Stressed graduate student at their laptop with head in handsAmong the many mindless mythologies about graduate and professional students is the notion that they are just older (or, worse, “grown up”) versions of undergraduates. A parallel, but opposite, conceit is that graduate students need little or no support, because they have somehow figured it all out. The consequence of either of these misperceptions is the same: we don’t have to worry about graduate students, because they either don’t need anything or will take care of whatever they need by themselves, without any assistance or intervention. This suggests, strangely, that student development somehow ends with a bachelor’s degree.

Nonetheless, it is often true in universities with graduate and professional schools that the student affairs division focuses primarily, if not exclusively, on undergraduates.

Just recently (though slowly, and by no means everywhere), graduate students—who make up as much as half the student body on some campuses—have begun to warrant more attention and concern.

We have seen other instances of this before; there is a common pattern. Observers of the informal, poorly documented history of student affairs have long noted a series of ironic “discoveries” along the pathway to the present. In each case, the presence of a group, or category, of students preceded the discovery and recognition of that group—and therefore any response to the particular needs of those students—by some years. In non-linear succession, universities discovered that they had women students, commuter students, transfer students, students from under-represented and marginalized communities, international students, students who are parents or veterans, students who have disabilities, first generation students, LGBTQ+ students, students with limited income or unmet basic needs, neurodivergent students, and more. Over time, institutions eventually created positions, offices, and programs to support students in many or most of those categories. The speed, depth, and willingness with which they have done so (and/or are still doing so, or not) varies according to the influence of a long list of cultural, social, political, and economic factors—sometimes, but not always, including ethical and humane considerations.

The gradual dawning of an understanding that the identity “student” does not automatically include any other identity (i.e., that people with any identity might be students) is now driving greater acknowledgment that “student development” does not occur linearly, on some singular trajectory, or the same way for everyone.

Accordingly, the idea that there is some universal student development theory or process that applies to everybody is neither defensible or sustainable. That is not to say that some phases, stages, milestones, or outcomes in students’ personal and academic growth and development are not commonly observed across many categories of students; it is to say, however, that the realization, pacing, and sequencing of development is strongly influenced by context, framed within cultures, and experienced differently at the level of the developing human person in relation to the origins, circumstances, and situation of that person. This heterogeneity arises in no small measure from the florid and wonderful intermixing and intersecting of any number and variation of identities in that same person, and from the potential for some or many of those identities to evolve and change over time. As higher education continues to welcome an increasingly unfiltered student population (i.e, one in which exclusions on some demographic, financial, or cultural basis have not been applied), it becomes increasingly accurate to say, “If you’ve met one student, you’ve met one student.”

Into that rich recipe now add graduate and professional identities. It is likely already true that “If you’ve met one graduate student, you’ve met one graduate student,” and it is certainly true that “No matter how many undergraduate students you have met, you have not (yet) met a graduate student.” The facts that graduate students are older, may have their own families, often work to support themselves, have different stage-of-life health and well-being challenges, and are closely engaged with (and often dependent on) faculty mentors are not reasons to dismiss or ignore their needs as still-developing people. The same holds true for students in professional degree programs, where competition, academic stress, and time pressures can complicate relationships and undermine self-care.

It is not unusual for research universities to educate graduate and professional students within a decentralized and school-specific organizational structure; graduate and professional schools (notably law, medicine, and business) often operate nearly independently. Those schools may create their own student services functions, especially in career preparation, and their students’ use of central student affairs functions is commonly limited to health and counseling services. Graduate and professional students who identify as international, LGBTQ+, neurodivergent, or as members of racially minoritized groups, for example, may feel isolated in their schools and academic programs, and the identity and cultural centers on the “main campus” are generally poorly prepared to engage them in meaningful and customized ways. Very few student affairs divisions have any position, office, or function specifically organized to support graduate or professional students. Further, there is seldom any structure for building community among students across different graduate schools and divisions.

Decentralization and school specificity can mislead university administrators—including in student affairs—into assuming that graduate and professional students are somehow being taken care of.

Perhaps especially because those students do access health and counseling services, which may foster the misimpression that they are also aware of, and may be using, other central student affairs offices. But graduate and professional students often find even health and counseling services unsatisfactory in important ways—not only because they perceive those services as being mostly for, and oriented toward, undergraduates, but also because using those services can put them in awkward contact with undergraduates with whom they interact as teaching or research assistants. That potential discomfort encourages some graduate students to seek health and mental health care off campus rather than use university services.

It is therefore not surprising that, where possible and feasible, some graduate and professional schools have begun to hire their own counselors or secure embedded counselors dedicated to their own students from the university’s counseling center. The key factors leading to their doing so are access, specificity, and quality, which in turn reflect two points: first, the realization that student success in graduate and professional school, like student success in undergraduate academic programs, rests on a foundation of health and well-being, and second, that mental health services have to be tailored to meet the specific needs of student populations across the spectrum of their identities.

Being a law, business, or astrophysics graduate student creates a particular slant of experience that is different from that of students in other programs, and mental health, cultural, and other support services have to respond differently as well.

This is not just an argument about the importance of ensuring that students in graduate and professional schools have what they need to be successful, although that is absolutely true. It is, instead, an appeal to the principle of educational equity, and a call for colleges and universities to apply that principle widely and diligently. Similarly, the point is not that all students, regardless of their school or academic program, should have equal access to institutional support services. Instead, the point is that institutions of higher education should ensure that students in all of their academic programs have the particular support they need to learn—and that every student should be able to take full advantage of the educational opportunities provided for them. Telling graduate students that they can use the counseling center “just like everybody else” is not the answer and promises nothing; telling them that counselors who understand their experience are ready to assist them is a very different answer that brings an actual promise.

The road toward educational equity is long.

It leads through the classroom and the laboratory as much as it does through student-facing programs and services. Inclusive teaching is a radical pedagogy that not only sets high standards but empowers students—all students—to achieve them. The object is not competition, or the satisfaction of learning goals on a precise timetable with arbitrary standards. Instead, inclusive teaching springs from commitments to educational equity; it provides both the opportunity and the needed support for students to meet high, well-defined, and clearly articulated expectations. How students demonstrate competency that reflects the learning goals of a course, major, or entire academic program may come to vary when understood through the lenses of inclusion and equity. Too often, academic rigor, challenging requirements, and high standards are encoded ways of demanding competition, rather than collaboration; isolation, rather than community; and perfectionism, rather than meaningful learning. The centrality of grades and rankings generates exclusion, stratifies students into successes and failures, undermines opportunity, and obscures problems in teaching. But differences in preparation are not necessarily differences in capacity and ability.

Inclusive support and services, similarly, is a radical philosophy. It says, simply, that any student, with any identity or combination of identities—graduate or undergraduate, socioeconomically disadvantaged or privileged, first generation or legacy, and regardless of demographic and cultural categories—deserves support as a learner who is a whole human person, and that no student, with any identity or combination of identities, should be abandoned by the institution that accepted and enrolled them. Educational equity is about inclusion and elevation; it is the proverbial rising tide that will float all boats.

Richard P. Keeling, MD, Chairman, wrote this essay for the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) and presented it at their Council of Representatives meeting on April 17, 2023.

Keeling & Associates, LLC is a comprehensive higher education consulting and professional services firm that creates “change for learning” through its strategic planning, consultation, and executive search services across North America. Let’s create change for learning together.