Who Do You Know? The Problem with the HESA Program Pipeline

As mid-March approaches, hopeful future student affairs professionals are waiting anxiously by their phones and emails for those coveted graduate school assistantship spots. It was at this time last year that I was sitting in a statistics class when my phone call came. I felt like Harry Potter receiving his letter to Hogwarts as I cried on the phone with The University of Vermont (UVM) when they offered me a position in Residential Life and tuition remission to their Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration (HESA) program. At the time I would never have predicted that just a year later, I would be on the other side of the UVM HESA admissions process as an intern for HESA academic admissions and interview weekends as a practicum student.

When I selected my practicum for the semester, I was eager to help my program construct a new cohort and help to welcome a diverse class of future student affairs professionals. As a top HESA program, the UVM admissions process is as competitive as it is thorough and lengthy. However, as our application process and interview weekends carried on, I could not help but feel as though our process at UVM was missing something; after meeting the 66 candidates invited on campus, I soon discovered that what we had truly been missing: recruitment.

The UVM HESA program prides itself on a strong commitment to social justice and equity. While this admissions cycle was full of applicants with diverse social identities including: race, social economic, religious, gender, sexualities, abilities, and other marginalized identities, many candidates shared a common narrative of how UVM became a school of interest in their process. Most candidates spoke about knowing or having a mentor who either attended UVM or knew of its prestige. It is no secret to any student affairs professionals that most HESA programs recruit students by networks and often privilege students who have been recommended by alumni. However, this system raises the question of how students with less cultural or social capital are losing within the game of elite HESA graduate admissions.

While UVM attends regional conferences and posts on social media, the system of recruitment truly relies on the alumni. During our annual phone-a-thon we even take the additional step to ask each alumni if they have recently recommended anyone to our program. While our interview days appear to be diverse and a diverse group of students are ultimately selected, each comes to the program with some amount of access and privilege brought by previous experiences. Additionally, applicants with recommendations from alumni often receive a second or closer look. And, while I can understand a program trusting its alumni to recruit students, I question how this process creates a cycle and pipeline of future professionals that is not reaching as broadly as possible.

Within this dominant narrative, students who attend undergraduate institutions with smaller or less renowned student affairs departments lose out on the opportunity to apply and programs like UVM HESA become filled with circular networks. By not recruiting outside of well-established student affairs networks (NASPA/ACPA), programs such as UVM HESA are missing out on an entire population of potential future student affairs professionals. It is even possible that many students do not even consider the profession because of this lack of outreach. While the dominant narrative within the profession is for professionals to promote the field to future students, this also creates a cycle in which only students engaged with student affairs in their undergraduate experiences are identified.

This problem does not however discredit the diverse identities and experiences of the students in programs such as UVM, but does highlight the importance of outreach and recruitment to creating even more diverse cohorts as well as future professionals. Additionally, there exists an interplay between access to type of cultural capital that is valued in these programs recruitment and admissions processes and the various marginalized identities listed above. By embracing recruitment and outreach methods that go beyond the pre-existing professional networks, programs such as UVM HESA are opening themselves up to an even more equitable process.

Having lived through a HESA admissions process my recommendation for graduate programs is to engage in more active and affirmative recruitment outside the pipelines to careers in student affairs that already exist (e.g. attending general graduate school and job fairs, engaging with undergraduate education departments, building connection with gap year volunteer programs). Additionally, while the system I have laid out is a dominant narrative, the pipeline of networks is not the only way to student affairs and not the story of many current graduate students and UVM alumni. I suggest that programs such as UVM HESA investigate and center students who have found alternative paths to their programs as a mean of creating more affirmative and farther-reaching recruitment models.

The ultimate problem with this pipeline of student affairs is that an entire perspective is missing from my classroom and classrooms across programs each week. What would it look like to hear from students who where not super-star leaders in their undergraduate experiences and perhaps were super-star athletes? By excluding the super-star athlete, for example, we perpetuate an already existing inequitable system that privileges who you know.

Carly Bidner (she/her/hers)

Mount Holyoke College, Class of 2016

University of Vermont, Class of 2018




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