Public or Private? Where I found my fit in Residence Life

When it comes to finding your fit in Residence Life, it seems the differences in working at a private or public institution are not often discussed.  Perhaps this stems from a tendency for professionals to stay within a certain institution type throughout their career or maybe it suggests that institution type is not a key factor when searching for the next job.  Whatever the case may be, your institution’s affiliation inevitably informs how you carry out your job and thus, it’s a piece worth considering when finding your fit.  Below I share some insights from my experiences across both institutional types and where and why I found my preference over the past 15 years of my career.

Public School:  Guideline Driven, Students First, Experience is Key

My experience working for public institutions has unearthed some common trends regardless of the state or size of school I was at.  

First, budgets and finances were more often than not hanging on a tight purse string, which made funding efforts for initiatives and programs to involve many (sometimes antiquated) steps outlined by “state guidelines.”  For example, filling out paper forms to demonstrate event attendance, cashing physical checks to provide staff meal money during breaks, and creatively coding expenditures to avoid raising suspicions were all common for me in my public school experience.  In some ways, the state requirements taught staff effective budget management and fiscal responsibility, but it also shaped what we could do for our students with the more exciting or creative ideas usually needing to be scaled down or reimagined for it to be approved by the University.

Second, the perspective on students and their position in the university context often embodied this statement I was taught early on, “students are the purpose of our work, not a distraction from it.”  My time spent in the public sector was often characterized by the student being the central consideration in decisions with involvement from students along the way being a norm.  While this didn’t eliminate instances in which students were unhappy or felt unheard, in the context of a public institution, students were often proactively engaged and involved in planning efforts.  In some ways, they served as a creative solution to the abundant red tape state institutions often find themselves in with the rules and regulations that can impede progress or new approaches.

Third, student learning and development often served as markers of success for initiatives, programs, and so forth.  That is, as administrators, being able to identify learning goals and objectives and demonstrating that students have progressed as a result of an experience were a good sign that the work you were doing or the things that you aimed to do were worth the effort and finances to keep it afloat.  Often, successful experiences involved collaboration with other offices to supplement funding and resources.   And as a result, I found that my public school experience yielded a large network including campus partners and colleagues across the university as our need to creatively manage slim budgets and high demands often resulted in working groups and committees to achieve a goal.

If you are someone who enjoys working creatively and collaboratively, who values empowering students to be active participants in shaping their experience, who can incorporate learning goals and milestones into student-facing initiatives, and who can manage situations with a solution-oriented mindset, then you might find your fit at public colleges or universities.

Private School:  Mission Driven, Brand First, Quality is Key

Like public institutions, some common threads emerged across my experience at private institutions.

First, private institutions are prone to using their mission and purpose to inform how faculty and staff approach their work. The trainings and orientations I experienced as a new staff member dedicated time to explain the institution’s mission and priorities and how I, as well as the office I work in, fit into that.  It helped to contextualize my contribution to the larger university system and to solidify the expectation that we should be working together as faculty and staff toward a collective goal.  I saw this in practice in working groups and meetings where we spent less time determining who was responsible for the task and more time on identifying the best person for the task and how the rest of us could support.  Instead of teamwork being a product of scarce resources, it was a common occurrence in order to provide holistic work.  I found this quite refreshing as everyone who convened together had a share understanding in our responsibility for the student experience.

Second, one of the more interesting revelations I had about working at private schools was that the brand matters just as much, if not more than the students.  As much of my experience was spent in public schools, this felt a bit contrary to my professional upbringing, but I came to realize that what drew the students to the institution and what kept them there was the reputation and the identity of the school and being able to be a part of that legacy.  In essence, by making sure that our efforts embodied and emulated what the institution espoused to be, we created an environment for students that matched their expectations.  When I think back to when I applied to college, there was a distinct difference in the messaging that follows this as well.  For public schools, I remember seeing a lot of imagery and content around being part of a community and being more than just a number to the institution whereas the private schools focused on creating an impact and having a having access to top-notch opportunities.  That is not to suggest that private schools don’t see students as important, but their method to meeting student’s needs in my experience has centered on delivering on their promise as opposed to prioritizing a student-driven experience.

Third, as alluded to prior, a common theme I found when working at a private school was providing a quality experience for the student is paramount.  Quality equated to a few things such as being flexible and understanding of student’s busy schedules, being a part of the solution when problems arise, being timely; transparent; and efficient when conducting student-facing processes and connecting students to opportunities outside of their residential community.  To some extent, it felt as though there was an understanding that students were already learning and developing skills through their academic and extra-curricular activities, and so our role within residence life prioritized students having their needs met efficiently as well as providing opportunities for engagement and leadership as opposed to emphasizing an educational focus on the experiences we offered within the residential community.

If you are someone who seeks a workplace guided by shared values or purpose, who enjoys facilitating meaningful and impactful opportunities for students to engage and connect with the larger community, who values providing a high-caliber experience through effective communication and processes, and who sees their role as a shared responsibility amongst colleagues within the larger institutional landscape, than you might find your fit at private college or universities.

Where I found My Fit

Upon reflecting on my own experience over the past 15 years, I have felt the most challenged, excited, and fulfilled when working for private institutions.  Perhaps this is due to the focus on a shared purpose and high-quality deliverables, maybe it required me to shift my focus approach after doing the same thing for so many years.  Whatever it may be, I can say I never expected my sense of belonging to deviate from the type of school I choose to go to and find employment earlier in life.  While not a comprehensive list of the general differences in institution type, I hope my reflections might add some additional considerations to anyone exploring multiple job prospects and what type of environment might better suit their needs.

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