Choosing Graduate School Programs for Student Affairs


Student Affairs Graduate Programs

Many of our readers are looking for advice and information related to chosing the best graduate programs for student affairs and higher education (SAHE). Here are some questions you should consider and seek answers for when searching for SAHE graduate programs:

1. Why Am I Seeking the Degree? First and foremost, you need to establish why you are seeking a master’s degree. Is it simply an ends to a means for your career path? Are you looking to become a professor or a student affairs professional? Are you searching for an graduate assistantship that will give you direct work experience? Answering these questions should lead you to the type of program that will help you to accomplish your specific goals.

2. What Is the Program’s Emphasis? Different institutions offer different programs with a whole host of varied courses. Take time to look at the course of study for the programs you are considering. Because there is no specific credentialing or licensure required to be a student affairs professional like there is to become a doctor, psychologist, or social worker, you have the ability to select from multiple programs that will lead you to employment in student affairs. Here are some examples of graduate programs that are applicable to working in student affairs:

  • Higher Education Administration
  • College Student Personnel
  • Counselor Education
  • International Education
  • Policy Studies
  • Student Affairs
  • Leadership Studies
  • Educational Psychology
  • Human Development / Psychology
  • Mental Health Counseling

Keep in mind that none of these programs actually teach you how to perform the duties of every type of student affairs position that is out there (e.g., resident director, academic advisor, student activities coordinator, etc.) Rather, the curriculum will enable you to become a student affairs generalist and understand the issues surrounding higher education and working with students.

3. Are Assistantships Available? If you have the ability to get your degree paid for and gain some practical experience in the process, apply for graduate assistantships. In many cases, paid assistantships may not have anything at all to do with the actual academic program, and you may have to interview separately for both the academic program and the assistantship respectively.

For example, I was in a mental health counseling program (M.S.), but had an assistantship in the university’s student activities department. I received tution remission, a stipend, housing, and a meal plan from student activities. Outside of the department paying for my tuition, my assistantship and my program were not connected in any way academically. However, there are other cases in which an assistantship directly relates to the curriculum, particularly if there are administrators teaching in the program from the departments that are funding the graduate assistantships. Simply ask if there is a direct link between the assistantship and the academic program.

4. What Are the Faculty’s Research Interests? The research agendas of the program’s professors will tell you a lot about what the program values. Additionally, take notice of the publications in which the professor’s works are published. If your interests lie in ACPA and NASPA, you’ll want to see if the department’s faculty are published in the Journal of College Student Development and the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. If faculty are publishing in journals and books that are outside of the purview of student affairs, you may want to shop around for another program as it may be indicative that the vision of the program may not appeal to your interests.

5. Are Faculty Involved in Professional Organizations? Similar to #4, see if faculty are involved in regional and national student affairs and higher education professional organizations, such as ACPA and NASPA. In some cases, students will be able to work on research and co-present with faculty at these conferences, which can be very rewarding. If faculty are not involved in these types of organizations (outside of purely financial reasons as they may not be able to attend), you may want to consider another program.

6. Can I Attend While Working Full-Time? Some departments are less “part-time friendly” than others. In other words, some programs are specifically designed and intended for traditional full-time cohorts (a group of students starting and graduating on the same schedule). Other programs offer classes in the evenings and also on weekends. Furthermore, some graduate programs are completely offered online. Weigh various options if you must work while earning your degree.

7. Is it an Online Program? There are many HESA-related programs that are offered online. If the degree is an ends to a means for you for simply getting a job or you already have a job and need it to advance, an online program may appeal to you. Understand, however, that online programs can be as expensive, if not more, than traditional “bricks-and-mortar” (on-campus) programs. While I personally do not recommend online programs for student affairs because of the loss of opportunities to network, attend conferences, and participate in other departmental activities, online programs are a viable option for those who are geographically limited or have other circumstances that prevent attending a traditional program.

8. Is There an Option to Continue onto the Doctorate? You may be able to kill two birds with one stone if you can be admitted into a program that will allow you to apply most, if not all, of your master’s coursework toward earning a doctorate. This is something that you will have to research and ask about up front when applying to various programs. If you have any intentions on continuing to earn a doctorate, this is a great strategy to use.  

9. Is the Program Endorsed by ACPA, NASPA, and Conforms to CAS Standards? Both ACPA and NASPA list top programs around the country that are searchable. Programs that have their endorsement are typically the ones that you should concentrate on. Additionally, the Council for the Advancement of Standard in Higher Education (CAS) define standards for “Masters-Level Student Affairs Professional Preparation Programs.” Be sure to ask contacts at the programs for which you intend to apply if they adhere to the CAS Standards. It’s a red flag if they do not follow these standards or simply do not know what you are talking about (rest assured that this should be very rare though).

10. What is the Best Program for Student Affairs? While the U.S. News and World Report lists the top graduate programs for education, only you can determine what program is the best one for you. No one particular program is going to better prepare you or make you more marketable in the student affairs field than any of the others. Take your time to research different programs, visit these institutions if possible, and ask a lot of questions. Additionally, talk to graduates from various programs and administrators that you may know to get their perspectives about the programs that they have attended.

For further information:

Student Affairs & Graduate School: A Brief “How-To”

7 Secrets I Learned On My Way to Earning a Doctorate

Advantages and Pitfalls of Online Doctoral Programs

Selecting A Student Affairs Graduate Program

* Photo Courtesy of Irum Shahid

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