Student Voice: the Ultimate Higher Education Innovation?

Today’s student bodies are growing more diverse by many key metrics, underscoring the urgent need for institutional leaders and policymakers to address historic challenges affecting student finances, wellbeing, and success. In this environment, innovation is at a premium as leaders work to adapt to change.

While many players within the higher education community pursue powerful technology and new business models to meet the needs of today’s students, another omnipresent resource is too often taken for granted. Perhaps the key to unlocking innovative, successful problem-solving in higher education is something else entirely: student voice.

Students are the primary financier and end user, the most important stakeholder in higher education. As I travel the country talking to student leaders, I see the most success in student engagement at places where student input is normalized and expected at all levels of decision-making. The question bears asking: are we making the most of opportunities to engage students, to consider their point of view, and incorporate their suggestions into decision-making?

That’s what the National Campus Leadership Council (NCLC) recently set out discover with the Student Voice Index (SVI). Emerging research from SVI provides new evidence that including student voice may be an untapped resource for universities in search of solutions. The study surveyed student government association (SGA) presidents and analyzed policy documents from more than 200 colleges and universities around the country to better understand the formal and informal ways students engage in institutional decision-making.

We learned that SGA presidents, the chief student representative to higher education decision-makers, feel generally optimistic about their access but less sure about their actual influence. Two in three respondents agree that they have a voice in decision-making and 3 in 4 agree that they have the opportunity to raise issues “before they get out of hand.” Yet, only 55% feel very or extremely influential in the process.

Some key factors that impact students’ perceived voice include facetime with leaders, speaking rights in formal governance settings, and a sense that decision-makers are respectful of and responsive to student input. However, a culture that values student input must support those interactions. As student leaders continue to push for more direct and formal engagement in the policymaking process, it is vitally important to empower students beyond having access. Our research underscores the importance of ensuring students have access and, when appropriate, formal speaking and voting rights with institutional leaders.

Several states, including Wisconsin and Florida, have taken the step of recognizing the unique role of student governments in state law. At the federal level, the statutory inclusion of a student representative in the U.S. Department of Education negotiated rulemaking process has set a strong precedent for institutionalized student voice. Ohio State University’s student government provides a powerful case study highlighting the effectiveness of student voice from one of the nation’s largest public universities.

And these are promising steps forward. As higher education leaders and advocates, we say we want to build a culture that is student-centric, to remove barriers to access and affordability, to improve the student experience wherever possible. But student-centric change depends on our ability to incorporate student voice early and often.

Sometimes, true innovation comes in the form of simple steps. If higher education is serious about student success, leaders at all levels of policymaking would do well to engage student voices in the hunt for solutions. To paraphrase Jefferson Noel, SGA president at Florida International University Biscayne Bay campus, if we empower this generation of student leaders to solve today’s problems, that frees the next generation to solve new problems. If we don’t do that effectively, we will continue to experience the same problems over and over again.

As the country searches for innovative solutions to challenges facing higher education around equity, safety, student well-being and success, perhaps the most innovative solution does not require an expensive white paper and a crack team of consultants. It’s something much easier and far less costly: listening to the students.

Andy MacCracken is the co-founder and executive director of the National Campus Leadership Council.