Volume 79 | Issue 5
September 2011

Study assesses how the college union affects student employees

Kim VanDerLinden

With rising tuition costs and expenses, few students have the luxury of not working during their college years. The 2010 Senior Student Affairs Officer Consortium Executive Report indicated that approximately two out of three college students work for pay during the academic year while enrolled in college. Given recent economic woes for many students and families, the rise in tuition does not correspond with a similar rise in salaries or savings of incoming college students. The bottom line for large numbers of students is the need to work while attending school full-time. Many students work multiple jobs and one in 10 students report working more than 40 hours per week during the academic year, according to the recent ACUI/NASPA Assessment and Knowledge Consortium study. The study assessed the experiences of student employees and nonemployees, and findings provide insights into the relationship between the union and its student employees.

Through the years, studies have attempted to examine the link between employment and college student success. In 1984, Alexander W. Astin reported in The Journal of College Student Personnel that working off campus negatively affected undergraduate persistence, but working a moderate number of hours on campus increased the likelihood of retention. Ernie Pascarella and associates published in a 1998 issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis their finding that working a moderate amount (less than 15 hours) seemed to have no impact or a potentially positive impact on cognitive development. According to the book “Enhancing Student Learning through College Employment,” scholars are torn on how working affects grade point averages, with some finding a negative correlation between hours worked and grade point average and others finding a positive one.

Working during college may be quite beneficial as students gain skills needed to succeed in the “real world.” In a 2007 Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education article, researchers David Cheng and Lucia Alcantara described work as being meaningful to students for more than financial reasons. Resourceful students may turn a college job into a successful career. Employment also can be the beginning of a strong network of professionals who go on to serve as references or mentors.

As professionals in higher education might acknowledge, there can be fierce competition for high-profile on-campus jobs among stellar students. Departments, such as the college union, admissions, and orientation, are all seeking the best representatives for jobs like building managers, ambassadors, and tour guides. Colleges and universities only have one opportunity to impress prospective students and families. Student employees are often on the front line providing that first impression. Thus, it is critical to understand student employees and the outcomes of employment. 

Study details

In early 2010, ACUI, in partnership with the NASPA Assessment and Knowledge Consortium, assessed college unions and student centers through an online survey of more than 22,000 students. The study consisted of several closed-ended questions about the impact of the college union on student experiences. More specifically, the survey assessed the:

  • Importance of the union in a student’s college decision
  • Frequency of participation in various union activities
  • Importance of various offerings and union characteristics
  • Outcomes of participating in union activities, programs, and events

The study also provided rich qualitative data as students offered programmatic suggestions and further elaborated on the union’s effect on their experiences. Fifty diverse institutions from across the United States participated and are actively using the data to inform programming, make change, and document outcomes.

A subsection of the survey focused on student employees in the college union. More than 700 students from the sample indicated current employment at the on-campus union or student center. These students were asked additional questions about employment experiences. Although there is likely wide variation in union facilities, offerings, and student positions, the data gained from this survey provided insight into general outcomes of employment and trends in college union student employees.

Characteristics of student employees

It is not surprising that, beyond their working role, union student employees are more active in the union than the average student. When compared to students who do not work in the union, student employees report spending more time per week in the union for reasons other than work. Thirty-four percent of student employees (versus only 7 percent of nonemployees) spend 10 or more nonworking hours per week in the union. Based on the reported frequencies of various activities, union student employees are more involved with union activities (outside of their employment) when compared to nonemployees (see Figure 1). To better understand this relationship, future assessments may cover whether a causal relationship exists between employment and involvement or vice versa.
Some of the differences between employees and nonemployees may be explained by student demographics such as age, place of residence, and other characteristics. Union employees may be described as more traditional college students in that they are less likely than nonemployees to be transfer students, are younger than nonemployees, are more likely to be full-time students rather than part-time, and are more likely to live on campus.

Union professionals with a comprehensive understanding of student employee demographics can use the information to recruit employees who may better represent the student population. While students who live on campus may be well-suited to many roles, it is also helpful to have student employees who commute to be able to comment and provide guidance to students who visit the union and live off campus. Additionally, understanding that student employees also are among the top users of union facilities can help managers apply the experience of their student employees to improve services and increase excitement and energy within union operations and programming.

Employment outcomes

Union student employees were asked about a variety of outcomes such as customer service, time management, and leadership skills. To ensure students gave thought to the impact of current job experiences, each question began with: “As a result of my employment in the union…” Limiting the data to just the respondents who were employed at the union during early 2010, the large majority agreed that employment resulted in improved skills and abilities (see Figure 2).

When drilling down into the employment outcomes data, seniors who may have worked at the union for multiple years were more likely to endorse some of the outcomes when compared to first-year union employees. Seniors also more strongly agreed that as a result of employment in the union, time management and leadership skills had improved.

The majority of student employees affirmed that through their employment they gained skills that could be used after college. A smaller percentage of respondents agreed that acquired skills were relevant to future career plans and/or skills aligned with their academic major (see Figure 3).
Senior student employees more strongly agreed that gained skills/experiences were relevant to their future career when compared to first-year students. Seniors are more likely in a better position or mindset to relate current experiences to job preparation after college.
College union professionals can use results related to employment outcomes for orientations and ongoing performance reviews. Union professionals may want to better illustrate, through training and other experiences, the applicability of the acquired skills from union employment to other aspects of life. Having focused discussions with student employees prior to, during, and at the conclusion of each academic term may help to facilitate this understanding.

Events, programs, and activities

All students who indicated participation in union programs, events, and activities were asked about the effect of union programming on various outcomes like forming connections with others on campus, learning about diversity, and experiencing the arts. Due to the large number of outcomes being assessed, factor analysis on the statements revealed the following four outcome areas:

  • Academic and life skills
  • Academic and professional connections
  • Socialization
  • Campus integration

Union student employees were more likely to agree that programming positively affected each of the outcome areas listed above. The patterns represented in Figures 4, 5, and 6 were consistent across all outcomes. These findings lend additional insight into the participation and engagement of student employees versus students not employed in the union.

Student success

Every academic and administrative department aspires to better understand why students stay and succeed at an institution. Conversely, most colleges are also desperately trying to understand why students leave college. Student success and retention is complex as it is often many factors and circumstances intermixing that cause a student to either succeed or fail in college. The ACUI/NASPA Assessment and Knowledge Consortium study asked students to indicate whether they would choose their current college again and also whether they planned to be enrolled the following semester/quarter. While no significant differences were found between employees and nonemployees with regard to these particular questions, it is worth noting that students who report spending more hours per week at the union were more likely to indicate that they would choose to re-enroll at the same college again.

Future research

The impact of working on campus is likely mediated by a variety of college experience variables, as Gary Pike, George Kuh, and Ryan Massa-McKinley noted in a 2008 NASPA Journal article. The ACUI/NASPA Assessment and Knowledge Consortium provides a descriptive summary of student employees who work in the union. Student employees report many positive gains from their work experiences in the union. And student employees report being more engaged in the life of the union and, consequently, the life of the campus.

Students bring certain skills and attributes to campus. Thus, all differences between employees and nonemployees may be explained by students’ incoming characteristics. It may be the case, for example, that the students who self-select to work in the college union are fundamentally different (e.g., more involved and engaged students from the outset). Future research should further investigate the characteristics of student employees in the union. Additional analysis may be run at the campus level to investigate the outcomes of employment in relation to number of hours worked per week and the specific positions within the union in which students
are employed.

College unions and other departments within student affairs often employ a large proportion of student employees. Therefore, it also may be beneficial for divisions or the entire institution to assess the student employee population to better understand the outcomes for different positions. This type of assessment can benefit departments directly as they recruit and retain student employees. Future student employees can benefit as well when seeking employment opportunities that will aid in the development of skills and abilities that can directly transfer to future career opportunities.

Unions will continue to employ a large number of students; the key is ensuring that the experience aids in student development while allowing the union to provide the needed services and learning opportunities to all campus community members. 

For information about the ACUI/NASPA Assessment and Knowledge Consortium and to learn how your campus can participate in this survey, visit