Fostering campus civic engagement with today’s students

Today’s postsecondary students face a growing list of demands on their time and energy, from taking on paid work to coping with mental health concerns. But it’s crucial that this growing list doesn’t prevent them from becoming engaged members of their campus communities. As these students work to balance their many responsibilities with their desire to participate in student clubs and governments, student associations face the growing challenge of fostering an engaged student body.

To delve deeper into this issue, we asked future, present, and past Canadian postsecondary students from our StudentVu panel about their experiences of student civic engagement and campus leadership. The survey was completed by 2,090 college and university students from across Canada.

Good News for Student Governments

Overall, current PSE students agreed that postsecondary student governments/unions "Are a great way to manage students' needs at an institution" (3.6 out of 5.0 where 5 is "Strongly agree"). They also generally disagreed with the statement "Postsecondary student governments/unions do not work that hard" (2.6).

Statement Score
Postsecondary student governments/unions provide useful services 3.7
Postsecondary student governments/unions are a great way to manage students’ needs at an institution. 3.6
I know what a postsecondary student government/union takes care of at a school 3.0
Postsecondary student governments/unions are out of touch with students’ needs. 2.8
Postsecondary student governments/unions do not work that hard 2.6

We also investigated whether students knew what activities student governments and unions were involved in or responsible for. Panelists most commonly believed that their student governments/unions ran welcome week or orientation events (80%), advocated for students in front of institutional leaders (77%), and ran on-campus student cafes, restaurants, and/or pubs (55%). It was less common for students to state that their unions offered scholarships or bursaries (37%) or advocated for students to provincial (44%) or federal (32%) governments.

These results speak positively to student perceptions of their student governments, says Ercole Perrone, executive director of Ignite, an organization that represents roughly 30,000 students at Humber College and University of Guelph-Humber. "I was happy with some of what was coming out," notes Perrone. "Primarily, the acknowledgement that we [student associations] are a great way to manage the needs of students, and that advocating for students to the university or college leaders was highlighted so strongly."

The follow-through

One of the most significant trends identified by the survey was the gap between high school students' intent to participate in various forms of student life, and the reported participation rates of current and former PSE students. Among high school respondents, 36% said that they planned to get involved with student government at their postsecondary school (35% of men and 37% of women). This number seems particularly ambitious, especially when one considers that only 6% of current postsecondary students reported actually doing so (5% of men and 7% of women). Similarly, 8% of former students said that they had been involved in student government.

A vast majority of high school students also said that they planned to vote in student elections at their postsecondary institution (80%: 78% of men and 82% of women). Perrone notes that in contrast to these findings, Ignite tends to see a 25% voter turnout, which he says is considered to be a good proportion of student voters. Combined with the study’s other findings, this data marks a notable gap between students' intentions and their actual behaviour when it comes to campus civic engagement.

"I think what we generally find troubling is that piece about the follow-through," says Perrone. "What I mean by that is we have a clear indication of students' intent to participate and get involved, whether that be running in an election or starting a club or what have you, but then there is a drop off. When the time comes, there's not that follow-through, and we can make some assumptions that their time and their money is too divided and they have difficulty with priorities when it comes to the sort of the things that are on the extra-curricular side."

This study’s results and Perrone’s comments reveal that students are eager to be engaged as they enter PSE, yet face many diverging demands on their time – more than they seem to expect before they arrive. As Perrone notes, student governments and clubs need to reach out to new students as early as possible in the student lifecycle to ensure that they capture as much of this enthusiasm as possible and convert these new students into active members of the student community.

Converting enthusiasm into engagement

While there are many techniques for engaging and learning more about students, Perrone says that one of the most effective is the use of surveys. Performing surveys, he says, allows a student association to develop targeted messaging that will help convert as many interested students as possible into active members of student societies, clubs, and governments. The next step, he adds, is to extend targeted, personalized invitations to students to participate in specific events.

"I'd say it starts with email. Definitely starts with email and an invitation to something that happens physically," says Perrone, noting that this could be a one-on-one conversation with a staff or board member. "It's an invitation to an intimate gathering of about 10 to 15 where maybe we provide dinner and we go through a very short presentation, but it's generally a conversation about what they can do in their roles and what impact they could have on the student body if they were to pursue any of these positions. It's a good mix I'd say."

Overall, Perrone says that success for him would be a year-over-year growth in the number of students wanting to take on student leadership positions: "We will extend that definition to include those students that we employ in a part-time capacity because they're not just a pair of hands to us; they are developing leaders and they participate in various leadership development exercises that we employ internally as well. For us, a part-time staff member who potentially is a customer service representative at the front desk is a potential presidential candidate a year or two from now."

Perrone concludes that one of the key ways to get students interested in student leadership positions is to show them how the skills learned through this engagement will allow them to make a difference in the world after they leave PSE. "I think what we try to encourage to our current student leaders is: 'You have the ability to have an impact externally and in the community when you do leave here. We want to help you build some of those skills on governance and fiduciary responsibility and a little bit of not-for-profit law and all that kind of stuff,' so that when they do leave, they can make a contribution to another community-based organization if they wish."

Takeaways

Overall, our StudentVu panel revealed that students harbour a lot of enthusiasm for participating in student life, yet often find it challenging to do so due to conflicting demands on their time and energy. Given how quickly these conflicts appear in the student lifecycle, it's crucial that student governments and student life professionals invest as much energy as possible into becoming part of students' lives before their plates become full. Doing so will require these advocates to convey to students just how valuable the skills learned in student civic life will be, not only while attending school, but after they graduate.

If you are interested in learning more about how StudentVu can help your school with timely and accurate student perception data, please don’t hesitate to contact Academica Group. Or if you’d prefer to chat over the phone, you can reach us toll-free at 1-866-922-8636 ext. 228.

At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.

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