Volume 79 | Issue 2
March 2011

Identifying trends to improve practices in the college union

Justin Rudisille & Lisa Hickey

In times when student demographics are always changing and budgets are always uncertain, the need to assess the effectiveness of services and activities in the college union becomes more important with each new program cycle or end-of-the-year report. The resulting data from such assessments is essential for intentional practice and decision making. It can also help professionals discover key areas for improvement and focus efforts on organizational priorities.

In studying the practices at 20 institutions with high student engagement levels and graduation rates for their book “Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter,” George Kuh, Jillian Kinzie, John Schuh, Elizabeth Whitt, and associates identified six features shared by these educationally effective colleges that fostered student engagement and persistence. Of these conditions, one was that all of the institutions had an improvement-oriented ethos. They “seem to be in perpetual learning mode—monitoring where they are, what they are doing, where they want to go, and how to maintain momentum toward positive change. Supporting this orientation toward improvement is a ‘can-do’ ethic that permeates the campuses—a system of values and beliefs that reflect the institutions’ willingness to take on matters of substance consistent with their priorities and commitment to student success.” By determining the critical areas for improvement and concentrating on tasks related to them, organizations can see a larger return, rather than trying to be the best at all things.

Based on analysis of the aggregate data from three assessments conducted with U.S. college students through Educational Benchmarking Inc., key factors have been identified that affect levels of program success. Survey outcomes did vary from institution to institution, and benchmarking programs and services against peers does have some limitations, as it might not be appropriate nor give a complete picture in every situation. However, when looking collectively at the results of these assessments, trends emerge about what college unions and students activities organizations do well and what areas are commonly found to be in need of improvement. These global trends can help initiate an exploration of changes and priorities at the campus level. 


Results of the ACUI/EBI College Union/Student Center Assessment 


This assessment provides administrators with a clear sense of student perceptions about their union experience. In 2010, 28,580 individuals participated in the ACUI/EBI College Union/Student Center Assessment. Of the participants, 88.3 percent visited the union on their campus as least once per academic term, while 11.7 percent had not visited the union in the 12 months prior to completing the assessment. Of the union visitors, 70.0 percent visited the union two or more times per week; 72.9 percent participated in at least one campus activity per academic term; and 27.7 percent were involved in at least one student organization. Of the nonvisitors, 41.0 percent had never visited the college union; 43.4 percent were not familiar with the services it offered; and the top reason cited for nonparticipation in activities and organizations was that personal schedules were too busy to allow it.
When conducting assessments at the campus level, EBI recommends that schools focus on improving performance on the top indicator that will make the largest impact on improving overall program effectiveness. In the aggregate data for the College Union/Student Center Assessment, that highest impact factor was the extent to which students believe the college union enhances life and leadership on campus. This predictor is comprised of questions related to how the college union supports social interaction, leadership development, appreciation of the arts, volunteerism, citizenship, exposure to new ideas, and understanding of others with different backgrounds. All of these areas performed below goal (i.e., a rating lower than 5.5 out of 7). Participants were least satisfied by the opportunities provided for them to assume a leadership role and the leadership development training provided. Making the need for improvement along this factor all the more important is that the elements comprising it directly reflect the core of ACUI’s The Role of the College Union Statement, which defines the union with phrases such as: “a college union…[represents] a well-considered plan for the community life of the college”; “through volunteerism…the union offers firsthand experience in citizenship and educates students in leadership”; and the union “creates an environment for getting to know and understand others.”

The lowest impact factors at the aggregate level, meaning the areas that would impact program effectiveness the least, included the acknowledgement that the college union is student-oriented and is a positive environment, as well as the aspects related to dining services, bookstores, and cleanliness. This reveals that college unions are generally perceived by students to do good work in their daily operations, service delivery, and in defining their positive, student-oriented philosophy—attesting to the successes of college union professionals at accomplishing key tasks and responsibilities.

However, this assessment’s results infer that, collectively, college unions could strengthen efforts related to improving the college union’s role in enhancing community life and leadership development on campus. For example, professionals can commit to staying up to date on student needs and trends through additional campus-level assessments that will provide insight into how visitors and nonvisitors define the ideal life and leadership on campus. Also, they can provide more open access to leadership training programs, consider ways to expand boards or organizations to engage more students, and increase awareness of existing opportunities for leadership and training. 


Results of the ACUI/EBI Student Organization Leaders Assessment 


This assessment is designed to give administrators a clear sense of the quality of the activities and services provided from the perspective of student leaders. Of the 1,815 individuals participating in 2010, 98.3 percent were full-time students; 65.9 percent held junior or senior class standing; 63.3 percent were women; 60.1 percent lived in nonuniversity-operated housing; and 38.4 percent did not work. A majority of the participating student organization leaders (77.6 percent) maintained a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher, and most (60.7 percent) believed that involvement had no effect on their GPA. While 14.0 percent believed involvement caused some level of improvement in GPA, 25.3 percent believed it caused it to decline.

In the aggregate data for the Student Organization Leaders Assessment, the top predictors of improving the overall effectiveness of the students’ experiences as leaders were related to their development of self-knowledge and intrapersonal competence. These factors are comprised of questions about the degree to which being involved in student organizations enhanced their passions, values/beliefs, goal setting, confidence, motivation, self-esteem, and other intrapersonal awareness and skills. Within these predictors, participants were least satisfied with the role organization involvement played in their self-esteem and overall learning about self.

The lowest impact factors, based on these aggregate results, included the ability of students to participate in principled dissent, manage budgets and contracts, and effectively lead and work with others. Therefore, student organization leaders perceived their involvement as contributing to the development of more practical and interpersonal skills—articulating responsibilities, delegating tasks to other members, managing conflict, establishing relationships, building trust and respect, listening, etc.—while the process of internalizing the leadership experience was less evident.

When considering the study’s results, it is important to note that the participants self-identified as leaders and often their perceptions and self-ratings were high. In fact, all questions resulted in values above goal (i.e., a rating 5.5 or higher out of 7). However, at the aggregate level, the assessment’s results show that attention could be paid to how leading a student organization can support students’ development of self-knowledge and intrapersonal competence. According to theorist Arthur Chickering’s seven vectors of college student identity development, finding a solid sense of self, developing self-esteem and acceptance, identifying personal interests and goals, and clarifying personal values are all components of developing identity, purpose, and integrity (i.e., the last three vectors). Further supporting the importance of this indicator, intrapersonal development is identified as a student learning and development outcome domain by the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, with outcome dimensions including realistic self-appraisal, self-understanding, self-respect, identity development, and commitment to integrity.

Because these intrapersonal factors could result in improving the overall effectiveness of student leaders’ experiences, perhaps this calls for new systems that support or require all student organization leaders to reflect on what they are learning about themselves through their involvement—reflective journals, exit interviews, or regular advising appointments, for example. According to David Kolb, author of “Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development,” reflection can make connections between the concrete activities and the more abstract theories that students might develop about themselves when leading a group. This link can make the learning experience more personally meaningful.

Likewise, regularly providing recognition and validation for student organization leaders to acknowledge their talents, ideas, and successes could help them to develop self-esteem and confidence, items rated comparatively low in satisfaction on this assessment.

Results of the ACUI/EBI Student Activities Assessment 

This assessment is designed to give administrators a clear sense of the quality of the activities and services provided from the perspective of student participants. In 2010, 5,105 individuals participated in the assessment. Of the participants, 94.9 percent were full-time students; 54.4 percent held junior or senior class standing; 67.2 percent were women; 51.4 percent lived in university-operated housing; and 38.8 percent did not work. Most received information about activities through e-mail (57.2 percent), while other top communication methods included posters/fliers (12.2 percent), word of mouth (10.8 percent), and social networking sites (9.9 percent). The top types of activities participants attended during the term most recent to completing the assessment were lectures (14.3 percent), movies (12.2 percent), sporting events (12.2 percent), student organization meetings (11.1 percent), special events such as homecoming or family weekend (9.9 percent), and concerts (9.1 percent). Of respondents who reported participating in at least one activity during the most recent term, 54.5 percent attended one to five activities, 18.2 percent attended six to 10, 8.0 percent attended 11 to 15, and 7.0 percent attended more than 15 activities during the most recent month.

In the aggregate data for the Student Activities Assessment, the highest impact factors were the social outcomes and overall learning outcomes associated with participating in activities. The social outcomes indicator is comprised of items related to belonging, campus pride, and social interaction, as well as the degree to which activities were enjoyable, entertaining, and interesting. Within this area, respondents were least satisfied with how participation enhanced their ability to interact socially, increased their pride in the institution, and helped them feel a sense of belonging on campus.

The learning outcomes indicator is comprised of items related to the extent to which activities are educational, expose students to new ideas and cultures, and provide opportunities to develop knowledge and skills in leadership, volunteerism, and citizenship. All of these items performed below goal (i.e., a rating lower than 5.5 out of 7), and several of the items rated lowest in satisfaction were consistent with the life and leadership factor discussed in the College Union/Student Center Assessment results.

This study’s lowest impact factors included the importance of social and educational activities, how well activities were advertised and executed, and the interpersonal components of student activities. In other words, student activities generally were understood to be important in students’ lives, and students perceived them to be well planned and implemented. This fact is, again, consistent with the previously discussed results of the College Union/Student Center Assessment. The work done by professionals and other activities coordinators to execute plans and to define the importance or philosophy of student activities is not of collective concern, based on these results.

However, this information does call for activities that support meaningful belonging for all students and that foster campus pride and social
interaction. With the changing demographics of college students, the ways in which students experience a sense of belonging may also be evolving. Nancy Schlossberg’s chapter of “Designing Campus Activities to Foster a Sense of Community” explains how creating environments “that clearly indicate to all students that they matter will urge them to greater involvement.” Additionally, in their book “Principles of Good Practice in Student Affairs,” authors Greg Blimling and Elizabeth Whitt suggested that common traditions and rituals can “help build loyalty to the institution and link the student with the institution. But such traditions—if implemented in ways that exclude experiences and interests of people of color, for example, or older students—also can make students feel as though they are unwelcome or outsiders.” So, it is important to reflect on how campus activities balance being enjoyable and entertaining with actually building a sense of pride and mattering for everyone. If current campus traditions are not meeting diverse needs, empower students’ involvement in developing new activities and traditions that will help them experience pride and feel socially connected to campus.

In reviewing decades of higher education research for the second volume of their book “How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research,” Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini  found additional trends that further attest to the significance of participation and social interaction opportunities. Factors that maximize student success include a culture “in which students develop close on-campus friendships” and “participate frequently in college-sponsored activities,” and “interactions with peers is probably the most pervasive and powerful force in student persistence and degree completion.”

Therefore, it is important to consider creative ways to encourage and provide access to social interaction for all students.

Take it to the next level 

Through the aggregate data from EBI’s assessments, trends in common areas for improvement in the college unions and student activities profession become apparent, which can prompt discussions on campus about what departmental goals should be prioritized or might result in the greatest return on investment. These trends included:

  • While minimal need for improvement exists in college unions’ daily operations and philosophies, attention could be paid to enhancing life and leadership on campus through the college union.
  • While student organization leaders recognize the role of their leadership position in developing practical and interpersonal skills, attention could be paid to making leadership experiences more personally meaningful to support self-knowledge and intrapersonal competence.
  • While activities are perceived as being well executed and important to students, attention could be paid to ensuring that participation in student activities supports social interaction, pride, and belonging within the campus community.

The achievement of key operational tasks is not concerning, but collectively, practices could be taken to the next level to help make students’
experiences with the college union more meaningful and personal.

Part of what contributed to the effectiveness and high student engagement levels at the 20 institutions studied for “Student Success in College,” as mentioned previously, is that these schools “question whether their performance matches their potential. Never quite satisfied with their level of performance, they continually revisit and rework policies and practices to improve.” A continuous cycle of assessment can be used as a catalyst for such improvement. Evaluating programs and services at least annually is important to see whether the effects of new practices are achieving the
intended goals or if these efforts need to be refocused.

For the profession in general, the findings from these EBI studies likely raise more questions than answers. What specific role do students want the college union to play in their life and leadership development? What practices are effective at making involvement more personally meaningful? What components of student activities help students feel more connected and proud to be affiliated with the institution? More specific research is needed in these areas to better understand potential answers to these questions. Additional efforts to share knowledge and campus examples through professional engagement will also support the development of best practices in the field.