Unpacking History to Understand the Future of Student Affairs Assessment

Unpacking History to Understand the Future of Student Affairs Assessment

Unpacking History to Understand the Future of Student Affairs Assessment

Sydney Kayne, Blog Team writer and Assessment & Evaluation Analyst at University of Colorado Boulder

For many student affairs divisions across the United States, co-curricular assessment is a practice that feels like it’s still finding its footing. In part, this is because engaging in assessment conjures up hesitation, fear, and indifference among many student affairs professionals. These feelings are often underscored by the idea that student affairs assessment is new, and until incorporated into standard practice, feels a bit like reinventing the wheel.

While there are many myths surrounding assessment, in this piece, we’ll focus on just one: “student affairs assessment is so new.”

It is always useful to have a foundational understanding of a practice’s roots and evolution. We begin here with a quick timeline on student affairs assessment, which is approaching a century-length in time.

  1. A Call for Co-Curricular Assessment (1930s and 1940s): Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, developmental and educational psychology gained quick prominence. During this time, the Student Personnel Point of View released two documents (1937, 1949) that verbalized a need for co-curricular evaluation on both student use and satisfaction of programs (Henning & Bentrim, 2022; Bresciani, 2023).
  2. The Beginnings of Co-Curricular Research (1950s):  By 1950, collecting questionnaire data on student activities and feedback was under way at the secondary level (Tompkins, 1950). Much like assessment today, the purpose of this work was to establish baseline participation rates and initiate new programs based on student feedback. By the mid-1950s, researchers began exploring other relationships with co-curricular participation, such as social status (Gordon, 1957).
  3. Student Attrition, Learning, and Program Evaluation (1960s and 1970s): In the 1960s and 1970s, the call for co-curricular evaluation at the higher education level was received, with federal grants funding program evaluation and student attrition research. This paralleled growth in methodology, with longitudinal studies and quantitative data practices gaining greater regard. Simultaneously, while student development theory and research expanded, researchers began to explore the idea of student learning as a product of program participation. (Henning & Bentrim, 2022; Bresciani, 2023).
  4. Developing Accountability Through Assessment (1980s): During the 1970s, the Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS) called for a greater focus on program accountability. By the beginning of the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Education also published reports that demonstrated a need to provide evidence for program effectiveness (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). This was recognized by universities; by 1981, the University of Texas at Arlington established the first documented assessment office in a student affairs division (Henning & Bentrim, 2022; Bresciani, 2023).
  5. Investigating Growth of Student Affairs Assessment (1990s and 2000s): By the 1990s, higher education professionals gained an interest not only in assessing co-curricular experiences, but investigating the crescendo of student affairs assessment itself. In 1999, Dr. Malaney of the University of Massachusetts Amherst conducted a nationwide survey to understand the scope of student affairs assessment. Findings pointed to 37 centralized offices, mostly housing one full-time professional (Malaney, 1999). Soon enough, other organizations followed suit, such as a NASPA/ACPA collaboration in 2006-2007 and a 2014 SAAL Landscape survey. In the 2014 study, findings pointed to physical growth of offices, but also an expansion of data collection methods (ex. benchmarking, focus groups) and inclusion of learning outcomes (Henning & Bentrim, 2022).
  6. Developing a Culture of Assessment and Equitable Practice (2010s-Present): In the last decade, as more student affairs divisions have incorporated full-time assessment offices, there has been a greater call to research the integration of assessment into organizational culture and everyday practice (Schuh, 2013; Fuller, 2016). Concurrent with this research is that of developing equitable assessment practices and imbedding practices into assessment that support and account for the experiences of an increasingly diverse and global student population (Montenegro & Jankowski, 2017; Henning & Lundquist, 2022; Dyer-Barr et al., 2023).

With high-level knowledge of the evolution of student affairs assessment, we are able to debunk a myth of “newness” and identify how we’ve grown, ideals our work is rooted in, and also, who was left out of this process. While we work towards adopting equitable assessment as our default practice, it is important to look laterally and learn from those who have their own history of assessment (in ways we may not formally recognize).

Per the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), studying evaluation frameworks in tribal colleges, few of those folks include:

  • Maori educator, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who addresses imperialism in Western research and advocates for research agendas that respect “cultural life” (1999).
  • Opaskwayak Cree community psychologist Shawn Wilson, who works to define research as a community practice that would benefit from being accountable towards the ideals of 1) Respect, 2) Reciprocity, and 3) Responsibility (2008).
  • Pasqua First Nation author, Margaret Kovach, who highlights Indigenous approaches to research and evaluation, emphasizing that “knowledge is neither acultural nor apolitical” (2010).

As we skim through the history of student affairs assessment, we may also notice that minority serving institutions (MSIs) have been left out of foundational findings and research. For example, while many publications have studied student affairs assessment, none until 2018 specifically accounted for the HBCU experience (Dixon, 2018; Dixon, 2022; Williams, 2023), resulting in little empirical data on this context. Through the 2018 study, the APyS Framework (Accountable Performance yields Sustainability at HBCUs) was developed in hopes to engender a culture of assessment at HBCUs (Dixon, 2022).

The above outlines few of many overlooked perspectives pertinent to the continual evolvement of student affairs assessment. Others include:

  • Technological Advancements, understanding the impact of AI and other digital tools on assessment practice.
  • Crisis Response, considering how assessment practice shifts and adapts during times such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Student Perspectives, allowing students to inform assessment practice directly.
  • Ethics and Integrity, discussing ethical considerations and maintaining integrity in the assessment process over time.
  • Interdisciplinary Influences, exploring interdisciplinary influences on assessment with the potential for faculty collaboration and/or interdisciplinary theory-testing.
  • Inclusive Assessment, identifying how the field does/does not address diverse needs of students, such as those with accessibility or language barriers.
  • Public Perception and Policy Impact, examining how assessment has influenced policy decisions, and in turn, how public expectations shape assessment priorities.

At its foundation, we see that continuous improvement and accountability are integral to student affairs assessment. Using its history as a guide, we not only bridge knowledge gaps, but can inform a future of assessment that is inclusive, responsive, and attuned to the ever-changing needs of students and the higher education landscape. 



Bresciani, M. J. (2023). A Brief Review of the History of Research and Assessment in Student Affairs. New Realities in the Management of Student Affairs: Emerging Specialist Roles and Structures for Changing Times.

Dixon, K. M. (2018). Exploring a Culture of Assessment in Student Affairs at One Public HBCU (Doctoral dissertation, Grand Canyon University). 

Dixon, K. M., & Spears, B. (2022). Student affairs assessment: Historically Black College and University perspective. New Directions for Student Services, 2022(178-179), 77-86.

Dyer-Barr, R., Baxter, K., & Zamani-Gallaher, E. M. (2023). Equitable Assessment in Community Colleges: A Call for Collaboration and Culturally Responsive Practices. In Reframing Assessment to Center Equity (pp. 250-263). Routledge.

Fuller, M. B., Skidmore, S. T., Bustamante, R. M., & Holzweiss, P. C. (2016). Empirically exploring higher education cultures of assessment. The Review of Higher Education, 39(3), 395-429.

Gordon, W. C. (1957). The Social System of the High School. Glencoe., Illinois: The Free Press.

Henning, G., & Bentrim, E. (2022). The emergence and maturation of student affairs assessment. New Directions for Student Services, 2022, 15–28.

Henning, G., & Lundquist, A. E. (2022). Using assessment to advance equity. New Directions for Student Services, 2022(178-179), 185-194.

Kovach M. (2010). Indigenous methodologies; Characteristics, conversations, and contexts. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Lafrance, J. (n.d.) Indigenous Evaluation & Native Student Success. Indigenous Education Tools.

Malaney, G. (Ed.) (1999). Student affairs research, evaluation, and assessment: Structure for practice in an era of change. New directions for student services, 85. Jossey-Bass.

Montenegro, E., & Jankowski, N. A. (2017). Equity and assessment: Moving towards culturally responsive assessment. Occasional Paper, 29(6), 10-11. 

Schuh, J. H. (2013). Developing a Culture of Assessment in Student Affairs. New Directions for Student Services, 2013(142).

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London (UK): Zed Books Ltd.

Thompkins, E. (1950). Extra-Class Activities for all Students. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education.

Williams, J. L. (2023). Exploring the Role of Institutional Culture in Student Affairs Assessment Practitioners’ Experiences Implementing Equity-Centered Assessment.

Wilson, S. (2008). Research as ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Blackpoint (NS): Fernwood Publishing. 

U.S. Department of Education, National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. U.S. Government Printing Office.

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