Given the importance of campus connections to sense of belonging and broader student success, it is of value to explore the physical spaces where these connections often occur. One area on campus that is primed to be a central point of building and strengthening community is the student union. Student unions and student centers, by their very nature, are intended to be a hub of student life, activity, and connections on campus. And, these environments are increasingly designed and intended to support student learning.
Designed in partnership with ACUI, the ACUI/Benchworks College Union Assessment provides campuses with valuable data on the college union experience. The assessment contains a wide range of questions, ranging from when and how these use the facility to satisfaction with different services. It also measures key learning outcomes that we would expect our students to gain as a result of their interactions and experience in these facilities. And, with over a decade of data from over 250 colleges and universities in the United States, we’ve learned a lot about the college union experience.
So, what have we learned? Here are three, high-level things we consistently seen in the national data:
Students visit unions frequently
If a facility is meant to be the hub of student life, it should be a facility that students frequent often. And, data from our assessment shows that this is indeed the case. For the 2017-2018 academic year, nearly 90% of survey respondents indicating visiting their college union at least one during the academic year. Of those who visited at least one, four out of five visited their union at least once per week, while nearly 25% reported visiting at least one a day or more. And, while those visits are spread throughout the day, the period of time with the highest traffic is between 9am and 2pm, when two-thirds of respondents indicated they typically visit their college union.
Students visit for a variety of reasons
From providing options for dining to spaces for student activities, and offices for key services, college unions are remarkably diverse in their services and offerings. And, the national data on why students visit their college union or student center reflect the wide-ranging purposes of the facilities themselves. When asked to identify the top three reasons out of over fifteen for visiting their college union, almost everyone--98%--indicated that food-related offerings were a top reason for visiting. Other top reasons for visiting their college union included:
Meeting others (88%)
Attending programs or events (78%)
Visiting the bookstore (77%)
Attending student organization meetings (68%)
So, the national data reflect that, while students are visiting their college union for more transactional needs, like buying textbooks or getting lunch, they are also utilizing the facility for connecting, as many of the top reasons for visiting include meeting other students, attending programs, or attending organization meetings.
Unions successfully help to build a sense of community
For a college union to be successfully fulfilling its mission of serving as a hub of student life and helping to build a sense of community, we would expect more than usage data showing numerous visits for a variety of reasons. We would also expect student perceptions of those unions--centered around both satisfaction and learning--to highlight the role that unions play in supporting student success. Nationally, the data from the ACUI/Benchworks College Union Assessment reflects just that.
Across a variety of outcomes, union visitors indicated that their experience with unions, their activities, and their services all reflect a facility that is truly the hub of student life and connections. For instance, nearly three out of four union visitors were both satisfied with the extent to which their college union promotes a sense of community on campus and agreed that their union is a place to get involved in campus life.
Furthermore, student perceptions also reflect the role of unions and union activities in contributing to learning. For instance, 40% of union visitors indicated that their college union experience enhanced their ability to interact socially. And, 26% of visitors indicated that their college union activities expand their understanding of their role as a citizen of the college community.
To top it off, unions do this while being conscious of student activity fee dollars.When considering the fees paid to support their union with the quality of activities and services provided, 88% of union visitors rated the value of how their dollars were spent as at least “Fair.” 37% of visitors rated the value of their dollars as very good or higher.
So, at a high level, unions help to bring students together; provide opportunities for learning that, among other things, build campus connections; and provide all of this and more at a valuable rate for students.