Student Affairs “Shadow Curriculum” Undermines Higher Education

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

The blurring of academic and social skills is reshaping university and college curricula as higher education institutions across the country place increasing importance on student affairs programs to enhance students’ personal growth and well-being. As Martha McCaughey and Scott Welsh write in a November 2021 article for Academe Blog, one concern is that student affairs—the term used to refer to a variety of  campus programs that support both the academic and personal development of individuals attending college or university—amounts to a “shadow curriculum” that blurs boundaries between students’ academic success and their broader lives. With student affairs programming “creeping into the traditional curriculum” without vetting by faculty, “the faculty’s authority in educational decision-making” is challenged, thus “undermining the spirit of inquiry” that is a hallmark of higher education, McCaughey and Welsh write.

According to NASPA, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, student affairs is “a critical component of the higher education experience,” helping students “begin a lifetime journey of growth and self-exploration.”

Acknowledging the value of that work, McCaughey and Welsh raise concerns: “[W]hen such training takes on the guise of anything more than helpful orientation to college or university life, students get mixed messages about what the mission of higher education truly is.” Their concerns involve the ultimate purpose of higher education. “ The mission of the university,” McCaughey and Welsh write, “is educational and disciplinary, not activist  or moral, and only the faculty has the expertise to carry out that mission.” By drawing attention to the “shadow curriculum” introduced by student affairs programs, McCaughey and Welsh aim to encourage “faculty, staff, and administrators alike” to “begin a process of renewing their commitment to the fundamental, academic, disciplinary purpose of higher education.”

Corporate news to date has failed to acknowledge the pervasiveness of student affairs operations in developing what McCaughey and Welsh describe as a “shadow curriculum” in higher education. Instead, most news coverage on this topic stems from university press releases, which  mainly outline the achievements of a specific campus’s student affairs programs. The concerns raised by McCaughey and Welsh have not received more substantial attention outside of academic-oriented publications.

Source: Martha McCaughey and Scott Welsh, “Performing versus Supporting the Educational Mission of Colleges and Universities,” Academe Blog, November 4, 2021.

Student Researchers: Brenden Glynn, Viviana Sebastiano, and Sky Quiros (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)