Partnerships with Penn State Law, Student Affairs provide varied degree options

Annemarie Mountz
September 14, 2015

The college experience has undergone a lot of change for undergraduates in the last decade, and Student Affairs professionals have had to adapt in order to keep up and continue to serve students’ out-of-classroom needs. In this ever-changing world, colleges and universities are looking to hire individuals who not only have an understanding of the field of Student Affairs as it currently exists, but also have the skills to assess how it is likely to evolve.

In addition, the education environment has become more complex for administrators, teachers and counselors who increasingly need to navigate legal topics as well as the traditional issues. Educational professionals with an understanding of the law in addition to education have a distinct advantage over those without a legal background. That’s why the partnerships the Penn State College of Education has developed with both Penn State Law and the Division of Student Affairs are so valuable.

“Our partnerships with both the law school and the Division of Student Affairs bring an element of real-life work experience and a focus on practice,” said Gerald LeTendre, head of the College’s Department of Education Policy Studies. “These partnerships help keep us tied better to what our students will be doing with their advanced degrees in the workplace. The real nature of the work they’re going to be doing is made clear, and that’s important for our students.”

The subfield of education law is one of the fastest growing law specialties, according to the American Bar Association.

According to the Law and Education Alliance at Penn State, the field covers issues relating both to K-12 education and higher education, including charter school regulation, faculty employment, curricular policy, school reform and student rights. The partnership cultivates collaboration between the School of Law and College of Education by working with faculty and students in both departments to host speakers, hold seminars and conduct research in education law. It also fosters networking opportunities to help students launch careers in education law.

“Penn State Law and the College of Education offer a joint degree program leading to a juris doctor; and a master of education, a doctor of education, or a doctor of philosophy in higher education,” said Keith Elkin, assistant dean for academic and student affairs and professor of legal skills at Penn State Law.

That allows students to complete their first year of coursework in the law school and then start taking courses in Education Policy Studies (EPS) in their second year, according to LeTendre. Programs could be Educational Leadership, the Higher Education Program or Educational Theory and Policy.

“The basis of the partnership is really the ability of students to share certain credit hours so they can work on their law degree while they’re also working on their degree in EPS,” LeTendre said. Students are able to earn two degrees in a shorter amount of time than if they were to do the law degree separately from the master’s or doctoral degrees.

There’s also the intellectual connection that happens, according to Neal Hutchens, associate professor of higher education and senior research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE).

“We’re really fortunate in that we have people that cross over between legal issues and other issues involving educational policy from K-12 to higher education, and so it really allows a richness of what we can offer students based on our strengths and the strengths that the law school has,’’ Hutchens said. “These intellectual bridges and connections that exist are very beneficial for our students.”

Hutchens has been working with fellow College of Education faculty members Liliana Garces, assistant professor of higher education and CSHE research associate; and Erica Frankenberg, associate professor of education, to further the partnership. “We’ve been the liaisons of sorts at various points for the program,” Hutchens said.

Hutchens, who has degrees in law and higher education, understands firsthand the value of the partnership. “It really intersects nicely with what I do for my scholarship in a way that is not found in higher education programs or in ed policy departments in other places in the country. The partnership is a joint recognition and appreciation of the expertise and the overall excellence of what we have in terms of our department and the law school, and it also allows us to expand beyond that in terms of what our students can do,” he said.

Although structured very differently than the law school partnership, the College’s partnership with Student Affairs benefits students in similar ways. “Students work 20 hours a week in Student Affairs positions within the University, whether it’s with health services or Greek Life or some other University office. They get to have this intense practicum while they’re getting their degree,” said LeTendre.

Students who are enrolled in the master of science in higher education (Student Affairs emphasis) also have an opportunity to explore higher education and student affairs as fields of study, said Dave Guthrie, associate professor of education and co-coordinator of the partnership along with Philip Burlingame, associate vice president for Student Affairs.

“Substantial and significant research occurs while at the same time working in a particular position in which they not only develop and hone professional skills, but also come to understand the relevance and application of research for practice,” Guthrie said.

Burlingame noted that “Penn State’s College Student Affairs Program has had a very strong national reputation for decades and it’s still considered one of the top programs in the country.” He attributed its strength to the evolution in the program over the years.

“We have a more stringent research requirement than any other master’s program that prepares Student Affairs practitioners that I know of,’’ Burlingame said. “That really makes our program distinctive.

“Those of us who are practitioners know that people who go into the Student Affairs profession must now be prepared to make evidence-based decisions, so they have to be able to read and evaluate research articles. They need to be able to understand research methods. They need to be able to conduct their own basic research; to partner with others to conduct more intensive research; to understand the student experience from a more research-based view; and to move away from maybe what had been more traditionally anecdotal ways of making decisions,” he said.

Burlingame said the partnership also benefits Penn State’s Division of Student Affairs. “The opportunity to work with graduate students is invigorating. These students are engaged in learning the latest ideas in student identity theory and they bring those ideas back with them from the classroom into the workplace. Through them and their research, we gain insights that help us better serve our student population.”

Burlingame said a key component of the partnership is the relevance of the work done by the students. He said those involved in the partnership develop a list of pragmatic problems, from which the students select for their required research capstone project.

“This past year, one of the problems was how to provide a viable co-curricular experience in the World Campus environment. The research done by the students has led directly to the creation of a new position, director of student affairs in the World Campus,” Burlingame said.

Student affairs professionals also serve as adjunct faculty in the program, which further integrates theory and practice in both the academic and professional environments. Among those who teach in the program in addition to Burlingame are Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs; Andrea Dowhower, assistant vice president for Student Affairs; Stan Latta, assistant vice president for Housing, Food Services and Residence Life; and Peggy Lorah, director of the Center for Women Students.

“The academic program and the administrative division both are significantly stronger because of the partnership,” Burlingame said. “We are connected to the Center for the Study of Higher Education, and benefit from the research done there. The program benefits from the experience of our staff. And the collaboration keeps both faculty and staff fresh and current, which ultimately is a benefit to everyone.”

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    The Lewis Katz Building on the Penn State campus houses the University's Law School.

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Last Updated April 19, 2017