals rather than institutions, allowing veterans to use them for any educational or training programs to which they were accepted (Turner & Bound, 2003).

The Truman Commission 

In July 1946, as the end of World War II drew near, President Harry S. Truman appointed the first official body to examine expansion of enrollments in American colleges and universities.  The President’s Commission on Higher Education, also known as “The Truman Commission,” was composed of a group of 28 educators led by George F. Zook, President of the American Council on Education, and was charged to address federal higher education policies, reexamine the roles of colleges and universities and develop a national dialogue on higher education reform.  The significant feature of this endeavor was that it marked the first time a president of the United States deliberately extended federal inquiry into nationwide educational issues; the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution customarily reserved the topic for state and local government (Thelin, 2011).

The Truman Commission’s report contained six volumes and appeared between December 1947 and February 1948, under the general title, Higher Education for American Democracy.  This series was viewed as one of the most influential documents in the history of American higher education.  The primary focus of the Commission was to address barriers to educational opportunities in two key areas: 1) improving college access and equity and 2) expanding the role of community colleges (Gilbert & Heller, 2013).   Community colleges were a primary strategy in the Commission’s plans to increase higher educational access to increased populations.  Approximately 600 two-year colleges existed during the time the Truman Commission report was released (Quigley & Bailey, 2003).

Brubacher and Rudy (1968) contend the Truman Commission’s central message was to ensure every American should be “enabled and encouraged to carry his education, formal and informal, as far as his native capacities permit” (p. 239).  The authors stated community colleges were particularly appealing as a means of handling student expansion because two-year colleges could be constructed quickly and were generally viewed as being more cost effective.  The Commission proposed the nation double its enrollment in college and universities within a decade (Brubacher & Rudy, 1968).

The Commission addressed open access in the report’s preface and noted the increasing number of young people seeking a college education and highlighted the complexities offered by increased industrialization and the accelerated enrollment growth due to the enactment of the Veteran’s Rehabilitation Act and the G.I. Bill.  The Commission noted, “Statistics reveal that a doubling of the 1947-48 enrollments in colleges and universities will be entirely possible within 10 to 15 years, if facilities and financial means are provided” (The President’s Commission on Higher Education, 1947, Volume 1, p. 1).

The Truman Commission recognized a variety of barriers – geographical, racial, religious, socioeconomic – might prevent populations from pursuing higher education.  Since costs presented access and equity barriers to students, the Commission’s report emphasized the importance of eradicating these barriers, stating, “If college opportunities are restricted to those in the higher income brackets, the way is open to the creation and perpetuation of a class society which has no place in the American way of life” (The President’s Commission on Higher Education, 1947, Volume II, p. 23).

The commissioners provided advocacy for expanded construction of community colleges and a larger influx of student enrollment growth in future years.  Reuben and Perkins (2007) noted commissioners lobbied for a number of policies that would become important features of American higher education in the late twentieth century, including the expansion of public higher education, particularly two-year institutions which the Commission renamed “community colleges” rather than “junior colleges,” federal financial aid programs, and the end to discrimination based on religion and race (pp. 265-266).  The Commission’s report offered specific recommendations to increase higher education attainment from 2.4 million students in 1947 to 3.9 to 4.6 million students between 1952 and 1960. Approximately one million veterans were anticipated to return to college under the G.I. Bill and the Commission made a series of recommendations to increase enrollments (Gilbert & Heller, 2013, p. 420).  

Improving college access

Improving community college access to underserved groups, such as minorities and veterans, continued throughout the 1960’s.  Before the 1960’s, at least 20 major cities (including Denver, St. Louis, Cleveland, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Miami) did not have community colleges and diverse populations were actively seeking college access (Luskin, 2011).  By the 1960’s, there was a general sentiment that college should become a birthright for Americans, much like high school had become a birthright in the 1920’s (Cervantes, Creusere, McMillion, McQueen, Short, Steiner & Webster, 2005).

Federal programs 

The Federal government created direct programming and financial assistance to postsecondary students that sparked national discussions on the government’s role within higher education.  Dallek (1998) asserted President Johnson had an almost mystical faith in the capacity of education to transform people’s lives.  Public demands for social equality helped to facilitate federal support for financial support of higher education. Federal programs were established and college attendance soared prompting a national shift in America’s college student demographics.  These federal programs offered college access to disadvantaged populations and assisted underrepresented minorities with college preparatory skills.

The Higher Education Act (HEA)

The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, offered financial assistance to public and private colleges and eligible students under Title IV.  The HEA of 1965 established the Federal government as an important player in higher education policy and recognized the goal of removing college price barriers as a federal priority (Cervantes et al., 2005).

According to a national report, “Higher Education Act: Forty Years of Opportunity,” Title IV authorized federal aid to students seeking higher education and assisted low-income students (Cervantes et al., 2005).  The leading HEA grant program was the Educational Opportunity Grant, later renamed the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or SEOG.  The Guaranteed Student Loan program, later recognized as the Federal Family Education Loan program (FFEL), was the largest source of student financial aid in the country (Cervantes et al., 2005). Additional financial aid assistance programs designed to increase open access include federal work-study programs, National Teaching Fellowships and the National Defense Student Loan Program, now known as Perkins funding.

The HEA was amended under Title IV to create three federal programs: Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services; hence the phrase “TRIO” emerged.  These TRIO programs assist low-income students, first-generation college students and other underrepresented groups through tutoring, mentoring and bridge programs.  President Johnson was recognized for clarifying the role of the Federal Government “to do something for the people who are down and out, and that’s where its major energy in education ought to go” (Cervantes et al., 2005, p. 22).

Civil Rights and Women’s Equality Movements 

In tandem, the civil rights and women’s equality movements increased social awareness and helped break down barriers for disadvantaged groups (Vaughn, 2000).   While these federal measures were established within the historical legislative framework of higher education, men and women of color continued to experience racial disparity and inequity while pursuing access to higher education.

Open Door Policies

Community college’s open-door policies offered increased access to higher education for diverse populations impacted by social class, race, gender and ethnicity.  Edmund Gleazer’s (1994) foreword in America’s Community Colleges: The First Century notes, “The college that cuts “across” ethnic lines, socioeconomic classes, educational interests, geographical boundaries and generations brings people together so that not only their differences, but also their common interest and needs can be acknowledged and valued” (Witt, Wattenbarger, Gollattscheck, & Suppiger, 1994, p. xvi).

In the late 1960’s, colleges and universities experienced decreased admission of academically prepared students.  Universities chose to soften admission requirements and increased financial assistance for eligible students.  At the same time, community colleges offered open door admissions to attract students and increase enrollments (Cohen & Brawer, 2003).


Carnegie Commission on Higher Education

In 1970, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education issued a three-part series report titled, “The Open-Door Colleges: Policies for Community Colleges” highlighting the role of community colleges.  The first section, released in June 1970, focused on the Federal Government’s role in advocating for academic success and increasing educational opportunities.  The second series highlighted higher education policy to ensure racial and educational equality.  The third series discussed the role of community colleges and presented enrollment projections for two-year institutions with projections for future community college expansion in 1980 and 2000.

Brint and Karabel (1989) contended the Carnegie Commission’s report was modeled after an existing trend, “Californiaization” of American higher education and recognized the California Master Plan of 1960 as a landmark in the evolution of community colleges.  By the time the Carnegie Commission’s report went to press, there were over 1,000 two-year colleges throughout the United States.  In 1968, ten states comprised 30% or more of all undergraduates enrolled in two-year colleges.  Other states’ enrollment varied from 10% to 30% and in seven states, California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Texas and Washington, enrollments were 30% or higher (The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1970, map 1, p. 14).

The Carnegie Commission’s goals addressed national expansion of college access within each high school.  The Commission clarified that college attainment might not include individuals who did not have plans to go to college, but universal access for all high school graduates or persons over 18 years of age was highly recommended.  The Commission report stated without such open admissions policies, community colleges would not provide equal opportunity to the highest degree possible.

The Commission’s report outlined goals and recommendations to be completed by 1976:

  • Open access to all public community colleges
  • The removal of financial barriers to enrollment
  • A state plan for the development of community colleges in every state
  • Comprehensive programs that provide meaningful learning options in all public two-year institutions of higher education.
  • Achievement of the goal of a community college within commuting distance of every potential student, except in sparsely populated areas where residential colleges are needed – plans for 230 to 280 new community colleges initiated by 1976
  • Low tuition or no tuition in community colleges
  • Adaptation of occupational programs to changing manpower requirements and full
    opportunities for continuing adult education (The Carnegie Commission on Higher
    Education, 1970, p. 51)

The success of the Carnegie Commission’s goals required support and advocacy of federal aid to higher education and increased national funding.  Ten-year recommendations goals outlined establishment of additional community colleges and to ensure 35% to 45% of all undergraduate student enrollment (The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1970).  Twenty-year recommendations outlined continued community college expansion, additional increases for student enrollments and ongoing curriculum reform to adapt to economic development and community needs in the 21st century (The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1970).


Through the early decades of the twentieth century, two-year colleges provided access and opened pathways for diverse groups including veterans, women, minority groups, individuals and families facing economic challenges.  Between 1940 and the mid-1970’s, social influences advocating for select groups, federal legislation, and governmental programs were viewed as beacons to ensure access of higher education for underserved groups.   These influences were instrumental in widening the doors of two-year institutions to a greater number of people seeking educational access.  Today, community colleges continue the tradition of opening doors to underserved populations and remain at the forefront of national dialogue on the expansion and accessibility of higher education.  Open access in community colleges continues to provide underrepresented students with educational resources to assist in short and long-term skill building and degree attainment.

Discussion Questions

  1. How have other federal and social influences shaped higher education, particularly for two-year colleges?
  2. From your perspective, what are some of the benefits of two-year colleges and open admissions?  Have the educational needs of community college students changed within the last ten years?  How has your institution’s original mission adapted to the needs of today’s college students?
  3. In general, do two-year colleges serve the same role as early junior colleges?  Why or why not?

About the Author

Deborah L. Anderson is the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Institutional Research at Ivy Tech Community College – Southwest/Wabash Valley Region.  A three-time graduate of the University of Kansas, she holds a B.A. in Italian Studies, a B.S. in Journalism, and a M.S. in Education.  She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership at the Bayh School of Education at Indiana State University.  Deb serves on the ACPA Commission for Two-Year Colleges and Wiley’s Enrollment Management Report Board of Advisors.

Please e-mail inquiries to Deborah L. Anderson


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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Brint, S., & Karabel, J. (1989). The diverted dream. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Brubacher, J. S., & Rudy, W. (1968). Higher education in transition: A history of American colleges and universities, 1636-1976 (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.

Cervantes, A., Creusere, M., McMillion, R., McQueen, C., Short, M., Steiner, M., & Webster, J. (2005). Opening the doors to higher education: Perspectives on higher education act 40 years later. Retrieved from

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Quigley, M. S., & Bailey, T. W. (2003). Community college movement in perspective: Teachers College responds to the Truman Commission. Lanham, MA: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

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Turner, S., & Bound, J. (2003, March). Closing the gap or widening the divide: The effects of the G.I. Bill and World War II on the educational outcomes of Black Americans. The Journal of Economic History, 63, 145-177. Retrieved from

Vaughan, G. B. (1985). The community college in America: A short history. (ISBN-0-87117-141-4). Washington, D.C.: American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, National Center for Higher Education.

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Witt, A. A., Wattenbarger, J. L., Gollattscheck, J. F., & Suppiger, J. E. (1994). America’s Community Colleges:  The First Century. Washington, D.C.: Community College Press, American Association of Community Colleges.

Providing Spaces on College Campuses and through Social Media for Men of Color to Offer Counterstories

Cameron C. Beatty, Iowa State University
Cristobal Salinas Jr., Florida Atlantic University

In recognition of the recent 30th anniversary of the Standing Committee on Men & Masculinities (SCMM), the SCMM has launched a series exploring the concept of intersectionality as it relates to collegiate men.  Contributing authors will explore how dimensions of race, religion, gender, and other social identities converge and shape the experiences of college men and how higher education professionals can best assist these students. 

Counterstorytelling and history can be useful to understand the historical and political context of power, privilege and the oppression of historically marginalized communities in the United States (Zinn, 1994).  Similar to counterstorytelling and history, social media has become an important source of news that influences the examination of society and culture, and its interaction of race, law, power and privilege.  If one was born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, one might simply accept anything and everything that social media tells us.  “Knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government [and media] were lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth” (Zinn, 1994, p. 174). This truth is very much rooted in the lived experiences of our daily lives.

Through this essay we intend to shed light on how men of color have been some of the primary victims of negative social imagery and how the fragments of these constructions continue to have contemporary influences on our college campuses. This is particularly true when it comes to the fearing of men of color, and specifically, Black and Brown bodies in our society. It is the hope that this essay disrupts the current discourse and allows for student affairs professionals to provide a unique counterstorytelling space on their campuses for men of color to disrupt this current dominant discourse in society. Furthermore, it is vital for us as educators to play an important role in creating useful research, theory, and practices in order to work towards emancipation. By doing this we will help to improve the higher education experiences and educational outcomes for men of color, who consistently find themselves reported at the bottom of most academic indicators (Howard, 2008; Howard & Flennaugh, 2011; Hutchison, 1994; McGuire, Berhanu, Davis III, & Harper, 2014).

We operate from the position that large numbers of men of color experience education in a manner unlike other students in the United States and that these experiences are rooted in a historical construction of what it means to be Black/Brown and gender identify as men. These experiences, we assert, are often guided by an account/illusion that is a less than flattering account of the academic potential, intellectual disposition, and social and cultural capital possessed by Black and Brown males (Hutchison, 1994; McGuire, Berhanu, Davis III, & Harper, 2014).  Moreover, our contention is that not only do these notions of men of color shape their schooling experiences, but may severely influence their life chances at a time where educational access is vital to competing in an increasingly global society. This consequence is most disturbing given the manner in which disproportionate numbers of men of color continue to find themselves socially, economically, and politically marginalized from the American majority (Hutchison, 1994; McGuire et al., 2014; Noguera, Hurtado, & Fergus, 2011).



The Opportunity Agenda (2011) and the National Hispanic Media Coalition (Barreto, Manzano, & Segura, 2012) report that media messages and images have a greater impact on negative perceptions and stereotypes when individuals have real-world knowledge and understanding in topics of power, privilege and oppression. For example, individuals who are subject to positive information about men of color are more likely to report fewer negative stereotypical beliefs; individuals exposed to negative information about these men hold negative stereotypes no matter the focus; and exposure to only one negative prompt predicts higher rates of negative Black and stereotyping in terms of criminal activity, unemployment, poverty, lack of education, and impressions of Brown men being undocumented.

Noguera (2008) shared that Black and Brown men “are anything but invisible or unseen” (p. xii).  Media such as TV shows, magazine advertising, the Internet, video games, and news broadcasts constantly represent Black and Brown men negatively and—at limited times—positively.  While Black and Brown men are often represented as criminals (“thugs” and “cholos”), unemployed, and poor, they are also constantly idolized and represented in the media as gifted athletes, good dancers, and instantly “cool” (Patterson, Lane, Stephens, McElderry, & Alleyne, 2014; The Opportunity Agenda, 2011; Noguera, 2008).  The reality is that the majority of Black and Brown men are not athletes or performers; neither are they criminals or gangsters.

Most recently, since the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases, scholars and policymakers have focused on a national debate and given attention to the number of issues and challenges faced by Black and Brown men.  For example, as a result of Martin’s and Davis’s deaths, there have been several media outlets that engage in dialogue surrounding the discrimination of clothing and music as a sign of deviance (Patterson, Lane, Stephens, McElderry, & Alleyne, 2014).  President Obama and his administration launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative (2014) to create and build opportunities for boys and young men of color. Yet, institutions and policy-makers have not figured out a way to approach the challenges that men of color face. Every year, men of color make the news, mainly because they continue to be victims of racial profiling and hate crimes; they also are negatively stereotyped, oppressed, and marginalized. On the other hand men who hold these identities are idolized by society and the media as sports heroes or gods in the entertainment industry. We engage in this analysis of men of color’s representation in schools and society with a full recognition that regardless of the mass of obstacles and challenges that have confronted men of color in the United States historically and contemporarily, there are instances of exceptional men of color who have overcome these obstacles and thrived on college campuses. In addition, there are a large number of men of color who occupy prominent professional positions in their respective communities.

Fearing of Men of Color

The overall representation of men of color in the media is incomplete, misleading, and irresponsible in various ways.  Black and Brown males are portrayed by the media as criminals, violent, uneducated, and unkempt (Wilson, 2014; Mazyck, 2014).  Even though Black and Brown men have visible roles that can be considered positive, such as athletes and performers (dancers, singers, composers, and comedians), they tend to be absent from some critical types of roles, such as parenting portrayals (The Opportunity Agenda, 2011).

Media promote how men of color are negatively perceived and stereotyped, however, this does not reflect the lived experiences of a majority of these men.  Our call for counterstroytelling aims to raise the critical consciousness regarding social and racial injustices that men of color experience. Counterstorytelling serves as an analytical tool for examining stories and is prevalent in research using critical race theory. According to Delgado and Stefancic (2001), counterstorytelling “aims to cast doubt on the validity of accepted premises or myths, especially ones held by the majority” (p. 144). Counterstories function to:

  1. build community among marginalized individuals and groups;
  2. challenge claims of knowledge and wisdom of dominant groups;
  3. illuminate alternative realities of those at the margins of society; and
  4. provide context in an effort to transform current systems of belief and value (Delgado, 1989; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Solórzano, Ceja & Yosso, 2000).

Through use of counterstorytelling, dominant understandings around the lived experiences of men of color can be addressed through the voices of those Black and Brown men.

As the media continues to negatively stereotype, oppress, and marginalize men of color, we (as educators) must acknowledge that our college campuses are not immune to being oppressive spaces. Recently students who identify as men of color from across the nation are challenging the media by telling their counterstories via those media. In 2013, a group of African-American students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), sent out a powerful message discussing the lack of diversity, in particular the lack of African-American students on campus (Park, 2013).  The video explains the lack of African- Americans at UCLA and highlights African-Americans make up 3.8 percent of the student population. Stokes points out that “black males make up 3.3 percent of the male student population, and that 65 percent of those black males are undergraduate athletes. Of the incoming men in the freshmen class, only 1.9 percent of them were black” (Stokes, 2014).

In 2013, Black male students at Illinois Central High School created a video contradicting the negative image of young African-American males in the media.  They affirmed and highlighted that the successes of young Black males are often ignored and their stories untold; they stated: “We are not gangsters and thugs, we are employees and volunteers, we are scholars, and we are athletes” (Gholson, 2013).

Scholars have used counterstorytelling to highlight the ways men of color make sense of barriers they faced in their quest for academic achievement. Counterstorytelling subsequently highlights the importance of tapping into students’ narratives to understand the internal processes that some men of color go through in order to excel in school. These videos by UCLA and Illinois Central High School men of color positions student voice and agency as immensely important to the way identities are constructed and understood (Hoshmand, 2005). As these videos have demonstrated, developing a social platform that makes use of men of color voices has the potential to advance informed practices that disrupt the status quo when developing programs and resources for men of color on college campuses.

We propose that using social media more intentionally on college campuses to incorporate the voices of marginalized men of color on campus can also help to dismantle the dominant oppressive discourses surrounding race, class, and gender groups. These counterstories represent a challenge to dominant narratives that can represent other truths and lived experiences that directly refute hegemony (Terry, 2011). “Stories told by those on the bottom, told from the ‘subversive-subaltern’ perspective, challenge and expose the hierarchical and patriarchal order that exists within the legal academy [any institution] and pervades the larger society” (Montoya, 1995, p. 537). These stories are critical and allow the anger and pain of the oppressed storyteller to emerge. Hearing people’s own stories is a powerful way of getting oftentimes reluctant teachers, researchers, or policy makers in training to understand that the theories they are learning about have a material effect on individuals. The intersectionality (Collins, 2000; Crenshaw, 1997) of race, class, and gender are fundamentally critical in research, policies, and practices concerning people of color. Each identity in its own way profoundly influences identity construction, social imagery, and meaning-making for men of color. As mentioned earlier, men of color possess multiple identities that are profoundly shaped by race, socioeconomic status, and gender (to name a few) in all of their complex manifestations.

The goal of empowering men of color and recreating their social image through a raised consciousness is not an easy one. Removing the layers of hegemony engraved in the minds is not a simple task. Attempting to shift paradigms is real and there can be a major stumbling block to achieving critical consciousness (Bell, Washington, Weinsteinan, & Love, 2003). Part of this paradigm shift must incorporate the views, ideas, and perspectives of men of color themselves in recreating their own image.

Role of Student Affairs Professionals

Men of color have been some of the primary victims of negative social imagery.  They are often represented as negative stereotype no matter the focus, they are seen as criminals, unemployed, poor, and being “anti-intellectual” (Harper, 2012).  It is important to remember that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  For this reason, we believe that counterstorytelling for men of color on college campuses and through social media should be used as a tool to disrupt the dominant discourse of the negative stereotyping in terms of criminal activity, unemployment, poverty, lack of education, and impressions of Brown men being undocumented.

We believe that it is necessary to work with different communities to understand their various layers of privilege and oppression (Salinas & Beatty, 2013). To do this, we recommend educators and student affairs professions to:

  • Educate themselves about their feelings, beliefs, and attitudes around Black and Brown bodies;
  • Create a safe space to discuss beliefs and experiences in order to be challenged and to challenge peers and colleagues about their feelings, beliefs, and attitudes;
  • Engage in reflection, active learning and developing critical thinking about social identities and the intersection of identities;
  • Empower ourselves and other individuals to understand and use cultural values to develop more optimal learning environments for the oppressed communities and recognize where their privilege is constantly at play (p. 28).

Additional recommendations include: creating your own social media video to highlight the experiences of men of color on your campus, providing a #hashtag for students to share their realities with discrimination and disenfranchisement on campus, and finally having a physical space for men of color to discuss their realities with not only their peers, but with key administrators so they feel their voices are being heard, acknowledged, and affirmed.

These recommendations should aid to promote reflection, collaboration, and organizational learning to better serve students and support all communities, but specifically the success of men of color on your campus.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do I know what men of color are experiencing on my campus? Do they find the campus to be welcoming and supportive?
  2. How do we create spaces on campus for men of color to make meaning of their experiences on campus and to discuss with administrators and peers?
  3. What role does social media use have on men of color and their identity development in college?

About the Authors

Cameron C. Beatty, Ph.D., is a lecturer in leadership education and program coordinator for the leadership studies program with the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. He graduated in summer 2014 from Iowa State University with a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration and a Graduate Certificate in Social Justice Education. He earned a master’s degree in Higher Education Student Affairs and a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and African American and African Diaspora Studies, both from Indiana University. His doctoral dissertation focused on exploring the leadership identity development of students of color at a liberal arts college. Beatty’s particular areas of interest include such topics as definitions of masculinity, leadership development for students of color, and racial justice in higher education.

Cristobal Salinas Jr., Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership and Research Methodology Department at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Education. Cristobal previously served as the College of Design’s Multicultural Liaison Officer at Iowa State University, where he provided assistance and guidance in understanding issues of diversity in the college and beyond. He holds a B.A. in Spanish Education and ESL from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, a M.Ed. in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, and a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Iowa State University. His dissertation explored how Latino male faculty members make meaning of their socialization into the academy and how socialization impacts their decisions to pursue full-time and tenure-track positions in the field of education.  His research promotes access and quality in higher education, and explores the social, political, and economic context of education opportunity for historically marginalized communities.


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.


Barreto, M. A.,  Manzano, S., & Segura, G. M. (2012, September).  The impact of media stereotypes on opinion and attitudes towards Latinos.  National Hispanic Media Coalition.  Retrieved from:

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Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

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Delgado, R. & Stefancic, J. (2001). Critical race theory: An introduction. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Solórzano, D. G., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. J. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microag- gressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education, 69, 60–73.

Dong, Q. & Murrillo, A. P. (2007). The impact of television viewing on young adults’ stereotypes towards Hispanic Americans. Human Communication, 10(1), 33-44.

Gholson, T.  (2014, February 17). Suit and tie in the 217 [Video file].  Retrieved from:

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Hoshmand, L. T. (2005). Culture, psychotherapy, and counseling: Critical and integrative perspectives. New York, NY: Sage.

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Mazyck, J.  (2014, March 6).  Experts: Stereotyping huge barrier to engaging African-American males on campus.  Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. Retrieved from:

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From the President – Winter 2015

Gavin W. Henning, ACPA President

Greetings. I hope the first semester is finishing up smoothly and everyone is looking forward to the holiday break. For this edition of Developments, I would like to take the opportunity to update the membership on a number of ACPA initiatives.

ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies – 2nd Edition

In August, ACPA and NASPA released a revised version of the 2010 edition of the Professional Competencies for Student Affairs Practitioners. Included in the 2015 edition is the combination of two competencies (ethics and personal foundations), addition of a technology competency, renaming of a few competencies, and revision of some outcomes within each competency area. To download a copy visit:

A joint ACPA/NASPA Taskforce will be working to create rubrics supporting the competencies. These will be a wonderful tool for a variety of assessments related to the competencies and hope to have drafts to share at the 2016 ACPA Convention for feedback.

Beyond Compliance: Addressing Sexual Violence in Higher Education

In August, ACPA published a monograph entitled Beyond Compliance: Addressing Sexual Violence in Higher Education. This critical resource is a product of the ACPA Sexual Assault Prevention Implementation Team. You can access the document by visiting:

Professional Symposium

On September 29th, 2015, ACPA launched an exciting, innovative professional development event. The Presidential Symposium was entitled Fulfilling Our Promises to Students: Fostering and Demonstrating Student Success. We used a hybrid model that included an onsite event at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City as well as campus participation parties across the western hemisphere at nearly 100 colleges and universities. The event included seven brief (15 or fewer minutes) talks combined with opportunities for individual campuses to have small group conversations to apply the information they learned. Social media activity was engaging with 2.25 million Twitter impressions during the event. If you missed the symposium, you can still access all of the content, which includes the seven symposium talks as well as six “bonus” talks. Just visit for details.

ACPA16 in Montréal

The ACPA16 Convention Team continues to develop what will surely be one of the most incredible convention experiences any of us have had. There were a record number of program proposals that will result in many high quality sessions. Our pre-convention sessions are unbelievable. They include workshops on the neuroscience of learning, feminist leadership, social and digital competency, and two Montréal study tours. Please join us in our common read entitled In Defiance by Gabriel Nadeau Dubois, which documents the Maple Spring strike by more than 300,000 students across Quebec protesting tuition fee hikes. We have a Career Central program track throughout the convention as well as a new Career Café which is a place where resource information, job postings, and consultations with the Career Central team and ACPA leadership and entity groups will be available to address a range of career and job placement services. Also consider “paying it forward” by making a donation to sponsor a NextGen participant (‪ ). You can find more details by visiting:

Faculty Research Grants

ACPA has increased its emphasis on research grants in the past year. Dr. Anne Hornak chaired the committee for a newly created faculty grant. Thirteen high-quality applications were submitted covering a range of topics. The winner of the grant competition for 2015 was Dr. Lucy LePeau, Assistant Professor at Indiana University Bloomington along with two of her graduate students (Sarah Fernandez and Ryan Davis) who will serve as her co-principal investigators on the project. The title of the work is: Academic and Student Affairs Partnerships to Advance Diversity and Social Justice: A Content Analysis of Institutional Websites. We look forward to sharing the results of their research upon its completion.

Student Global Summit Co-Sponsored by IASAS and ACPA

ACPA is partnering with IASAS (International Association of Student Affairs and Services) for an inaugural Student Global Summit that will be co-located with the ACPA16 Convention in Montréal. Collaborating with LEAD365, the goal is to help college students around the world develop leadership skills to tackle the problems that confront our global community. We are still in the planning stages, so stay tuned for details on nominating students as well as sponsoring students for the summit.

Coordinating Student Affairs Divisional Assessment

ACPA and NASPA co-sponsored this publication through Stylus released in December. The need for the new role of student affairs assessment coordinator has emerged in response to the increasing demand for outcomes information, the proliferation of data, and the recognition that coordinating this work within divisions is of paramount importance.

For those taking on this role, this book constitutes a practical guide to leading and implementing an assessment program – whether doing so full- or part-time, as an individual or in a multi-person office, or whether reporting to or being in positional leadership. 

ACPA members receive a 15% discount and free shipping. Visit this page to purchase a copy using the code CSAA16

Council for the Advancement of Standards 9th Edition of the Professional Standards for Higher Education

While not solely an ACPA initiative, ACPA was one of the founding members of CAS and I have been fortunate to represent ACPA on the CAS Board of Directors since 2012 and also sit on the CAS Executive Committee as Member-at-Large for Outreach. The 9th Edition of the “Blue Book” came out earlier this fall with new and revised standards in addition to an improved format for the Self-Assessment Guides (SAGS). The book is also available as an e-book so it will always be near. In addition, there are a number of resources to help support the use of the CAS Standards, which a set of resources specifically for faculty. For more information, visit

Those are a few updates on ACPA initiatives. Check out the ACPA website to learn more about other work of the association. I hope you all have an enjoyable holiday break.

From One Dupont Circle – Winter 2015

Cindi Love, ACPA Executive Director

“Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?”
Lillian Hellman

On September 10-11, 2015, I was invited to participate in President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge as one of the opening plenary presenters with Janina Montero, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at UCLA, Greg Jao, the Vice President & Director of Campus Engagement at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Eboo Patel, Founder and CEO of IFYC. Our topic was “Navigating Challenging Campus Conversations on Religious Identity and Diversity.”

The conversation was a response to the White House team’s recognition of a surge in campus conflicts around religious identity on campus – Israel/Palestine issues, all-comers policies, free speech issues and direct attacks on Jewish and Muslim students.

Our goal for the session was to encourage campus leaders from around the world to consider how they can engage with one another respectfully and positively – while maintaining disagreement with one another on critical issues.

We set a goal to model ways in which we could partner to achieve constructive action in spite of our own deep differences in religious ideology and practice–to “weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place” (Margaret Mead).

My plenary panel colleagues and I are now co-authoring an article that we hope contributes some of what we learned and discovered to the field of student learning and development.

In the field of student affairs, we focus on identity formation and often avoid or neglect the most deeply engrained socially constructed identities “assigned” at birth for many people–Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Baptist, Muslim, Pentecostal, non-believer, and more.

I understand the reasons for our reluctance and I believe it is our responsibility to support the whole student, which cannot happen if we are afraid to engage about religious identity. Do we encourage them to share this part of their lived experience?  I confess that I find it difficult as an executive in a higher education association. It is much easier to identify as gay.

I grew up in a family where four generations belonged to the church of Christ in the Southern United States. The unwavering expectation of my family was that I would be church of Christ as well. I was not allowed to visit other churches, listen to instrumental religious music that non church of Christ churches enjoyed, and I was discouraged from having friends outside the church. It was assumed that I would be baptized in the church of Christ, heterosexually marry in the church of Christ, bear children and raise them to repeat my experience. But, I divorced and “came out” and my religious identity was stripped away.  There was no place for a divorced cisgender lesbian in the church of Christ.

The loss of my religious identity was very painful even though I no longer accepted some of the teachings of my church. That identity was interwoven with my sense of belonging in my family and much of who and what I thought I was and would be was defined by that identity.

When students feel that same loss for any reason, including when they feel compelled to hide religious identity in order to feel safe, they suffer and, inevitably, the entire community suffers. We are as sick as our secrets.

Over the last 17 months of my tenure as Executive Director of ACPA – College Student Educators International, I’ve engaged in many conversations about our Association’s strengths and weaknesses in supporting individuals with identities that increase their vulnerability to discrimination, exclusion and inequity.  Amongst those persons have been those who identify as atheist, those who belong to traditional Christian evangelical churches, Jews, Muslims, persons who identify as transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, Latino, undocumented, differently abled, Black, white, Pan Asian, feminist, Greek and more. Most recently, the increased use of terms, like “white Christian privilege,” “persons of color” (rather than Black), and “Islamic,” have stung some members.

The reality is that words hurt when they attach to deeply held values connected to identity.  I am tempted to say that it is a balancing act, but truthfully, hurt never finds homeostasis.

So what can we do to find our way into relationship and community when there is so much fear, anger, blame, shame and fault-finding?

I believe that we may have to borrow from The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (1997).

Be impeccable with your word.

Don’t take anything personally. To not take anything personally is to acknowledge the unique identities of other people. We respect their subjective realities, realizing that their views do not necessarily describe us accurately.

Don’t make assumptions. The antidote to mind reading is to ask for evidence before concluding what people are thinking.

Always do your best.

Ruiz’s (2011) next book, The Fifth Agreement, suggests the following agreement: Be skeptical but learn to listen.

And, I think we may have to add two principles shared by all major faith traditions:  grace & mercy.




Ruiz, D. M. (1997). The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing.

Ruiz, D. M. (2011). The fifth agreement: A practical guide to self-mastery. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing.