Volume 81 | Issue 1
January 2013

Student Development Theory Series: A Review of Foundational Concepts

Kristen A. Renn

In higher education and student affairs graduate programs across the United States, faculty members emphasize a “theory to practice” approach to preparing new professionals to work in college unions and other functional areas in student affairs and services. New professionals begin their careers full of ideals and ideas, which typically become more realistic once enriched with the knowledge of full-time work in the field. Abstract ideas about holistic student development transform into plans for facilities, ThoeryCC programs, and services to build leadership and sustain diverse communities. At the same time, many new graduates’ plans to stay current in the latest literature fall by the wayside as the realities of work and life set in. After five or eight or 15 years working in the field after graduate school, many mid-career professionals begin to feel that their knowledge is out of date. They feel like they hardly share a common intellectual vocabulary with their new colleagues fresh out of graduate school.

This year, The Bulletin will address this gap with a series of essays that review enduring student development “classics” and introduce some of the newer ideas circulating among student development and student affairs researchers and faculty. Scholars and practitioner-scholars have been enlisted to write essays on theories related to self-authorship, ecological approaches to student development, leadership development, identity development of “new” populations in higher education, and intersections of identities (for example, race, gender, faith, and/or sexual orientation) in student development. The goal of this series is to provide accessible, current theories that college union professionals at any career stage—from new graduate student to director—can use in practice. Each issue of The Bulletin will feature an essay; and in December 2013, ACUI will publish a companion resource guide that includes material for applying theory to practice.

To get started, it makes sense to review some foundational concepts in student development theory that have persisted over time. In his 1966 book The American College, Nevitt Sanford introduced the concepts of challenge and support. He posited that to learn and develop, students need a balance of challenge and support. Too much challenge leads to paralysis and retreat; too much support leads to complacency and lack of growth. What challenges (or supports) one student or one group of students may be different from what challenges (or supports) others. Leadership, campus employment, and campus activities are all potential locations for providing students with these two key elements for learning and development.

Another enduring concept comes from the work of Alexander Astin. In a 1984 Journal of College Student Development article titled “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education,” Astin described the role of involvement in promoting student learning and development. Campus union professionals often operate implicitly or explicitly from this principle, understanding that the quality and quantity of students’ involvement on campus relates to the amount that they will learn, to their overall satisfaction in college, and to the likelihood that they will persist in higher education. Indeed, creating physical, intellectual, psychological, and community spaces for involvement is at the core of the college union philosophy. Lots has changed in higher education since Sanford and Astin introduced these ideas, but challenge, support, and involvement remain significant when thinking about how to promote student learning and development.

Holistic student development is another foundational concept. It is important to consider a student’s intellectual, professional, personal, interpersonal, physical, spiritual, multicultural, and emotional development. The 1937 and 1949 iterations of the American Council on Education’s Student Personnel Point of View focused on holistic development. Although the burgeoning student identity development literature of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s provided critical knowledge about under-studied populations in higher education, recent theories have brought the cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (psychosocial) elements of student development back into a holistic frame.

Challenge and support, in combination with involvement and a holistic perspective, form the basis for “classic” student development theories that have been in circulation for decades and for theories that have emerged more recently. They align easily with contemporary union philosophy rearticulated in the 2012 edition of The College Union Idea. Unions are places where professionals create purposeful environments that promote leadership, citizenship, and cultural competence in students while building community among diverse campus constituents. When student leaders and student employees encounter challenges, professionals have opportunities to provide support. The curriculum of the union is enacted through involving students in the activities of managing the union and leading its programs.

On a day-to-day basis, these three concepts can do much to enhance the work of thoughtful professionals. Of course, knowing and using theories related to specific aspects of student learning and development will even further strengthen professionals’ efforts. During the next year, in The Bulletin and through online learning programs, ACUI will introduce and describe five such aspects: self-authorship, developmental ecology, leadership development, identity development of “new” populations in higher education, and intersections of identities.


RennKristen A. Renn, Ph.D., is a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University. In 1988, she began her career in student affairs as a college union professional. Her research and teaching currently focus on student learning and development, identity development of diverse students, and women’s higher education around the world. Her website is www.msu.edu/~renn and her email is renn@msu.edu.