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A Study of Student Voice in Higher Education
“If there’s an issue . . . on your campus, you could have said, ‘Well, the students saw that; why didn’t we listen to the students?’”
—Lorenzo Santavicca, Michigan State University student body president, 2016–18
Listen to the students. It’s a phrase that seems simple and perhaps even obvious. Yet new research from National Campus Leadership Council (NCLC) suggests this approach is not always the practice in higher education. When done genuinely, active listening can go a long way toward enhancing student voice.
As we see ongoing campus protests and displays of activism, student voice remains a critical—and growing—component of higher education. It is clear students are turning to more extreme measures when formal channels of decision making fail to work. At NCLC, we aim to cultivate, strengthen, and enhance student leadership. In 2018, we released the Student Voice Index (SVI) to better understand the role of student voice in institutional decision making in higher education. This article highlights our rationale, methodology, key findings, and recommendations for institutional leaders seeking to understand and elevate student voices in higher education.
Background and Definitions
According to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, shared governance is a “principle that acknowledges the final institutional authority of governing boards and distributed authority to the administration and faculty” (2016, 1). As a result, this authority, or the power to make decisions on behalf of the institution, frequently resides with the governing board and key institutional leaders, like the president, provost, or chief financial officer. But this model of shared governance omits one key stakeholder group: students.
Student involvement in institutional governance emerged in the 1700s with the creation of literary societies, formed as a result of “the need for extracurricular outlets, disengagement with the academic curriculum, dissatisfaction with institutional rules and disciplinary procedures, and a desire for student empowerment” (May 2010, 208). These groups evolved over several decades to become what are more commonly known today as student government associations (May 2010; Scruggs 2014).
The president of the student government association serves as the chief representative of the student body and is frequently the student with the greatest access to institutional decision makers. As institutions of higher education continue to change and diversify, incorporating the voice of today’s students remains an important and challenging endeavor, especially if higher education is to successfully anticipate and meet the educational needs of future generations. Thus, understanding if and to what extent student body presidents are engaged in different layers of institutional decision making remains a critical research and learning opportunity.
Building from existing research and literature (Canning 2017; Freeman 2016; Seale 2010), we define student voice as “students’ agency to exercise, and institutional inclusion of, thoughts, ideas, and opinions in shared governance and related processes and environments that drive decision making” (Templeton, Smith, and MacCracken 2018, 9). This definition has two primary components. First, student voice means students feel they have agency in their ability to participate in institutional decision making. Second, institutions make efforts to listen to the student voice, so that voices aren’t just spoken but heard, considered, and incorporated into decisions.
To operationalize our definition of student voice, we developed a rubric with four core metrics:
Access is the extent to which students have contact with or easy ability to interact with decision-making entities. More specifically, we wanted to know if student leaders had access to meetings of the governing board and opportunities to meet with institutional leaders.
- Role refers to the responsibilities assumed by or granted to a student serving in a representative capacity with a decision-making entity. While some student representatives have limited agency, others may have a significant voice and ability to contribute in decision-making settings. We wanted to learn whether student leaders had speaking rights, voting rights, or other formal titles or responsibilities on the governing board or in their interactions with institutional leaders—and whether these rights and responsibilities differed from those of other representatives.
- Empowerment is the extent to which institutions invest in student leaders’ abilities. We wanted to understand whether student leaders felt empowered to participate in institutional decision making and whether they were trained for the roles and responsibilities to which they had access.
- Influence is the power or effect students believe they have in the decision-making process or with decision-making entities. We wanted to identify the extent to which student leaders felt they could influence change at their institutions.
Based on these metrics, we developed a survey that was completed by 203 student body presidents from a variety of types of higher education institutions across the United States. We also collected publicly available documents—policies, procedures, and bylaws—from the institutions and governing boards to better understand students’ access and roles.
The student body presidents were each from a unique institution representing public (61.1 percent), private (38.9 percent), two-year (15.3 percent), four-year (84.7 percent), Predominantly White Institutions (69.0 percent), and Minority-Serving Institutions (31.0 percent). Of participants in the sample, 55.5 percent identified as men, 42.8 percent as women, and 1.2 percent as nonbinary. Overall, 63.2 percent of respondents identified as White, 21.1 percent as Black, 8.8 percent as Asian, 8.7 percent as Hispanic, and 2.9 percent as Native American. (Some respondents chose more than one racial or ethnic identity.) Also, 92.6 percent of student body presidents were elected to the position, and 79.1 percent received compensation of some kind for their role.
We also asked survey questions about students’ leadership experiences, role in decision making, and perceptions of influence. We conducted an exploratory factor analysis of the data—a statistical technique used to identify relationships between variables and frequently employed when “building . . . new metrics” (Yong and Pearce 2013, 79)—and identified five key indicators of student voice:
- “I have a voice in decision making at my institution.”
- “My institution seeks my input on how proposals might affect students.”
- “My institution fosters cooperation between students and institutional leaders.”
- “I have the opportunity to raise issues to my institution before they get out of hand.”
- “My institution respects decisions of the student government association.”
Students responded to each statement on a scale from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). We synthesized the data from these five indicator statements to develop one composite student voice variable. We used this variable to determine what factors (such as institutional policies and practices) are most highly correlated with stronger student voice.
With further statistical analysis and document analysis—wherein we analyzed publicly available documents “as a way to verify findings or corroborate evidence from other sources” (Bowen 2009, 30)—we identified five key findings.
- Engagement with the governing board matters, no matter the role. We asked student body presidents about their roles on or engagement with the governing board. Some reported serving as formal or ex-officio members of the board, while others reported having very informal opportunities to visit board meetings and present on behalf of students. We found that having a formal role or title did not directly affect student voice, but student body presidents who reported regular engagement with the governing board had stronger student voice than those who did not engage with the board at all. (Engaged students reported a mean [M] composite student voice score of 3.98, with a standard deviation [SD] of 0.86, compared with M = 3.53, SD = 1.02 for students who were not engaged.)
- Speaking rights lead to stronger student voice. We asked student body presidents about the rights and responsibilities they were granted at meetings of the governing board. We found that it was more common for students to have speaking rights than voting rights. Only 27.4 percent had both speaking and voting rights. There were no cases where students had voting rights without speaking rights. We found that student body presidents with speaking rights at meetings of the governing board
(M = 4.03, SD = 0.85) had significantly greater student voice than those without speaking rights (M = 3.61, SD = 0.97). We did not observe the same trend for voting rights, which suggests that being engaged in the discussion may be more important to student voice than being able to participate in a final vote.
- Relationships with institutional leaders matter, especially with the vice president for student affairs. We asked student body presidents about the frequency with which they meet with different institutional leaders. Nearly 40 percent of student body presidents did not meet with the chief financial officer at all, whereas only 7 percent of student body presidents did not meet with the institution’s president at all. Despite this variation, we found that only meeting frequency with the vice president for student affairs (VPSA) was significantly connected to student voice. Student body presidents who met weekly (M = 4.04, SD = 0.9) or biweekly (M = 4.05, SD = 0.9) with the VPSA reported significantly greater student voice than those who met once per semester or less (M = 3.21, SD = 0.86).
- Strong perception of influence is connected to student voice. We asked student body presidents about their ability to effect change at their institutions. When asked whether they had the opportunity to raise issues with institutional leaders before they got out of hand, 75 percent of student body presidents agreed to some extent. Yet only 55 percent of student body presidents reported feeling very or extremely influential in effecting change at their institutions (figure 1). While student body presidents may have access to decision makers, access does not necessarily translate to influence. We found that students who had a strong sense of influence also had a strong sense of voice. Regression analysis—a quantitative technique used to calculate “the ability of one variable to predict a second” (Lomax 2000, 2)—confirmed that influence is a predictor of student voice. This finding suggests that feeling influential in effecting change is correlated with perceptions of student voice.
- Student priorities reveal emerging challenges. We asked student body presidents to identify the top three issues facing students, student leaders, and institutional leaders in a series of open-ended questions (table 1). Some issues show significant overlap between all stakeholder groups, while others highlight the differences in how student leaders perceived the priorities of students and institutional leaders.
We also asked student body presidents to rate the importance of different policy topics from very unimportant to very important (figure 2). The majority of student body presidents identified all issues included in figure 2 as important or very important, with campus sexual assault and mental health at the top of the list.
Click on the images below to enlarge.
Institutional leaders are in a position to successfully adapt to a changing higher education landscape by engaging student leaders, listening to real student needs, and collaborating in decision making. We present below a series of questions and recommendations for institutional leaders to consider as they seek to listen to students.
1. Evaluate. One of the first steps to enhance student voice is to evaluate existing practices. This may include something as simple as asking the questions outlined below or a more rigorous task like analyzing the policies and bylaws of the governing board to determine what level of involvement students are granted. Institutional leaders must understand how existing practices and structures include or exclude student voice before they can attempt to improve.
- How frequently do institutional leaders meet with the student body president or other members of the student government? Our research showed that meeting at least monthly had a positive impact on student voice.
- What is discussed during these meetings? Include students in conversations. Our research showed that students have a pulse on top issues facing students and can provide valuable insights on decisions that will affect them.
- How often do institutional leaders ask for student insights or opinions on decisions? Add a step where institutional leaders seek student input any time they make a decision. Build it into the regular processes so it doesn’t become a hassle.
2. Engage. The results of NCLC’s initial SVI research suggest that student leaders are savvy about where decisions are being made at the leadership level. They recognize the importance of having meetings with institutional leaders and being able to participate in discussions where decisions are being shaped.
- How do institutional leaders engage students in decision making? Consider how institutional leaders are engaging students both formally and informally, and whether formal channels are well defined to transition from one student leader to the next.
- What can institutional leaders do to increase student engagement in decision making? Our research suggests student engagement is critical to student voice. Institutional leaders should meet with student body presidents to discuss tangible ways to increase engagement in decision making.
3. Elevate. A common critique from institutional leaders is that students are transient at institutions and lack proper training and knowledge to participate as full members in decision-making processes (Menon 2005). Students will continue to cycle through institutions of higher education, but their experiences and struggles remain salient. One goal of elevating student voice is to transfer information from students to decision makers to inform better policy that addresses the issues facing students of all generations.
- How can student voices be heard and incorporated despite this perceived challenge? Elevate the importance of student voice by discussing the changing role of student leaders with other institutional leaders.
- What steps are institutional leaders taking to provide students with the knowledge and experience required to participate in institutional decision making? Less than 50 percent of student body presidents in our study reported receiving training for their role, and only 21.7 percent agreed that the training was effective. Elevate student voice by training student leaders on the mechanics of decision making and providing appropriate context, just as you would any other leader.
“Student voice is where the students have an equal opportunity to not just be heard but for action to come from their request[s] and ideas.”
—SVI survey respondent
Listening to students means more than just hearing them out. The SVI research suggests that student voice is connected to ongoing, genuine engagement. Institutions of higher education and those who lead them have a responsibility to make decisions that uphold the values and mission of the institution. Engaging students and elevating their voices is critical to achieving this goal.
This article is based in part on NCLC’s Student Voice Index Report: A Study on Student Voice in Decision-Making at Institutions of Higher Education (Templeton, Smith, and MacCracken 2018). To read the full report and to see how your institution prioritizes student voice based on NCLC’s research, visit studentvoiceindex.org.
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. 2016. Shared Governance: Is OK Good Enough? Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. https://agb.org/reports-and-statements/shared-governance-is-ok-good-enough/.
Bowen, Glenn A. 2009. “Document Analysis as a Qualitative Research Method.” Qualitative Research Journal 9 (2): 27–40.
Canning, John. 2017. “Conceptualising Student Voice in UK Higher Education: Four Theoretical Lenses.” Teaching in Higher Education 22 (5): 519–31.
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Lomax, Richard G. 2000. Statistical Concepts: A Second Course for Education and the Behavioral Sciences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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Scruggs, Spencer. 2014. “Student Government Leadership in the 21st Century: Its Importance and Why It Must Be Supported.” College of Arts & Sciences Honors Theses. Paper 80. University of Louisville.
Seale, Jane. 2010. “Doing Student Voice Work in Higher Education: An Exploration of the Value of Participatory Methods.” British Educational Research Journal 36 (6): 995–1015.
Templeton, Lindsey, Amy Smith, and Andy MacCracken. 2018. Student Voice Index Report: A Study on Student Voice in Decision-Making at Institutions of Higher Education. Washington, DC: National Campus Leadership Council. https://www.studentvoiceindex.org/report.
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Lindsey Templeton is Director of Research and Training at National Campus Leadership Council and a Doctoral Student in the Higher Education Program at the University of Maryland, College Park; Andy MacCracken is Executive Director and Cofounder at National Campus Leadership Council; and Amy Smith is Senior Advisor at National Campus Leadership Council.