Monday, February 1, 2010

Times are a changin'

Times are a changin', and that definitely includes college student governments.

Much more is asked, and expected, of Student Governments than was typical 25 years ago.. Modern Student Governments are often asked to provide services and programming, such as intramurals and speakers, and to pay for other services that used to be the administration's responsibility.

In the early 80s, we mainly made statements to administrators and lobbied at the state level. We didn't provide as many student services as many SGs do now. UCLA's student government has a budget of more than $40 million, while the University of Colorado distributes more than $30 million in student activity fees.

Granted, most SG budgets pale in comparison. But they often have hundreds of thousands of dollars to control and disburse. Student Governments now provide shuttles, video rental services, discount cards, telephone wake-up services, and even escort services (not that kind!). There are hundreds of "signature programs" that ASGA tracks around the nation. Student Governments now use their programs to grab the attention of super-busy fellow students. The signature programs hopefully make SG relevant to the average student, which will lead to greater participation and voter turnout.

When I was involved in Student Government at a community college and major state university in the early 80s, we barely knew what was going on with OUR student government. We knew little to nothing about the progress, problems, and issues of even our arch rivals.

Now, through the American Student Government Association, SGs have instant access to vast resources, databases, examples of best practices, solutions to problems. Nearly 1,000 institutions have joined ASGA since its inception in 2003. Technological advances then allowed content management systems software to be affordable to small organizations, which led to the birth of ASGA.

Unfortunately, Student Governments haven't kept up with the technological changes that have made it much easier and quicker to communicate nationwide. While most have a web presence, their sites are usually horribly outdated and bereft of content to make students want to visit. Many SGs have embraced social networking, but don't Facebook, twitter, and others to their fullest extent. They don't understand basic concepts of marketing.

In the early 80s, Student Governments reached out to their peers through personal contact, advertising in the college newspaper, and fliers plastered across campus. Many current SGs have abandoned personal contact and instead now rely on Facebook alerts. Many have discontinued the time-honored "postering" tool to promote events and programs. But there is no replacement for personal contact with individual students, speaking to fellow students in classes and during club meetings, and using posters placed strategically to get students' attention.

In the past 25 years, budgets for many SGs have increased, their roles on collegewide committees has grown, and their role in helping to run the institution has improved. The catch phrase is "shared governance." It's even the law in some states, such as Florida and California, that students have representation on the boards of trustees that govern institutions.

Students getting involved in Student Government now has the potential to have real influence on the direction of their colleges and universities. They usually has significant budgets to work with. They usually have an official student voice on most collegewide committees.

But they struggle with many of the same challenges that faced SG leaders two decades ago: getting the student body to take them seriously, to vote in their elections, to run for office, to improve their image with administrators and faculty, and to get the word out about their programs, services, and issues