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Graduate programs for student services professionals grow more common

Canada lags the U.S., but ‘exciting’ changes are taking place.


Student affairs professionals toil quietly in the shadows of the academy but the services they provide – everything from financial aid to student housing – are vital to university life. As the profession continues to evolve, more student affairs practitioners are looking for graduate education opportunities, and Canadian universities are introducing new master’s and doctoral programs to suit their needs.

“It’s very exciting to watch this roll out and see how far we have come in a decade,” said Donna Hardy Cox at the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services annual conference held this past summer. Dr. Hardy Cox, a professor of social work (cross-appointed with education) at Memorial University, said that several new graduate programs have been introduced in recent years, even though the field is still in its infancy in Canada.

Tony Chambers, associate professor of higher education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said universities are increasingly requiring graduate-degree credentials of prospective student affairs employees. Until recently, those who wanted to pursue graduate studies looked to the United States, with its many degree offerings as well as an entrenched body of academic literature. “The field is quite old in the U.S.,” Dr. Chambers said. In Canada, it is a comparatively young discipline and traditionally has been seen “as something that is a bit auxiliary to the central mission of the institution,” he added, perhaps because Canada’s higher education system has its roots in the British tradition.

But things are changing. OISE plans to introduce next fall a new master’s of education degree with a specialization in student affairs and student development. OISE already offers several master’s courses geared to student services practitioners, and the new degree will bring the courses together for those who want to enter the field as well as for seasoned professionals looking to advance in their careers.

Peggy Patterson, professor of higher education leadership at the University of Calgary, said the drive to professionalize student services is gaining ground partly because of the renewed emphasis on learning outcomes and student assessments like the National Survey of Student Engagement. “As governments get more involved in saying ‘these are the outcomes that we expect from postsecondary education,’ the focus has become much more on learners and what they are learning from their experiences in postsecondary.” Typically this comes under the purview of student services, she said.

Increased competition for students among institutions is also driving the trend. Moreover, a graduate degree is important for people who aspire to senior administrative roles in student affairs. “They need to be at the table as equals with their academic colleagues,” Dr. Patterson explained.

Memorial’s Dr. Hardy Cox said a graduate degree gives working professionals the foundational knowledge they need to be more effective in their work. Dr. Hardy Cox is co-editor of Achieving Student Success: Effective Student Services in Canadian Higher Education, one of the few Canadian books about the field.

Many graduate degrees in student services are offered part-time and online to accommodate the needs of working professionals. Programs typically cover student development theory, organizational theory, and governance and leadership. Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus introduced in 2010 a master’s of education in educational leadership with a specialization in student affairs and services, with courses offered on weekends and during the summer. Candidates often require several years of experience to qualify. The program’s 20 students come from diverse areas within student services, and their work experience ranges from two to 20 years, said Michelle Pidgeon, assistant professor of education.

Memorial was among the first to offer a program in the field, in 1998. Its master’s of education in postsecondary studies with a specialization in student services is offered online. Others, including the University of Calgary and University of British Columbia, have more general master’s and doctoral degrees in higher education. Toronto’s Seneca College offers an online certificate in student affairs and services.

The field of student services has become more varied in recent years, with more than 25 sub-specialties, including admissions, counseling, financial aid, housing and health care. Some who work in the field are members of regulated professions such as nursing and law, while others have varied educational backgrounds.

A survey of Canadian student affairs staff members conducted last year by Dr. Hardy Cox and other researchers showed 87 percent of respondents held a bachelor’s degree, 42 percent had a master’s and about four percent a doctorate. At the undergraduate level, more than half of respondents held a BA; at the master’s level, almost half had completed the degree in a faculty of education. Most respondents were female and the largest proportion, 20.5 percent, worked in enrolment management.

SFU’s Dr. Pidgeon said she doesn’t foresee a day when everyone in the field will need to have a graduate degree in student affairs. But, as the discipline continues to evolve, she predicted that Canada will develop its own body of academic literature. “I think what you are going to see emerging out of Canada is more scholarship,” she said.

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  1. Jennifer Hamilton / January 10, 2012 at 09:43

    The Canadian Association of College and University Student Services now has a listing of all graduate and certifcate programs in Canada on our website at under the “Resources” section.

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