Make the Most of Your Resources: How to Read CAS Standards

CAS Executive Director Marybeth Drechsler Sharp reflects on her first exposure to CAS materials, and she shares her thoughts on how to maximize using the standards and self-assessment tools.
The first time I recall being handed a tool for using CAS Standards, the document was a mystery to me. I was a new residence hall coordinator, and the resource appeared akin to an evaluation of my own competencies. I could not understand why this "Self-Assessment Guide" asked about so many things I was not able to do in my position, who had decided these items were important, or what utility these criterion measures had in my entry-level role. I remember feeling flustered and frustrated - I was missing the point of professional standards and all the relevant context that should have come with the instrument. Because of that experience, I was prepared to dismiss CAS, standards for practice, and self-assessment.

Not lost on me 15 years later is the irony that my current professional gig is serving as CAS Executive Director. In the intervening years since I first saw that Self-Assessment Guide (SAG), I've gotten to know many of the accomplished professionals, researchers, and experts who shape the standards. Personally, I have had roles in writing CAS Standards, revising the format of the Self-Assessment Guides, preparing CAS materials for publication, affirming our organizational vision and mission, and teaching others how to use the very resources that once baffled me. I've learned several things about the standards and their utility. If I could share a few things with my younger self to help her understand what I now know, I'd start with the following thoughts:

1. CAS Standards do not stand alone.
If you have ever been handed a Xeroxed copy (am I dating myself?) of the standards or a SAG beginning with the mission section, you do not have the complete resource. Period. Each functional area standard, the General Standards, the Learning and Development Domains, and other CAS documents like our Ethical Principles and Characteristics of Individual Excellence are intended to be read in conjunction with a Contextual Statement (CS). This is REQUIRED reading. Each CS is precisely what it sounds like: a few pages of historical, theoretical, and relevant information about the functional area. To skip this three- or four-page statement is to miss the necessary references, current trends, and research that informs the standards. Occasionally, people ask me how CAS decides what quality practices should be included in the standards. The CS should demystify this process; readers get critical insight into the roots, basic principles, shared assumptions of professionals, scope, and defining characteristics of the functional area. In the CS, readers will learn about current challenges and professional discussions in the area. Lastly, each CS includes a list of "References, Readings, and Resources," which include not only references used within the statement, but also point readers toward where they should look to learn more through additional resources, professional associations, and relevant websites.

2. CAS Standards share a regularly revised, common backbone. 
A lot of folks are surprised to learn that the CAS functional area standards take the same form regardless of focus. The General Standards are updated every three years to maintain relevancy and currency, and they are embedded verbatim into 44 sets of CAS Standards. This isn't arbitrary! The General Standards (GS) showcase many things our different programs and services have in common. Student support programs and services share characteristics of quality, and CAS emphasizes our intersecting responsibilities and traits through the GS. The 12 subsections of the General Standards include mission; program; organization and leadership; human resources; ethics; law, policy, and governance; diversity, equity, and access; internal and external relations; financial resources; technology; facilities and equipment; and assessment - these areas of practice should be critical to all of us. Because of the more regular revision cycle, the CAS General Standards are responsive to changes within higher education, thus keeping all the functional areas more up-to-date, too. And, the GS provide a common language for communicating across divisions and institutions. Pretty cool, eh?

3. CAS Standards are written by people just like you.
Yes, you. Obviously, these individuals - sent to the CAS consortium as representatives for their professional associations - may not share your exact experiences, but they are seasoned higher education administrators, researchers, scholars-practitioners, and faculty. Diligent stewards of the standards, they work in two-year, four-year, public, private, and proprietary higher ed institutions. Some work at association headquarters. They have assorted credentials and degrees, and they come to CAS from across the U.S. and Canada. These individuals are appointed for various reasons by the associations with which you may be involved - including their scholarship, leadership, unique perspectives, and work ethic. In the rigorous process of preparing standards, the CAS representatives reach out to colleagues, delve into their professional literature, and consider their own contexts. When the representatives come together to work on the professional standards, they talk through their different experiences and perspectives to create the strongest, most applicable standards and guidelines they can for programs and services. 

4a. CAS Standards have two types of statements.
CAS Standards are actually comprised of different types of statements. In a bold font and using the verb “must”, there are statements of standards. These threshold statements should appear applicable to educators and administrators across different institutional types and circumstances. Then, in a regular typeface, CAS also introduces guideline statements to clarify and/or amplify those standards. These guidelines use the verbs “should” and “may” to signal that these practices may enhance your efforts or give more direction to certain types of programs and services, but they're not something as broadly applicable as standards.

4b. CAS Self-Assessment Guides only include the standards.
While we're on the topic of standards and guidelines, it's important to note that guidelines aren't included within the self-assessment tools as items for which you should gather evidence and provide ratings. You definitely can select some guidelines to measure through a program review - just identify where those fit best in your SAG and add them in as items for evaluating.

5. CAS Standards are flexible.
There's not a one-size-fits-all approach to making the most of the CAS Standards. Some examples of different ways professionals employ CAS resources include for designing new programs and services; deciding where to focus time and resources; planning for staff development and training; strategic planning; measuring program and service effectiveness; and writing learning and development outcomes. Of course, CAS has a process we recommend for using the standards to self-assess programs. But, if it makes sense for your program or service to tackle a review in small chunks, then do that! I hear all the time from folks who found a creative new way to put CAS to work for them. Standards are intended to give you benchmarks for your work, not restrict you from meeting the needs of your students or programs. 

In our increasingly soundbyte-driven world, I know it's difficult to sit down with a book the size of CAS Professional Standards for Higher Education (our editor reminds us that the CAS book is not intended to be read cover-to-cover) or take on the challenge of gathering evidence and evaluating your programs and services against widely recognized benchmarks. And yet, the CAS Standards are informed by excellent practices, tested over time, with the end-in-mind of cultivating environments in higher education that benefit our students. In a way, the CAS Standards are not that different from 20-second video clips… we've condensed years of professional experience, tons of research, values underlying the field of student support services, and endless lessons from practical application into credible standards that will help you ensure your work is well-informed, relevant, and high quality.

Take it from this former skeptic - those CAS resources deserve another look.

Dr. Marybeth Drechsler Sharp is Executive Director of the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS). She received a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies from Millikin University and a Master of Science in College Student Personnel Administration from the University of Central Missouri. Marybeth completed her Ph.D. in Counseling and Personnel Services at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), where she also has served as an adjunct instructor and internship supervisor. Previously, she worked with leadership and service-learning in UMD's College Park Scholars living-learning program and in residence life at the University of Missouri and the University of Central Missouri. Marybeth has researched, written, and presented on topics of student learning outcomes, leadership self-efficacy, dimensions of identity development, student engagement in living-learning environments, and the motives and experiences of faculty members involved with living-learning programs.