Invigorating a Scholarship of Practice for the Profession of Student Affairs // written by: Patrick G. Love and John M. Braxton

Patrick G. Love
Springfield College

John M. Braxton
Peabody College of Vanderbilt University

Ever since the emergence of the concept of a scholarship of practice in student affairs, there have been tenuous and incomplete connections between practitioners and scholars in student affairs. The established and stronger path of connection is from the work of scholars to the work of practitioners. However, less clear and distinct is how practitioners communicate the questions and scholarly needs of practice to the scholars best able to investigate them. Enhancing both pathways enable student affairs professionals to engage more fully in the most basic level of a scholarship of practice which entails using of the findings of empirical research to guide professional practice. 

The scholarship of practice in higher education has two primary goals: 1) the improvement of administrative practice; and 2) the development of a knowledge base for administrative work in higher education (Braxton, 2005). The improvement of administrative practice also includes the use of findings of empirical research to enhance institutional policy and protocols in individual colleges and universities (Braxton, 2017; Kramer and Braxton, 2017). 

A scholarship of practice for the profession of student affairs centered on the use of the findings of empirical research to guide professional practice requires two distinct pathways. One pathway emanates from the communities of practice of the student affairs profession to the community of scholars who study the college student experience, where practitioners communicate the problems, challenges, and issues that they need to better understand.  The other pathway originates in the community of scholars who study the college student experience and loops back to the communities of practice of student affairs, sharing findings of empirical research with student affairs professionals in order to enhance their practice. The practitioners-to-scholars pathway needs practitioners to identify the research needed to guide their day-to-day professional practice and policy formulation. Put differently, this pathway benefits from the development of a practitioner-generated research agenda.  

Based on our observations and experience, both pathways (i.e., scholars-to-practitioners and practitioners-to-scholars) already exist.  Some extant connections between practitioners and the community of scholars who study the college student experience include student affairs practitioners who are currently enrolled in doctoral programs who address problems of practice through their dissertation research. Likewise, many faculty members in student affairs preparation programs work with student affairs professionals to conduct research useful to practitioners. Such connections serve both pathways.  

Moreover, existing publications such as Developments and the Journal of College Student Development form part of the pathway from the community of scholars to the communities of practice through their role in disseminating findings of research useful to practitioners. The recommendations for policy and practice sections of feature articles and Research-in-Briefs published by the Journal of College Student Development play an important role in the dissemination of research findings that may be useful to practitioners.  Articles published in Developments also play such a role.  So, although the current two pathways exist to some degree, we assert that they require enhancements to increase their effectiveness. Empirical research findings discourage student affairs professionals from engaging in commonsensical “shooting from the hip” or “trial-and-error” forms of professional action (Braxton & Ream, 2017). 

In this article, we describe approaches to enhance the two pathways essential to a robust scholarship of practice for student affairs professionals centered on the use of research finding to guide professional action and policy formation.  Again, these pathways take the form of a loop from practitioners to scholars and from scholars back to practitioners.   

The Pathway from Practitioners to Scholars

Practitioner-generated research agendas constitute a necessary and critical component of the pathway from the communities of student affairs practice to the community of scholars who study the college student experience. We present two approaches to the development of a practitioner-generated research agenda. Braxton and Hossler (in press) describe two approaches to the development of a practitioner-defined research agenda for enrollment management. The first approach takes the form of periodic studies designed to delineate the topics and issues confronting enrollment management and student affairs professionals in their day-to-day practice.  They recommend the development of a survey instrument that asks enrollment management officers to briefly describe the day-to-day issues and concerns they face in their practice that would benefit from research, such as student recruitment practices, the selection of applicants for admission, the impact of types of financial aid on matriculation decisions and the retention of students, and the effects of developmental education on student success. This would involve the administration of such a survey to a sample of Vice-Presidents for Enrollment Management or Retention Coordinators at a range of colleges and universities (Braxton & Hossler, in press).  This approach can be extended to Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAO) as well as unit directors, such as in Residence Life, Student Activities, and Diversity and Inclusion.  

The second approach involves enrollment management professional associations developing a practitioner-defined research agenda. ACPA has already embraced this second approach through a collaboration between the Senior Scholars of ACPA and Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAO) Advisory Group of ACPA to produce such a research agenda.  Before we present the research agenda, we describe the process that was used to develop it.  

The Process of Collaboration

In 2016, the Senior Scholars group of ACPA developed a document outlining their responsibilities as Stewards of Scholarship for the organization. One part of the proposal was to work with the SSAO Advisory Group of ACPA to create a research agenda for the profession. “Such an agenda would identify topics for research and scholarship that address the day-to-day issues and concerns faced by senior student affairs officers in their professional practice” (2016, 2nd paragraph). While the Stewards of Scholarship document specified research designed to contribute to SSAO’s work, the committee that came together to generate the research agenda quickly expanded the focus to any professional in Student Affairs.

A committee (co-chaired by Patrick Love, Senior Scholar, and Laura Bayless, Chair, SSAO Advisory Group) had all members of each group generate topics of research. Love and Bayless merged the lists and returned them to the groups to respond to the merged list, add to it, and elaborate on the items. When the feedback from this round was incorporated, the new list was sorted into categories and was then distributed to the entire roster of Senior Scholars, Emerging Scholars, and the SSAO Advisory Group for their review, critique, additions, and elaborations.  

While the research agenda was being developed, ACPA’s leadership initiated the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization. The Senior Scholar group reshaped the agenda to integrate the strategic imperative. When this task was completed the agenda was distributed again to the membership of both groups for feedback. Lastly, a final draft of the agenda was submitted to ACPA leadership for review. They accepted the agenda and posted it on the ACPA website. The Senior Scholar Research Grant Program subsequently used the research agenda to help assess the grants that were submitted to the program for possible funding.

The Practitioner-Defined Research Agenda

The practitioner-defined research agenda formulated by the ACPA Senior Scholars and the ACPA SSAO Advisory Group consists of the 10 categories and 86 specific topics in need of inquiry. We present only the 10 categories of the practitioner-defined research agenda. The Appendix to this article exhibits the specific topics subsumed under each of the ten categories. Additionally, ACPA’s Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization (SIRJD) serves as the organizing theme of this research agenda project, in that there are specific topics related to racial justice and decolonization and that the other topics can also be viewed through the SIRJD lens. 

 The 10 categories of the practitioner-defined research agenda are as follows: (1) Race/Racial Justice, (2) Decolonization, (3) Diversity and Social Justice, (4) Student Demographics, (5) Safety and Security, (6) Impact and Value of Student Affairs on Student Success, (7) Changing Nature of Work in Higher Education, (8) Technology, (9) Recruitment/Access/Affordability, and (10) Government and Public Roles and Expectations Relative to Higher Education.  In addition to offering a practitioner-defined research agenda for scholars to pursue, we posit two additional ways these ten categories can contribute to the enhancement of the pathway from practitioners to scholars. As previously suggested, administration of periodic surveys of Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAO) that request them to briefly describe needed studies that address the day-to-day issues and concerns they face in their practice is one pathway.  We suggest that such a survey ask SSAOs and other director-level staff at a range of colleges and universities to describe specific issues or challenges related to those ten categories that they regard as important to their work. Second, we recommend that scholars conduct reviews of research on these ten categories and their associated specific topics with two purposes in mind: the identification of needed further research useful to practice, and the delineation of implications for policy and practice derived from the review of research literature conducted.  

The Pathway from Scholars to Practitioners.

With the above practitioner-defined research agenda in place, the development of a pathway from scholars back to practitioners requires the selection of one or more research topics from practitioner-defined research agendas, the design and execution of the research needed to examine the selected topic and then the dissemination of findings derived from this research. The design and execution of such research require some elaboration because the pathway from scholars to practitioners depends on the production of user-friendly rapidly disseminated research findings.  Accordingly, we discuss desired characteristics of the research, the format of manuscripts that describe the research and its findings, and modalities for the dissemination of findings from research conducted on the topics of the practitioner-defined research agenda.    

Desired Characteristics of Research 

The desired characteristics of research conducted on the topics of the practitioner-defined research agenda flow from the audience for such research.  Although the scholarly community may constitute one audience, senior student affairs officers and other student affairs professionals comprise the primary audience. 

Some desired characteristics of the research pertain to the design of such studies.  One issue of design centers on the use of theory. Theory may or may not apply to some topics selected for inquiry. Thus, some studies may not by guided by theory if no existing theory pertains to the selected topic.  Of course, if extant theory exists we recommend that it guide the design of the study.  

Reporting Formats  

 Chief student affairs officers and other student affairs professionals are the primary audiences for manuscripts reporting the findings of studies of practitioner-defined research topics. The busy day-to-day world of such practitioners suggest a specific format with four attributes, including the length of the manuscript, the description of the methodologies used, the presentation of findings, and the discussion of the recommendations for practice. 

To be practitioner-friendly, such articles should be as brief as possible without sacrificing information needed to guide practice. For example, research-in-brief articles of the Journal of College Student Development are restricted to a 10-page limit.  Practitioner-friendly should also guide the description of methodologies. For example, an appendix that describes the qualitative and quantitative data analysis procedures and the details of other methodologies could be used.  The description of the institutional setting for the study should recognize that practitioners will likely assess the usefulness of the findings and recommendations of a study if they perceive that the characteristics of their institution bear some similarity to the those in the study.  As a consequence, some details about the characteristics of the institutions selected should be provided that may be more extensive than those provided in traditional research articles. The presentation of findings should highlight the most important findings pertinent to the topic. Recommendations difficult for institutions to be undertaken should be avoided, such as those that require additional institutional resources, or changes in institutional mission or the types of students served.  Moreover, the priority and rationale for the recommendations should also be stated. These two suggestions are based on the reactions of college presidents and chief academic affairs officers of independent colleges to the recommendations offered by higher education scholars on topics relevant to independent institutions (Morphew & Braxton, 2017).

Dissemination of Findings

“Rapid” is what best depicts the dissemination of findings of research conducted on practitioner-defined topics, because the usefulness of the findings and recommendations may depend on their timely dissemination.  Webinars, blogs, magazine articles (in addition to journal articles) and podcasts constitute possible outlets for the rapid dissemination of findings and recommendations. ACPA could sponsor such outlets as an additional benefit to membership.   

The use of rapid dissemination outlets such as webinars, blogs, magazine articles, and podcasts raise a concern about the peer assessment of the research conducted.  New approaches to rapid peer review will need to be developed and promulgated. Webinars, blogs, and podcasts conducted by scholars also raise a question pertinent to the academic reward system.  If scholars are unable to publish their research in a peer reviewed journal how will webinars, blogs, magazine articles, and podcasts receive some weight in faculty personnel decisions such as appointment, reappointment, tenure, promotion and annual salary increases?  In his description of the four domains of scholarship, Boyer (1990) also asserted the need for mediums other than publications to carry some weight in the academic reward system. Schulman and Hutchings (1998) delineate three necessary characteristics for mediums other than publications be labeled scholarship. These indispensable characteristics are: it must be public, amenable to critical appraisal, and be in a form that permits exchange and use by other members of the scholarly community. If the content of a webinar, blog, magazine article, or podcast meet these three criteria then colleges and universities should allocate some weight to them in faculty personnel decisions.

Closing Thoughts  

Pathways from practitioners to scholars and looping back from scholars to practitioners merits serious consideration by the communities of practice of student affairs and its corresponding community of scholars.  Although such pathways currently exist to some degree, we outline ways to enhance them. Enhancement will help practitioners to engage in the most basic level of a scholarship of practice which entails using the findings of empirical research to guide professional practice. Student affairs professionals who engage in this form of scholarship of practice act as more effective stewards for the profession as they safeguard the welfare of both the profession of student affairs and the welfare of students served. 

We close this article by posing the following two reflection questions.

Question One: What are additional ways in which the practitioner-to-scholar pathway can be enhanced to make the research being conducted in and about student affairs more relevant to practitioners?

Question Two:  What are additional ways in which the scholar-to-practitioner pathway can be made more available and accessible to practitioners? 


Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Lawrenceville, NJ: Princeton University Press.  

Braxton, J. M. (2005). Reflections on a scholarship of practice. The Review of Higher Education, 28(2), 285–293.

Braxton, J.M. (2017).  Editor’s notes. In J.M. Braxton (ed). New directions for higher education No. 178, Toward a scholarship of practice (pp.5-8) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Braxton, J. M., Doyle, W. R., Hartley III, H. V., Hirschy, A. S., Jones, W. A., & McLendon, M. K. (2014). Rethinking college student retention. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons. 

Braxton, J.M. & Ream, T.C. (2017).  The scholarship of practice and stewardship of higher education.  In J.M. Braxton (ed). New directions for higher education No. 178, Toward a scholarship of practice (pp.95-102) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Braxton, J.M. & Hossler, D. (in press).  Developing the Two-Way Practitioner-Researcher Loop for Enrollment Management.  Strategic Enrollment Management Quarterly

Kramer, J.W. & Braxton, J.M. (2017).  Contributions of types of professional knowledge by higher education journals.  In J.M. Braxton (ed). New directions for higher education No. 178, Toward a scholarship of practice (pp. 9-20) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Morphew, C.C. & Braxton, J.M. (2017). Trusses and gaps in the bridge from research to practice. In C.C. Morphew and J.M. Braxton (eds).  The challenge of independent colleges: moving research to practice (pp.231-242). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.  

Senior Scholars of ACPA (2016).  Recommendations from the ACPA senior scholars:

Strengthening our role as stewards of scholarship, August 31, 2016. Internal Document.

Shulman, L.S. and Hutchings, P. (1998). About the scholarship of teaching and learning: The Pew national fellowship program. Menlo Park, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 


Practitioner Defined Research Agenda

Race/Racial Justice

  • Impact of intersection of race and other identities on students (e.g., first generation, veteran, disability, sexual orientation)
  • Interactions of race and racism with other systems of oppression to affect learning, personal growth, and other student outcomes
  • Creating effective dialogues about race
  • Examining level, types, and impact of racial bias among faculty and staff
  • Impact of diversity education and training on racial bias
  • Lessons to be learned from MSIs and community colleges relating to campus climate for racial and ethnic minority students
  • Racial and ethnic minorities in STEM fields
  • Identifying and dismantling institutional and organizational structures that oppress and marginalize racial minorities
  • Identifying and shaping more productive ways of interacting across difference


  • Interrogating and dismantling the ways that U.S. and Western European colonial assumptions are embedded in the structures and practices of postsecondary education in the U.S.
  • Examining the effects of colonialism and imperialism on globalization movements in higher education and student affairs
  • Examining level, types, and impact of Western European bias among faculty and staff
  • Effects of the use of indigenous imagery (e.g., mascots) by non-Native institutions on perceptions of campus climate for indigenous students
  • Lessons to be learned from Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) specifically with regard to incorporation of indigenous knowledge systems
  • Relationship between race, nation, and colonialism in identity articulation and meaning-making among both indigenous and racially minoritized students

Diversity and Social Justice

  • Exploring the balance of freedom of expression with culture of care/expressed values
  • Identifying structures that oppress/marginalize and determining strategies to dismantle such structures
  • The degree to which student affairs’ role is advocacy or education or both
  • Impact of an increasingly diverse society and workforce on student affairs work
  • The need to teach not only American diversity but also global diversity
  • How to balance support of students with responsibility to institution
  • Assessing the impact of spaces on campus designed to support varying identities
  • Understanding and addressing the achievement gap

Each of the following categories and sub-topics can be considered through the lens of the Racial Justice Imperative. Questions to consider:

  • How do racial disparities on campus impact the research topics listed below?
  • How might student affairs address racial disparities in each of these areas?
  • What are the ways in which racial disparities and/or injustices play out within particular topic areas?

Student Demographics

  • Identifying and serving first generation college students, students with mental health concerns, low income students (e.g., impact of food insecurity, homelessness, housing insecurity), undocumented students, LGBTQ students, international students, part-time students, on-line students, veterans, community college students
  • Understanding the issues faced by students with multiple, minoritized identities
  • Understanding the impact of continuing changes in demographics
  • Exploring graduate student development
  • The role of student affairs at institutions designated as HBCU, HSI, MSI, TCU, and Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institutions, etc.

Safety and security

  • Understanding and eliminating rape culture and sexual assault
  • Best ways to prevent sexual violence and support students who experience trauma
  • Understanding the role of athletics, Greek life, and other institutional contexts on rape culture
  • The effect of increased compliance related to sexual violence on behavior
  • Balance between security procedures and practices, and an open community, such as in the case of controversial speakers
  • Impact of the hostile messages from governmental leaders and how they manifest on college campuses
  • Serving students while meeting expectations of regulations
  • Emergency management and response as a growing area of focus on campuses
  • Concealed/Open Carry (and impact of such legislation on campus)
  • Implications of immigration policy, undocumented students, sanctuary campuses
  • Links between behavioral intervention, bias response, and crisis response teams

Impact and Value of Student Affairs on Student success

  • Exploring and understanding differential rates of success by subpopulations
  • Identifying effective ways of improving retention and completion rates within the realities of today’s higher education context
  • Measuring and assessing student engagement and how the various forms of engagement relate to outcomes
  • Role, impact, and ethical use of predictive analytics
  • Demonstrating impact of student affairs on success
  • How best to track and understand persistence across institutions (not just within an institution)
  • Better understanding and improving transfer student success – time to degree, rate of transfer
  • Designing for equity and justice and investigating the effects of designing for equity and justice on student satisfaction, perceptions of climate, on student satisfaction, and perceptions of climate.
  • Identifying new ways to measure student learning outside the classroom
  • Impact of the personalization of the student experience
  • Identifying students who are not engaged and determining what, if anything, can be done

Changing Nature of Work in Higher Education

  • Impact of students’ increasingly complex lives on the educational process
  • The education or training that is actually needed to do the work in student affairs
  • Competency based education and the implications for the co-curriculum
  • Impact of technology-enabled education
  • Impact of the compliance burden
  • Exploring relative effectiveness of student affairs structures, such as functional areas versus generalization of practice
  • Development and fundraising in student affairs
  • Rise in one-stop shop models of service and impact on meeting student needs
  • How the marketplace and job projections inform the mix of curriculum and co-curricular offerings
  • Use of alternative means of demonstrating what students learned (e.g., badges, certificates, co-curricular transcripts)


  • Impact on engagement
  • Impact on community development
  • Impact on student development (e.g., delaying separation from parents/family; digital identity development)
  • Technological applications to enhance student affairs work


  • Recruiting and serving low income/high ability students
  • Challenges related to affordability
  • Short- and long-term institutional strategies to reach prospective students
  • How to attract and serve students representing evolving demographics (ages, races, documented status, income level, campus or distance, students with some credits but no degree, etc.)
  • Financing higher education for a more economically diverse student body
  • Funding models for public and private higher education
  • The sustainability of having students pay an increasing percentage of their education
  • How to diversify funding streams
  • Impact of student debt on recruitment, enrollment, and alumni engagement

Changing Government and Public Roles and Expectations Relative to Higher Education

  • Impact of decreased state funding
  • Impact of increased compliance burdens
  • Effect of laws on campus (concealed carry, financial literacy, civic education, etc.)
  • Many more external groups are asserting expectations about higher education (legislatures, employers, parents, think tanks, etc.)
  • Exploring the role of postsecondary institutions in broader societal issues related to equity and justice.
  • Impact of seeing education as a commodity
  • Impact of increasingly intrusive media/social media
  • State/Federal policy impact on MSIs
  • Exploring how we can demonstrate both the private good outcomes AND the public good outcomes
  • Understanding and addressing the decline in the public’s confidence in higher education