Volume 77 | Issue 5
September 2009

Moving student involvement from a 'planned expense' to an 'impulse buy'

Adam Peck & Lacey Claver


The problem:

Campus life space at Stephen F. Austin State University’s recently renovated Baker Pattillo Student Center had been located off the beaten path. If they wanted to learn more about an organization or event, students needed to plan ahead and navigate the center’s back corridors. For this reason, among others, the institution was not able to fully engage its student body in campus activities.


The solution:

When entryway office space became available and was too small for retail use, a new Involvement Center was established. Now, student leaders staffing the center are able to make campus involvement easy by capitalizing on impulsive, walk-up traffic. Since its inception, the center had measurable success in fostering connections with students who might previously never have planned to get involved.
Creating “buy-in”

Since few, if any, campuses could claim that 100 percent of their student body is involved in campus activities, most are looking for ways to improve engagement. According to the 2008 National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE), around 70 percent of responding students spend at least one hour per week engaged in cocurricular activities. In a way, this is promising news. It suggests that the vast majority of students are to some extent involved in a campus activity outside the classroom. And yet, within this statistic is a persistent challenge: How can we engage the other 30 percent?

The connection between involvement and engagement is well-established. Alexander Astin’s involvement theory grew from more than 20 years of research in higher education and suggested that involvement in college strongly influences students’ retention and academic and psychological development. If, as Astin suggested, there is a direct relationship between involvement and retention, then increased engagement of this latent 30 percent must be a priority for student affairs practitioners.
While not all engaged and involved students persist, a well-supported body of research suggests they do so more often then their less engaged counterparts. A 2006 study by Robert DeBard, Tony Lake, and Ron Binder found that, although students participating in greek life at a particular midsized Midwestern state university tended to get lower grades, they persisted at significantly higher rates than students in general. This was true for both men and women. Another study, conducted by Holley Belch, Melinda Gebel, and Gerald Maas in 2001, found that first-year students who used the student recreation complex persisted at a greater rate than their peers who did not, and that while this was particularly true in the first semester, this connection remained at least through the first year. An article in the March/April 1994 Journal of College Student Development reported that “involvement in campus life has direct positive effects on students learning both in and out of the classroom.” It seems reasonable to suppose that if students are having a good time and participating in something that they care about, they might be more resolved to stay at an institution, perhaps even when finances, grades, or other important variables may make it more challenging.


Satisfying customers

Mindful of the need for customer service, many colleges and universities have employed different strategies for satisfying and impressing their students. In 2006, Indiana University of Pennsylvania decided to gut its existing housing program, tearing down all existing residence halls and building new ones at a cost of $270 million. The expansion will create spaces for learning communities, have facilities to enhance participation in student organizations and activities, and better integrate learning technologies. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported the expansion, which is being completed in phases, is expected to be finished by 2010.
According to another recent article in The Chronicle, High Point University, located in the hills of North Carolina, has recently added valet parking, a concierge desk, and an ice cream truck that dispenses free frozen treats on warm days. President Nido R. Qubein said his vision for the institution was that students should be more than just satisfied; they should be “wowed.”
In 2004, Duke University made headlines, giving away iPods to each of its 1,650 first-year students. This year, Abilene Christian University upped the ante by giving away iPhones to each of its nearly 1,000 first-year students. Both schools stated the intention to better engage students beyond the walls of the classroom, but some are skeptical. As one campus technology professional argued in The Chronicle, “Giving out devices now is putting the technology cart before the academic horse,” and that the only reason to do a giveaway is the hype that comes with it.
These institutions’ implicit wager is that improved student engagement and customer service will help the school better attract, retain, and perhaps even engage these students. While there is some support for this belief, its implementation is largely untested. Additionally, some at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association were concerned about the growing trend of treating students more like customers. As students acquire increasingly commercial and consumer-oriented notions of higher education’s purpose, they argued that the effect over-emphasizes the power that students ought to have in the transaction. For instance, as the old adage suggests, if “the customer is always right,” how can that same customer get a “D” on a biology test?


Involvement on display

College union professionals often find themselves central to this discussion. After all, they are highly involved in both the commerce of the institution (often housing food service, retail, and other revenue-generating aspects of the university), and they also frequently provide student services, leadership programs, and other educational and transformational aspects of a student’s learning experience. In few departments is consumerism and education more intricately balanced.
Conversations about this balance frequently come to the fore during the building or remodeling of new college union facilities. Often it seems that
revenue-generating aspects of the union are placed in the path of foot traffic, with student activities and services located in less visible areas. Smoothies, sweatshirts, and sandwiches are positioned with every opportunity for purchase, while educational programs are farther out of reach. Schools have used colorful, sometimes neon-lit building signage, campus advertisements, or even floor signs featuring footprints leading right to their door, but these out-of-the-way programs are still more likely a planned expense than an impulse buy.
At Stephen F. Austin State University, facilities planners and student affairs staff faced a similar dilemma. The 2007 renovation of the college union had greatly improved the look and feel of the facility; significantly increased available meeting and function space for students, faculty, and the community; and enhanced the quality of food service and retail options for students. But a renovation of this type is not without cost and depends on revenue generated by these enterprises. As such, many student services were located on the third floor or scattered around campus.
After the first year of operation, one space remained underutilized. Originally designed to serve as a campus welcome center staffed by admissions office personnel, the space had never become a priority and most of the services envisioned for the area were duplicated elsewhere. Its small size made it undesirable for retail. Located just off the rotunda entrance, the center was in the middle of average weekday traffic of around 8,000 students.
Working with the union director, a group of students and professionals from student activities, student affairs, student life, and alumni affairs began to discuss ways to make involvement on campus jump out at students in this highly visible location. The group wanted to create a space that emphasized seamlessness of the student experience. Their mission would be to help students find something to encourage their engagement on campus. Whether it was to join a fraternity, sign up for a spinning class in the Campus Recreation Center, or play for the football team, the students would assist walk-up or scheduled clients to find out how to get involved.
This would rely on a highly engaged and well-trained group of students who were authentically excited about being involved outside of the classroom. The new Traditions Council, a group formed to increase knowledge of university traditions and create an enhanced sense of school spirit, lacked office space and was approached to fulfill these responsibilities. Group members were immediately excited about the idea. This was a natural fit due to the students’ high level of involvement on campus. Additionally, they had individual expertise in a number of areas. Some were highly involved in the campus programming board, some were greek, some were employed by the Recreation Center, and a rare few participated in almost everything in which one could be involved.
Research conducted by the institution indicated that there was a need for a friendly and welcoming space where students could find out what opportunities were available on campus to match with their interests. In a survey of 757 students conducted in March 2008, 25 percent of students were completely uninvolved on campus. Of those, nearly half were less involved than they wanted to be for a variety of reasons: 31 percent were unsure how to get involved, 24 percent were too shy, 12 percent felt unwelcome or unaccepted, and 8 percent had not found involvement opportunities that matched their interests.
The Involvement Center, as it was being conceived, could make a tremendous difference in each of these areas. The Involvement Center began operating in September 2008, and in a short time has serviced more than 1,000 students (or approximately one in 10 students). The center received a significant boost from Hurricane Ike, which blew through campus in late September, downing tree limbs, scattering debris, and displacing 850 students from nearby Lamar University. This created the need for campus volunteers to run an on-campus shelter and facilitate campus clean-up. The Involvement Center led these efforts and greatly increased its visibility.
Traditions Council members underwent special training to become “involvement advisors” ready to staff the center. A protocol was developed for meeting with students who wanted to learn more about campus resources, events, programs, and services. The advising process is initiated with a short survey of the student’s interests. The survey serves as the basis for the advisor to create a unique profile of opportunities. This process allows the student to focus on organizations and campus activities that better relate to the student’s interests. The center not only provides students opportunities to get involved in organizations and campus activities but also provides information about campus resources.

Not all of the connections with which the students have assisted have been for student involvement; in one case, an involvement advisor encountered a student who indicated that he was seriously depressed. This student advisor escorted the student to the counseling center for help. The group has referred students to the Academic Assistance Center and to other academic resources as well.
Incoming students often find the wealth of opportunities on a campus overwhelming, and the Involvement Center is able to better define these and tailor them for each student. “As a sophomore, I wish the Involvement Center was here when I was searching for an organization to get involved in my first year,” one survey respondent said. “Coming from a small high school with only a few organizations to a school with more than 200 organizations, it was initially overwhelming.”


A profitable venture

In the past year, the center has been a pick-up and drop-off spot for applications of all sorts, including retreats, contests, and organizations. It also serves as the central point of contact regarding all homecoming activities. The group has held personal advising sessions with dozens of students and has interfaced with thousands more. It is a frequent stopping point for campus tours and has provided a storefront for involvement on the Stephen F. Austin State University campus.
Responding to a survey of students who have used the center, one student remarked: “As a freshman, I came into the Involvement Center out of curiosity. A semester later, I was a member of the Traditions Council and thinking about becoming an officer. Interacting with the Involvement Center, I have gotten to meet a very diverse group of people and have learned so much from them and from the experiences I have had. … [The center] is like a gateway to so many more opportunities. … [It] has helped me define my goals and at the same time facilitated my achievement of those goals.”
While more study is needed, the university has seen a marked increase in involvement, and enrollment also has been affected. In the second semester of 2009, the university saw the reversal of a previous downward trend in enrollment, due in part to a small increase in first-to-second-semester retention—nearly 4 percent compared to the previous year. While many factors influence retention and it would be impossible to attribute this success to the Involvement Center alone, the large number of students the center has served is a striking indicator of the need for such a space.
In the second semester of 2008, 73.6 percent of the 757 students responding to the university engagement survey felt that participation in student organizations was an important part of their learning and development in college as compared to almost 83 percent of the 1,056 students who responded to the same question in the second semester of 2009. In 2008, only 13.0 percent of the respondents were “actively
participating” in a student organization. By 2009, the number had jumped to 53.8 percent. Similarly, only 5.8 percent of the students from the 2008 study indicated that they were leaders of a student group, while 52.1 percent responded affirmatively in 2009.
The creation of the Involvement Center has been a part of a coordinated effort to increase engagement of students. More targeted assessment will be needed to fully understand the university’s impressive increase in student engagement. Given the number of students who have interacted with the Involvement Center, it is reasonable to conclude that it has played an important role in this increase in student engagement.
There have been benefits for the students working in the Involvement Center as well. One student reported: “We have leaders on campus coming in and out of the office or talking to their friends about working in the Involvement Center, and it starts a chain reaction of people coming in [and] calling in wanting to know more about Traditions Council and getting involved. I love teaching and showing students how easy it is and how much it will impact their college career and life if they just take that step and get involved on campus.”


Ongoing promotion and accessibility

The work is now guided by a committee who recommend ways to improve students’ experience. The group is optimistic about the center’s potential and would like to see more academic connections in the future. The committee would like to promote funding for academic travel, study abroad, and undergraduate research. The group also is working to create web-based resources to complement the physical center. These may include a common application for student groups and a user-friendly database for student involvement opportunities, making it even easier for students to engage.
Real estate in a college union is at a premium and often is allocated primarily to revenue-generating services. However, in an effort to find a balance between service to students and the desire to encourage students to seek transformative learning experiences for themselves, it seems that the campuses must respond to the need for better accessibility of involvement opportunities. According to a 2007 Fast Company article by Greg Lindsay, “The three essential rules of real estate have changed from ‘location, location, location’ to ‘accessibility, accessibility, accessibility.’ There’s a new metric. It’s no longer space; it’s time and cost.” The same is true for college unions; without accessibility, there is less assurance students will expend the time to seek involvement opportunities.