Students Speaking Out: A Look at Student Governing Powers in Higher Education

Brendan Klein

“No tuition without representation!” Just like the Founding Fathers and Washington, DC residents today, students across America are speaking out about their lack of voice and power. Only this time the focus is on decision-making in higher education.

Today, over 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in some type of postsecondary institution. With most young Americans entering into higher education, it would seem natural that decision-making within higher education includes student perspective.

The recently released Student Voice Index found student body leaders who had a role on their institution’s governing board had a greater impact on the decision-making process with regard to such issues as tuition increases, endowment allocations, campus policy, and more.

Therefore, in order to ensure student voice is represented in the decision-making process, governing boards of higher education institutions might be best served by having student members on their boards with full speaking rights at a minimum.

I have experienced this first hand and can speak to the importance of student voice. This fall I am beginning my term as student body Vice-President at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. For over a decade, student leaders sat as members of the Board of Trustees and their committees. We spoke up about housing concerns, racial diversity, tuition, and many other issues on behalf of the student body. However, our greatest power to enact change came from our ability not only to have full speaking rights, but voting rights as well.  That is, until last year, when the Board of Trustees voted to remove the student trustee from a voting member to a representative. While we still have full speaking rights, we no longer have a vote. Though the student body at my school is now more limited in power and voice, we still enjoy close relationships with the administration, who is often receptive to student concerns. The same cannot be said for other higher education institutions across America.

I reached out to a diverse group of fellow student government leaders over email to understand how their voice is being heard by their administrations, how their voice has influenced decision-making processes, and what their recommendations are for authentically engaging young people to inform decisions at their institutions. Here are their responses to the questions I asked:

Question: What role should students or student government have in higher education decision-making?

“Students should have a central role in higher education decision-making. I believe that students should inform the policies and procedures that govern their collegiate experiences… Furthermore, when students are treated as partners and valued stakeholders in institutional affairs, they are more effective at achieving change.”- Sarah Kenny, former Student Body President of the University of Virginia, 2017-18

I believe that decisions in higher education should be a conclusion of conversations between students, who can be represented by student government and the administration of the institution. It is true that after 4 years, students graduate, and it is the administration who is there, has more experience, and the time on campus…However, if not for the input of the current students, those changes that might be done with good intention may only result in what the administrators think is good for students, but not be reflective of what students actually need and want.”- Beatriz Gil González, Student Body President of the University of Rochester, NY, 2018-19

“As students, we should have a role that allows for us to openly and boldly share “Our Unique Experiences” with administrators… The decision-making… should be largely left to the administrator. After all, we are students and our primary goal is to successfully pursue and complete our education. Administrators and faculty are given a job to ensure student success, so it is important to trust them but also hold them accountable.”- Dylan John, former Student Body President of Georgia Southern University, 2017-18

 Question: What are the biggest issues facing students in higher education today?

“I would say that ensuring all students feel welcome and treated equally is a very big one. I personally believe that some of the most important are diversity vs inclusiveness, international students, non-binary students, and student voice and involvement.”- Beatriz Gil González

“In my perspective, a few of the biggest issues are voter registration, sexual assault, and cost of college. Students need to be taking action and voting so government officials take our input seriously. Sexual assault policies need to be overhauled at many institutions to simplify the reporting process and protect the survivors. The cost of college will inevitably increase over time. However, universities can proactively aid in the process though cutting costs of programs or developing free resources. There are many more, but these three are primary concerns at Indiana University.”- Alex Wisniewski, Student Body President at Indiana University-Bloomington, 2018-19

Question: Is there an example of a time you or a fellow student were included in higher education decision-making?

“Georgia Southern University is a very good example of effective “student voice” in decision- making. Student voice has been included in forming different campus policies, the implementation of campus consolidation, and the search/hiring of administrators such as our new university president.”- Dylan John

“I had the great privilege of being regularly included in University decision-making processes. One such example relates to my work with community engagement. An inaugural Vice Provost for Outreach convened a small group of students each month for informative and collaborative purposes. These meetings were mutually beneficial and included grant writing, petition drafting, strategic planning, course designing, and goal setting… Not only did I learn a great deal from these fellow committee members, but I had the chance to bring forth student perspectives on an issue that had a large impact on our daily lives.”- Sarah Kenny

“Our student government was recently invited to sit on the search committee for the assistant dean of student’s position. It was great to be included in this process and we are hoping to establish a student seat as a norm for any search committee within our administration.”- Alex Wisniewski

It is clear from these responses that there is value in including student voice in the decision-making process at postsecondary institutions. Actions such as including student voice in hiring decisions, development of campus policies, and creating an inclusive and welcoming campus can enhance the college experience for all participants. Students, from first-years to student body presidents, are realizing their potential influence on higher education. It is now up to those making decisions in higher education to include us at the table and allow us to join them in creating a better academic and social environment for America’s youth to thrive.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.