The Tradition of Student Activism Influencing Higher Education Policy

I recently visited a student activism class full of masters-level students studying higher education administration where I spoke about my experience and writing about how students can influence policy and policymakers. In reflection, we are in an exciting time where there is more than a course-worth of academic research on student activism. And, there are classrooms full of future higher education practitioners across the country learning about institutional and policy responses to student organizing and advocacy, in all its expressions. From protesting for butter in the 1600s at Harvard to lunch counter sit-ins by North Carolina A&T students in 1960 to #ConcernedStudent1950 at the University of Missouri and #notagainSU still unfolding at Syracuse University, students have been influencing policy decisions as long as colleges and universities have existed in the United States. In this historical collective moment that we face today, it is only fitting that students are connecting what’s happening in the world around them to their educational experiences and challenging the system to expand and transform to better fit their needs.

There are some who have a bias against student activism; they do not value it as a productive vehicle for change. For some, images of protesters invoke the idea that activism is a project of ungrateful traditionally aged students and the tactic is unproductive, aggressive, and even violent. I don’t see it that way. 

Today’s students—older, caretakers, first-generation, working full- and part-time to make ends meet, people of color—have a lot to be concerned about. While the presidential primary campaign season has kicked off important debates about free college and debt forgiveness, we know that the issues facing higher education are far more expansive than that. Students are organizing and advocating for affordability, campus climate and safety, mental and emotional wellness resources, childcare, housing and food security, immigration, and racial justice. All these issues have direct and indirect impact on retention, completion and success, as well as state and federal policy implications. 

It is a privilege to support student advocacy efforts because students—who are encountering many of the same issues I did as an undergraduate—are seriously, civically engaged and continue to be the best mediums of their own experiences and solutions that are student-centered and antiracist.

Like any other college tradition, student activism will continue to occur. Postsecondary educational systems have not kept up with changing student populations. To use a metaphor, rather than viewing student activism as invaders into a healthy body, instead students are the white blood cells, the inflammation that alerts the body when there is something wrong.