New Research Project to Examine Unions’ Relationship to Student Learning, Engagement

ACUI recently partnered with Indiana University to expand research in the college union and student activities field. The goal of the partnership is to start with a single project in hopes of building upon initial success and expanding research efforts into the future. The first project to be pursued is a qualitative study that will examine student engagement in the college union and how college unions contribute to student learning and success.

“I’m excited about the potential of this project,” said ACUI’s Chief Executive Officer John Taylor. “Despite an increase in college union research during the past few years, there’s a lot we still don’t know. I’m hopeful this initiative can be one step forward in understanding the union as a vital part of the campus learning environment.”

Initial results are likely to be published in early 2019. It is also anticipated that the study will provide data that can be used in creating toolkits and resources for professionals to apply in practice.

To facilitate the project, IU’s Center for Postsecondary Research will provide significant academic resources to ACUI in conducting research, analyzing data, and connecting outcomes with other projects the center oversees. The center conducts and disseminates research on student access, assessment, engagement, and persistence, including the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). ACUI has composed a research leadership team to direct the vision for the project, with advisory support from the Association’s existing Research Program Team.

Data collection and analysis will be modeled after the Documenting Effective Educational Practice (DEEP) project, using a qualitative case study design to discover the conditions within a physical space that influence student learning and student success. The use of physical space, student employment, programming, campus partnerships, policies, and practices will be documented to gain an understanding of the outcomes students gain from the college union. The use of the qualitative case study methodology offers an opportunity for a thick description and detailed example from the voice of the user to illustrate purpose of the college union in relation to student learning on today’s college campus.

To guide the investigation, researchers will use the Role of the College Union statement as a framework. Data collection will focus on how the union creates conditions for student learning and success. They will seek information through interview protocols and observation related to:

  • The union’s integration with the educational mission of the institution.
  • How the union’s cultural, educational, social, and recreational programs complement the academic experience.
  • How the union serves as a student-centered organization, valuing participatory decision making.
  • The union’s ability to develop persons as well as intellect.
  • The union’s provision of services and conveniences that meet the daily needs of the campus community.
  • The union’s success in serving as a unifying force that values diversity and honors each individual.
  • How the union fosters a sense of loyalty to the institution.

Specifically focusing on the Role of the College Union will provide a foundation for understanding how the college union contributes to student success and learning. Student Success in College: Assessing the Conditions for Educational Effectiveness explained that the enacted mission of an institution is key to understanding the daily decisions of where and how students interact on campus. Understanding how the mission of the institution aligns with the Role of the College Union will provide professionals with the evidence they need to enhance programs and services on college campuses and to think intentionally about building renovations.

Six ACUI member institutions from across the United States have been selected for this study. Three site visits are scheduled for late 2017 and three in early 2018. Eleven ACUI members have agreed to serve as researchers for the study, with three-person teams assigned to each campus site visit. Campus visits will be conducted over a three-day period, with research teams interviewing students, faculty, administrators, and staff to learn about student engagement efforts that contribute to student learning and success. In preparation for each site visit, researchers will review campus materials to establish an understanding of the campus and college union. Additional methods to collect data more broadly on how the college union contributes to the institutions’ academic mission, common learning outcomes, and student gains from engagement in the college union will be explored. Data will be analyzed using both within-site and cross-site analysis and a common reporting format for consistency.

To learn more about this research initiative, please contact Dr. John Taylor, chief executive officer, at, or Dr. Danielle DeSawal, principle investigator, at

  • Principle Investigator: Danielle DeSawal, Ph.D., Clinical Associate Professor, Higher Education and Student Affairs Masters Coordinator, Indiana University
  • Official Sponsor: John Taylor, Ed.D., ACUI’s Chief Executive Officer
  • Dr. Willie Banks Jr., Ph.D., Vice President of Student Affairs at Indiana State University
  • Dr. Loren Rullman, Ph.D., Principal at Workshop Architects


  • Elizabeth Beltramini

    Elizabeth Beltramini served as ACUI's director of content curation and chief diversity officer. She worked at ACUI for more than 20 years before leaving in 2022 to pursue new challenges. Upon her departure, Beltramini received ACUI's Honorary Membership and Presidential Award for Distinguished Services.

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