Top 5 nationwide

Students working with a faculty member in an SAA class.From left, Jörg Vianden, associate professor of SAA and department chair, Kaylie Connaughty and Adam Szalacinski during an SAA program class in 2016. Connaughty now works in UWL Admissions.

Student Affairs Administration program earns high marks from

UW-La Crosse’s Student Affairs Administration program is one of the top five online master’s in higher education programs in the country, according to

Programs were ranked based on academic outcomes, affordability, and the breadth and depth of online learning opportunities.

UWL’s Student Affairs Administration Department offers master’s and doctoral degrees in SAA — a field that prepares students to work in student affairs positions at colleges and universities.

The program provides flexibility to students. Students can take the master’s program face-to-face or online — or a combination of the two, explains Jörg Vianden, associate professor of SAA and chair of the department.

Headshot of Kathy Thoen

Kathy Thoen, ’16, SAA program student, says she’ll graduate from the program in May 2019, the same time her oldest son graduates from high school. She likes that faculty in the program are approachable and responsive.

That online flexibility was particularly important to SAA program student Kathy Thoen, who earned a bachelor’s degree from UWL in December 2016. A mother of three, Thoen started the SAA program in May.

“The fact that I can do it online works well with my life schedule,” she says. “I can do it when I’m available — after baseball games at 9 p.m. at night.”

Thoen has spent the last 20 years working in higher education. At UWL, she has worked for eight different UWL departments or programs in positions from academic department associate to a veterans certifying official. She wanted to continue for an SAA master’s degree because she enjoys interaction with college students. She wants to show them that college is attainable even in challenging situations. She completed her undergraduate degree at UWL while managing full-time work and raising her three boys. When she applied for the SAA program, she knew completing a master’s degree would likely be even more challenging.

“Coming into a graduate program later in life with so many things going on, you think, ‘Did I make the right decision?,’” she says. “But from day one, the encouragement from faculty helped me see that it is possible, and that we are all here for a reason.”

Students working together at a table in an SAA class.

Students in a 2016 SAA program class. From left clockwise around the table, Charles Martin-Stanley II, facing camera; Megan Britt, now in UWL Residence Life; Meng Vang; Andrew Ives, now in UWL Student Life, and Maggie McConville.

Work in higher ed while learning about it

The online SAA program participants like Thoen either work as full-time higher education professionals or in graduate assistantship-type positions. Thoen works full time — splitting her time as an ADA for both the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department and the Ethnic and Racial Studies Department. She says having the support of these campus offices has also been important. “Without their support, it would be hard to balance my job and home,” she says.

SAA student Jessica Baran says the online program has allowed her to continue her professional role as an undergraduate services specialist in the Chemistry Department at UW-Madison, and, therefore, earn a steady income while in school.

Many of the program’s online students are working in higher education full-time already, which means they can bring real-life examples into any conversation, says Tori Svoboda, assistant professor of SAA. Also, she and other faculty in the program can tailor assignments to fit with students’ professional experiences, she says.  For example, online students in Svoboda’s classes have created:

  • conference program proposals that they later submitted and had accepted at regional and national conferences;
  • grant proposals they later submitted and had approved for funding new programs or initiatives;
  • personnel recruiting, training, and performance improvement plans they adopted in their hiring of student leaders;
  • recordings of their work in action (advising, supervising, presenting, or facilitating), which is submitted for peer review and feedback;
  • book club reading guides that were later used by their division of student affairs for the professional development for all employees for the year;
  • training materials for academic advisors, resident assistants, and faculty advisors that were later adopted by their campus.

A teleconference with students from UW-River Falls during the SAA blended online and on-campus program.

What an online classroom is really like

The SAA program enrolled its first online cohort in 2007, when less than five percent of graduate programs in student affairs offered online options. Former chairs, Chris Bakkum and Jodie Rindt, were both responsible for starting that innovative online option. In 2014, more than 25 percent of programs offered online options, and that number continues to grow, says Svoboda.

“We remain among the top because we learn from experience, listen to our students, and adapt with them over time,” she says.

When Baran started the program in May she worried that online educational quality wouldn’t be as high as face-to-face classes. She confirms today that she had no reason to worry.

“I’ve found that every one of my peers is incredibly engaged in the online discussions, and we’ve been able to create dialogues regarding student affairs that I learn so much from,” she says. “The instructors have been great in encouraging these open discussions, and have added helpful information to these dialogues as well. I definitely feel I’m getting a quality education in this online program!”

Creating personal interactions between the student and the instructor, as well as between the students themselves, is key to the success of the program, says Svoboda, who teaches on-campus, online and blended courses at UWL and UW-River Falls.

“I create weekly videos so students can hear and see me, and encourage them to interact beyond the standard text-based discussions,” says Svoboda. “Many of our online graduates know me better than our on-campus students, because they see me as a human with a life outside the classroom, foibles and all.”

About half of the SAA program instructors work in student affairs positions at UWL and share their real-world university working experience. Learn more about the faculty.

Vianden worked in residence life at four different universities for 11 years before he started teaching in the SAA program. He enjoys sharing theories with students related to areas such as growth and human development — ideas that they will put into practice in their future careers.

Thoen likes that the program is helping her be a life-long learner while serving others.

“I find it rewarding to help students pursue their education using all of my experiences on campus,” she says.

A study: learning student affairs online

Nearly a decade ago, a bias existed against online graduate education in student affairs. About 40 percent of employers said they would not hire a graduate of an online program and 80 percent of employers said they believed student affairs professionals needed an in-person graduate school experience (Connelly & Diepenbrock, 2011).

Tori Svoboda completed a follow-up study in 2015-16 that found 80 percent of program directors surveyed agreed that student affairs professionals needed an in-person graduate school experience.

However, upon interviewing faculty and program directors, Svoboda’s study found that those who were opposed to online learning also assumed that online and in-person were incompatible.  They had not seen virtual rooms in online courses, which she says function a bit like GoogleHangout or FaceTime. They had not thought of the incredible technologies available to build community, connect with students, and connect with the larger world.

Svoboda’s study was funded in part by a grant from ACPA: College Student Educators International.

Fast facts about UWL’s SAA program

History: Oldest graduate program at UWL (Founded in the late 1960s)

Total enrollment: 85 students

Online, blended and face-to-face options: About 2/3 of students take the program online

Partnerships: UWL partners with UW-River Falls to offer the blended online format and with several other UW institutions to offer the online format. Svoboda says one of the major benefits of the program is its partnerships. Students have access to students at different institutions, who can teach them how things are done elsewhere.

Doctoral degree option: The first cohort of SAA doctoral students started in May. This option is offered online.

Assistantships are available for all three program options: Vianden says one of the challenges for the program is the financial need of students, which is often greater than the stipend that covers tuition for students completing assistantships.

Strong reputation: Svoboda says she was drawn to UWL’s program because of its long history of being a well-regarded practitioner-centered program. “In the twenty years I spent as a student affairs administrator prior to joining the SAA faculty, I hired and worked with many graduates from the program; each one was impressive and each one spoke highly of their online or in-person graduate education at UWL.”

View the ranking.