Volume 78 | Issue 6
November 2010

Programming at Small Schools: Trends in late-night, leadership, and finals week activities

Kate Leishman & Rachel Messenger

Given the significant time and energy that activities professionals and students spend planning campus events, many wonder if the events they offer are appealing or could be improved. They hold focus groups, conduct online surveys, and turn to committees for ideas. Additionally, one primary resource is our peers from other institutions. Learning from colleagues in similar roles at other small schools can garner fresh ideas and perspectives. It also is a way to benchmark current practices. Additionally, though small school challenges like understaffing, budget restrictions, and lack of resources make it difficult to reproduce some programs, they still find inspiration from large school colleagues as well.

In January 2010, a 54-item questionnaire with a focus on late-night, leadership development, and finals week programming was sent to 597 small school professionals (ACUI members at institutions with a full-time enrollment of 5,000 or fewer students). The results evidence trends in the types of programming offered, budgets, popularity among students, and other information that will help small schools benchmark when deciding how to program on campus.

About the survey

The survey was administered online, and 151 individuals from 115 unique institutions completed it (a 26 percent response rate). Nine questions focused on demographic, budget, and staffing information; 16 questions asked about late-night programming; 18 questions were about leadership programming; and 11 questions focused on finals week programming. Not all questions were required.

All respondents answered the demographic questions about enrollment and programming budgets. Respondents were split fairly evenly within the 1,000–2,500 enrollment categories (38 percent) and the 2,501–5,000 categories (33 percent). Six institutions had enrollments of less than 1,000, and 17 schools reported an enrollment of more than 5,000. Sixty-one percent indicated a programming budget of $50,000 or more, 36 percent indicated more than $100,000, and 12 percent indicated a budget of less than $10,000. Interestingly, school size did not correlate to budget size.

Respondents reported a wide range of job titles that spanned from vice president (5 percent) to coordinator (7 percent), with assistant directors (17 percent) and directors (41 percent) being the most commonly reported titles. About three-quarters of respondents said that one to three professional staff members worked in their office (68 percent), 21 percent indicated one staff member, and 9 percent (14) indicated five or more staff members. Additionally, of the respondents who said graduate students worked in their office (34), 84 percent reported having one or two graduate students and 10 percent reported having three or more.

Late-night programming

Stan Latta, in his 2002 Bulletin article, “Late-Night Programming Can Reduce High-Risk Drinking, Provide Quality Student Development,” suggested that variety and student interest are central to the quality of a late-night program. The information gathered from the January 2010 instrument supports this statement. Slightly less than half of respondents (38 percent) indicated not currently having a late-night programming series. The most common reason was a lack of student interest in this type of programming (24 percent). To a lesser extent, respondents about equally attributed the cause as a lack of funding (16 percent), lack of staff to manage the program (15 percent), or lack of students on campus during traditional late-night programming times (14 percent). With this last reason in mind, some indicated that their campus is a commuter campus or that many students leave campus during weekends to travel.

Of the respondents, 55 percent indicated that they currently offer late-programming or have a dedicated late-night series. Of those who answered “yes,” 21 percent (18) indicated that late-night programming was created as an alcohol alternative, 15 percent (13) indicated student demand and feedback from surveys inspired their series creation, and 14 percent (12) indicated that keeping students on campus and away from parties was their inspiration for their programming. Less common causes or sources of inspiration were other schools and conferences (6 percent), an increasing residential population (5 percent), administrators’ mandates to create late-night programming (5 percent), and a desire to showcase a new union facility (3 percent).

Respondents were also asked to indicate the days and times when late-night programming occurs. Seventy-three percent reported that events occur on Friday night, 52 percent indicated that events occur on Saturday night, and 32 percent reported offering late-night programming on Thursday nights. Most programming began at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. (55 percent); however, ending times varied with 27 percent reporting midnight and 23 percent reporting 1 a.m. as the ending times for their events, 16 percent ending their events at 2 a.m., and 11 percent ending their programs at 11 p.m. Comments in this area indicated that the end times of programs change based on the activities.

In The Bulletin, Latta credited food with both attracting and retaining students at programs, and the survey data seem to support this tactic as 90 percent of respondents indicated that food was included in their programs. Other notable elements of late-night programs were live performances (75 percent), movies (69 percent), game tournaments (69 percent), and interactive attractions (65 percent). Live performances were also noted as the most well-attended events, although many schools mentioned movies, bingo, and food as popular components. A few respondents also included comedy, crafts, and dances/dance parties in this category.

As evidenced in the data, there are many ways that late-night programming can be approached. A set formula does not exist for late-night programming success. What is most important is that the interests of each institution’s students are kept in mind when planning these events. The data here can help inform institutions looking to make a change or create a new late-night program.

Leadership programming

In his 1996 article, “The Making of Leaders: A Review of the Research in Leadership Development Education,” Curt Brungardt wrote: “Leadership educators believe in the basic assumption that much of what makes a leader successful is teachable. Skills and abilities utilized by leaders such as communicating, problem solving, visioning, decision making, and so on, are learnable behaviors.” Knowing this, it is not surprising that 83 percent (110) of respondents indicated that their institution currently offers leadership development programming for students. Of the 2 percent  who indicated their institution does not offer leadership development programming, reasons included not having enough staff or time to commit to leadership development and a lack of student interest or participation in the programs.

Of those who do offer leadership development programming, 13 percent indicated having less than $1,000 for leadership development programming, while 40 percent indicated a budget of $7,501 or more, and 18 percent (16) said their budget was more than $10,000. Not surprisingly, 61 percent of respondents listed student activities as the main sponsor of leadership programming. Respondents said that leadership development programming occurs every day with Sunday as the least popular (23 percent) and Tuesday (62 percent) and Wednesday (65 percent) almost a tie for the most likely days for leadership development programming to occur. Student leader training sessions (81 percent) were the most included element of leadership development programs. However, many listed a course or class for credit as another element of leadership development programming.

According to open-ended responses, leadership development programs vary from “growing” and “we should probably do much more” to a leadership program “in its 25th year so it is an annual tradition” and ultimately to “leadership is a part of the culture, not really a program.” Leadership development that really becomes part of the everyday culture of a college or university is an illustration of accomplishing the main goal Brungardt identified in his article: “to create far-reaching developmental and educational environments that truly foster leadership capabilities.”

Finals week programming

Final exams can be a stressful time for students. For some, their final grade in a course can hang on their performance on one exam or a final paper. Because of the anxiety students experience at this time of the term, many administrators have seen the need to program stress-relieving activities to help students recharge and refocus. Most (55 percent) of the survey respondents indicated that they are currently offering finals week programming at their institutions.

Of the 68 respondents who provided information on which days they offer finals week programming, weekdays were the highest rated, with Wednesdays (79 percent) and Tuesdays (74 percent) being especially popular. Saturday and Sunday only received 18 percent and 21 percent of the votes respectively. Most finals week programming reportedly occurs in the evening (67 percent), although 48 percent offer such programming in the afternoon or 46 percent late at night.

As with late-night programming, food is the most common element being utilized for finals week programming with 94 percent (58) of reporting respondents indicating that they include food. Sixty-five percent (43) of the respondents also selected “massage/relaxation events” as an element they include in their programming. Other than crafts, which are included 30 percent of the time, it seems that the focus for finals week programming is away from interactive and performance type activities and focuses more on helping students relax and refuel. Forty-four percent of respondents offered information about the most popular/well-attended finals week events, which resulted in 81 unique responses. Consistent with finals week programming in general, food was most often offered at these events, with late-night or midnight breakfasts specifically mentioned 30 times.

Finals week is a high-stress time for students, so it makes sense that programs offered during that timeframe are meant to be stress-relieving. Holding these events around students’ schedules (on days when many students have exams and in the evenings) as well as offering food seemed to be trends based on the survey results.


Inspiration from large schools

Large schools were highlighted as a source of inspiration for late-night programs (35 percent), leadership development programs (36 percent), and to a lesser extent, finals week programs (16 percent). Within those responses, four trends emerged as the main inspirations small institutions get from larger institutions.

Modeling events after programs created at larger institutions was one trend that emerged. Respondents suggested that seeing large schools experience success with their programs inspired them to create similar programs on campus. For example, William Brown of Davidson College spent eight days observing West Virginia University’s Up All Night Program. Brown reported that he was very influenced by his visit and his conversations with the staff, particularly in the area of advertising and promotion, and has taken these ideas and adapted them to the Davidson program. Additionally, J. Scott Derrick at Furman University took models from several large schools that included multiple nights of programming per weekend and created his own model that would work with the resources available at Furman and “smashed” them down to a one night program that takes place several times per year. Institutions that Derrick was inspired by included West Virginia University, University of Florida, University of Georgia, and Pennsylvania State University.

Professional associations and experiences at conferences were an additional trend that emerged as a way small schools were inspired by large institutions. ACUI and NASPA were specific associations listed in responses.

Research published by large schools in magazines and journals was another way respondents indicated getting inspiration from larger institutions.
Previous employment at large schools was the fourth trend to emerge in the data gathered from the survey. Respondents indicated that graduate school experiences or previous jobs at large schools allowed them to experience large school programming first-hand and utilize that experience in their current small school positions.

Think big

Late-night, leadership, and finals week programs are just a few examples of the more common categories of programming presented at small schools. Results from the survey regarding these programs can be used to inform the assessment of offerings and to create benchmarks within the profession. In addition, the trends identified will enable institutions to identify opportunities for improvement by borrowing ideas from peers. And those peers do not always need to be small schools. The survey results indicated that the idea and inspiration for some of these programs and events is successful programs at larger institutions, despite the fact that the programs sometimes need to be tweaked or scaled down to fit within the resources (staffing, funding, etc.) available at a smaller school. This is a reminder to small school professionals to reflect on previous experiences and not reject ideas simply because they are inspired by events and programs at larger institutions. Student activities staff and students at small schools certainly have a big job to do and often without all the resources that might be available elsewhere, but we can use data like that presented here to enhance existing programs and build strong new offerings.