Students on the quad

Theories by Theme

Additional Reading

To learn more about college student development theory, we recommend the following books:

Coomes, M. D., & Gerda, J. J. (2016). "A long and honorable history": Student Affairs in the United States. [book chapter]. In G. S. McClellan & J. Stringer (Eds.) The Handbook of Student Affairs Administration (4th edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, M. E. (Ed.). (2011). ASHE reader series: College student development theory (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Content and Organization

Aaron Baker, Residence Life and Undergraduate Studies

Ali Martin Scoufield, Office of Title IX

Amanda Thomas, Student Affairs Operations

Annah Mueller, Student Affairs Operations

James Eller, Educational Services for Students

Janice Gerda, Office of Student Affairs

Johanna Smith, Leadership in Higher Education Program at Baldwin Wallace University

Jordan Haidet, Leadership in Higher Education Program at Baldwin Wallace University

Kate Chambers, Leadership in Higher Education Program at Baldwin Wallace University

Molly Watkins, Center for International Affairs

Nina Pettry, Student Affairs Operations


Members of the Student Affairs Assessment Advisory Group

Student Affairs Theories


This is a guide to many of the theories and models that influence the practice of the Division of Student Affairs at Case Western Reserve University.

The theories are organized into lists by theme, with short, easy-to-read descriptions and include citations for further research.

These lists are intended as a starting point for students, faculty, staff, parents, community members, and anyone who is interested in learning about the theories that underpin and guide our work.


Colleges and universities have been places of learning for students for hundreds of years. Over time, individual institutions' organization and structures have changed to adapt each institution to its mission, its era, and its students. In the 19th century, U.S. higher education was characterized by young and residential students, an influx of new types of students such as young women, and a faculty shift to more emphasis on academic research in the German university tradition.

These and other factors combined to spur university leaders to appoint a new category of administrators: those whose primary expertise was student life and learning, and whose primary responsibility was students and their successful college journeys. They focused on making sure that students adapted to college, and colleges adapted to students. For over a century, this group has developed a professional community dedicated to using scholarship and practice to help each and every student thrive in college. Today, these administrators are commonly known as student affairs professionals (Coomes & Gerda, 2016). At CWRU, many of them report to the Division of Student Affairs.

As student affairs in higher education developed, an interdisciplinary body of theory was gathered which guided student affairs administrators in their practice. In keeping up with our ever-changing students, theories have evolved over time and new ones are also added as research continues. Theories used by student affairs are largely derived from developmental psychology, but the work is also heavily influenced by research and thinking from management, cognitive and industrial psychology, counseling, sociology, anthropology, ecology, and other areas of education. There are also many congruences with social work, law, public health, and leadership studies, among others. Since no one theory or conceptual model could ever apply to all of our students, who are diverse in so many ways, student affairs uses a constellation of approaches to understand, describe, anticipate, and catalyze the learning and growth of students while they are members of the CWRU community.

If you, too, are interested in the exciting and pivotal student life experience, we invite you to discuss these ideas with us, and learn how we use them to help students thrive, flourish, and achieve their dreams beyond what they think is possible.

Explore Theories by Theme