I have been attending higher education conferences for 20 years and have seen some important changes. When I entered the field, most of the research presented focused on four-year elite institutions, diversity and equity issues were rarely raised, policy was a marginal issue – particularly more applied issues, and certain areas of research were more dominant particularly administrative and management issues.
As I look at the field and its conferences today, research now examines a plethora of institutional types including community colleges, historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic serving institutions and tribal colleges. Issues of equity and diversity are quite prevalent if not dominant within the field now. These are two really important advances that I’ve seen in the field. However, even as we have become more inclusive of institutional types and the types of individuals studied, our field still is hindered by some fundamental problems that often make the research suffer in sophistication and importance.
Perhaps one of the most significant problems can be seen in the categories or focus of research. Well over half of the proposals submitted to both AERA Division J, as well as ASHE, focus on students (both development and outcomes). This might seem natural since our institutions are established for students and the focus of our mission is teaching and learning among students. Yet to better support students we must understand policy, finances, teaching and learning strategies, governance and decision-making, faculty, staff, and administrators, institutional culture, technology, state and federal systems, and stakeholder groups like accreditation, policymakers, and disciplinary societies, among many other issues that shape the lives of students and the enterprise or system of higher education.
What is largely missing from our field is a broader systems perspective. Certainly psychologically oriented studies that examine development are critical to the life of our field, but the overabundance and focus takes away from these other many important areas. And maybe part of the problem is access to problems of study. Students are accessible and many of these other systems and groups are less accessible and challenging to study in the rush to finish a dissertation or obtain tenure. Administrative and management issues that once dominated higher education conferences are now the smallest number of sessions and a decreasing area of research. There are also few papers focused on finance, policy, legal issues, history, social context, and foundations, and even the area of teaching and learning so central to the mission of our institutions. Our field cannot thrive without robust research that crosses these many critical areas that shape this broader system.
While there may be more positions and jobs within the student affairs area within our field, that doesn’t mean that studies of students might not be framed with these larger system factors in mind. Additionally, one can be seen as doing research in service of students by examining finance or administrative issues that have a bearing on students and their success. It is certainly conceivable that the focus of the field is driven by where jobs are, as well as scholars being sincerely interested in the student experience. But I hope to challenge the increasing dominance of one issue and one framing to have scholars consider more approaches and topics.
Another issue of concern within the field is the relevancy or importance of topics that are presented. In a recent survey of our own profession, 70% of respondents noted that they felt that proposals reviewed were not particularly important or relevant. That is an extremely high number and suggests a problem in terms of the value of the research that we are conducting. If one were to compare the topics listed as priorities by college presidents or boards, accounts in the media, policymakers or public’s concerns to the topics presented at higher education conferences -- there would be very little overlap. Key issues like technology, internationalization, for-profit institutions, as well as other new emerging institutional types, affordability, economic or political trends affecting higher education regulations and legal issues, etc. are rarely the focus in our research. Maybe there is a lag between practice and research, but the gap seems too large.
And then there are times when we are studying key issues such as retention and completion, access to higher education, and diversity and equity issues that are part of the public policy agenda. Our field has been responsive to some of the key concerns that exist among the public and policymakers. And this problem-based and significant research should be encouraged. Yet, we often continue to conduct studies and repeat findings that are not advancing an area. The issue of access to higher education is an example of an area that has been delved into deeply and is bearing much less fruit at this point in time. These areas of research could be meaningfully improved with more meta-analysis of the many existing studies. Also, examining gaps in our understanding within these well-trod areas is key. A few researchers are taking new directions such as looking at how public policy can enhance access. More work in this area should be encouraged.
What do I suggest can be done? As discussants at conferences, we can help scholars see the connection between their work and the broader system or enterprise and suggest broader framing. As advisors, we can encourage different topics. Students may overwhelming want to study the student experience, but we can explain why that may not serve the field or the students they care about. As a collective, we can routinely ask, what kind of research are we doing and ask if we are ignoring key topics. And, this advice is personal to me. There are topics I wanted to study, that interested me that I have not pursued because there was a glut of research in that area and instead I focused on topics where no one else was doing research because that is what was needed. I certainly would not ask others to do something I was myself not willing to do. But this direction is what is right for the field as a whole and the higher education enterprise we hope to improve, to understand, and to critique.