Student Engagement and Learning: Grounded in the Role of the College Union ​

Overview of the Study

The college union has historically been a physical space on campus that provides a place for the community to gather for social and intellectual conversations. At the core of ACUI’s The Role of the College Union, first published in 1956, are concepts related to how the union provides an environment for learning, student success, and community building. This is the second of three articles that will highlight the initial results of a research project that investigated the characteristics and outcomes associated with student engagement within a college union facility. 

A 12-member research team was assembled to investigate how the role of the college union contributes, broadly, to student learning and success in a complex higher education environment. The team included 10 practitioners (all with union administration experience), a faculty member with an architecture focus, and the primary investigator, who is a faculty member in a higher education and student affairs program with college union experience.  

The data collection and analysis were modeled from the Documenting Effective Educational Practice project, using a qualitative case study design to discover the conditions within a physical space that impact student learning and student success. Team members reviewed more than 250 institutional documents and observed the use of the physical space. They interviewed more than 300 faculty, staff, students, and administrators, resulting in more than 80 hours of qualitative data. Through observation, team members used facility floor plans to document space usage. The initial data analysis identified alignment with the academic mission, student employment experiences, and engagement focused on the tenets of the college union role statement as conditions that contribute to student learning and success.  

The focus on learning outcomes aligns with the national trends surrounding institutions’ development of a common set of learning outcomes for undergraduate students established by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2016. Specifically focusing on the Role of the College Union to guide the research framework provides a foundation for understanding how the college union contributes to student success and learning.  

In the book Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter, George Kuh, Jillian Kinzie, John Schuh, and Elizabeth Whitt note 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, services, and relationships on college campuses, and to think intentionally about building construction and renovations. 

Site visits were conducted on six college campuses in 2017 or 2018. Those campuses were the University of Minnesota–Duluth, California State University–Northridge, the University of Houston, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Oklahoma State University, and North Carolina State University.  


While college unions are sometimes perceived as merely physical edifices, this study has established that it is the aggregate of staff, programs, services, offices, student leadership, and physical spaces, within and around the college union, which conspire to create a thoughtful plan for enhancing student engagement. 

As the Role of the College Union notes, a purposeful college union seeks to embrace diversity, further educational goals, incubate student engagement, and cultivate a sense of community. Indeed, the college union organizations involved in this study actively pursued and measured learning outcomes related to these purposes. And, those studied understood that the combination of offerings—in, but also combined with, physical space—offered the ingredients researchers found fundamental to institutional diversity, student learning, human engagement, and campus community.

Research has consistently found that, at their core, college unions present learning opportunities in communal context with other people, whether through intentional programs, student employment, student organizations, or serendipitously within their lounges, hallways, and meeting spaces. In Community: The Hidden Context for Learning, Deborah J. Bickford and David J. Wright explained that community environments can have a catalyzing effect upon learning because they encourage “members [to] interact in a meaningful way that deepens their understanding of each other and leads to learning.” These interactions induce reflection, introspection, values clarification, identity development, and a host of other outcomes associated with the college experience. They also offer students opportunities to apply what they learn in and beyond the classroom, thereby positively affecting learning, engagement, persistence, and retention.

Although not every college union organization enjoys the benefits of a dedicated physical building to further student engagement outcomes, the institutions in this study each host a college union facility where the programmatic and operational entities belong organizationally to the same administrative structure. Thus, it is important to highlight the impact of physical environments upon how people feel, behave, and interact, as has long been documented in the literature. Carney Strange and James Banning, for example, articulated in their book, Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments That Work, how campus physical environments communicate nonverbal messages to their users about the institution’s values, vision, priorities, and capabilities. Specifically, Joseph Atkins and David Oakland described in their article, “College Unions Transform Campus Life at Small Regional Institutions,” how the physical college union is often “the informal territory of collegiate life between … [academic] settings that can have the most impact [on student learning].” 

The college unions in this study successfully combined physical spaces with purposeful efforts related to staff, programs, services, offices, and student leadership to achieve high-impact student engagement outcomes.

How the College Union Cultivates Personal Development 

The Role of the College Union makes clear that a purposeful college union should, among other things, cultivate in students an appreciation for diversity, clarification of values, and a sense of belonging to and amid others. For decades, research in higher education has repeatedly found that out-of-class experiences play a role in advancing student learning and personal development on college campuses. While this is not a particularly new finding, this study did identify how a specific facility on campus, the college union, can intentionally use the space to offer multiple personal development experiences for students. College union ideals have reflected the distinct purpose and rationale for the physical space since establishment of the first physical college union at the University of Pennsylvania, Houston Hall, in 1896.”

As the landscape of higher education changes, students are increasingly attracted to campuses with numerous opportunities to socialize and engage with others (e.g., via rock climbing walls, electronic gaming labs, makerspaces, etc.). This has resulted in the growth of physical spaces on campuses that offer opportunities to constructively engage them outside the classroom. Using the Role of the College Union, this study highlights that college union ideals continue to serve as a unifying force for the campus community, over 190 years later, bringing together students, staff, faculty, alumni, and guests in an intentional and interdisciplinary space. 

Development of Diverse Perspectives 

The college union … advocat[es] for inclusivity and equity, fostering respect, and affirming the identities of all individuals.

The ways each college union in this study actively pursued, taught, and celebrated diversity, equity, and inclusion through its policies, practices, programs, and people were unambiguous. The importance of diversity was not left to chance, assertively practiced, and systematically measured. For example, the Kirby Student Center at the University of Minnesota–Duluth illustrated its commitment with highly visible and permanent wall posters displaying messages and images related to diversity and inclusion.

Those examples included a T-shirt art display temporarily hung and made by students which had messages related to sexual assault prevention and the myriad international flags hung in the building’s multicultural center. Interviewees indicated the center employed the university’s most diverse student employee workforce because hiring practices were inclusive, student organizations were required to “participate in cultural programming,” and its signature student leadership program featured a capstone meeting. During that meeting students “talk about equity and inclusion … [and] after which they have to speak to others about what they have done and what they have learned … [in] their leadership experience with inclusivity.” As one staff member remarked about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Kirby Student Center: “it’s hard for [students] to avoid.” 

Clarification and articulation of values

The college union… educat[es] students in leadership and social responsibility and offer[s] firsthand experiences in… citizenship.

College unions can teach universal human values, as articulated in the Role of the College Union, and simultaneously help students become more aware of their own values and how to apply them to their lives on campus, in their communities, and for their careers. A good example of this capability exists at the California State University–Northridge’s University Student Union, where the research team observed the organization’s values seemingly embedded throughout its student activities, employee training, physical spaces, and staff interactions. Union staff articulated, “[students] will learn from us to have a set of values. We are not telling students what sets of codes and principles … they have subscribed to.”

Indeed, students articulated that through spaces, jobs, programs, and interactions they’ve learned the importance of customer service; that life limitations are often self-imposed; the importance and complexity of diversity; the ways in which language and words impact others; and how to use one’s voice to advocate for needs. Although these examples may also be considered skills, the also symbolize students’ reflections on what constitute internalized values. As one USU staff member summarized, “we talk about what [students] are coming for, but we [also] talk about what they’re leaving with.” 

Creation of a sense of belonging 

The college union… provid[es] gathering spaces to encourage formal and informal community interactions that build meaningful relationships.  

Central to the purpose of college unions and typical university goals is broad student sentiment that they are valued members of a larger institutional community; one that bonds them to each other and inculcates a sense of belonging to this community. The Oklahoma State University Student Union provides numerous examples of how college unions can successfully create this sentiment including, for example: the “#IamOKSTATE” marketing campaign designed to instill a sense of pride as a member of the university family; strategic use of historical artifacts and materials connecting current students to a legacy of alumni; participation in a university promotional video in which the union director invites the international community to use the union building; the student governing board’s constitution with a goal “to promote a sense of loyalty to the student union and the university,” and an organizational “brand promise” for a “welcoming environment” that was evident in myriad materials.

The union director made clear to the research team the organization’s perspective that “people don’t come for the four walls, they come [for] an ethos.” This ethos includes cultivating student sentiment that they belong to a university legacy larger than, but connected to, their individual experiences, and the Union’s spaces and artifacts, marketing materials, training, and public messages continually reinforce this sentiment. Indeed, students themselves describe achievement of the hoped for outcome by indicating the Union “is really where… the life of campus, and the people you know who are putting that life together, come.” 

How the college union creates conditions for student engagement 

In What Student Affairs Professionals Need to Know About Student Engagement, George Kuh concludes that “engagement increases the odds that any student – educational and social background notwithstanding – will attain his or her educational and personal objectives, acquire the skills and competencies demanded by the challenges of the twenty-first century…” The college union provides a physical space with a variety of focused interactions and events which increase the odds a student will be engaged intellectually and behaviorally. More specifically, the college union remains a facility on campus that is designed to bring together the entire campus community, offering spaces where research can be conducted, a sense of belonging is cultivated, and faculty can interact in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. Finally, the college union offers students an opportunity to gain practical skills that are transferrable to a multitude of professional disciplines.  

Design Intentionality 

The college union… traditionally considered the living room…enhances the student experience and cultivates an enduring connection to the institution. 

The intentional design of physical space is a valuable tool for promoting student engagement. Two clear strategies emerged from the current study. The first is the use of thoughtful environmental messaging and displays that convey shared values to the larger collegiate community. The second is through purposefully designed physical settings that directly support and enhance student involvement, engagement, and people’s overall experience of the campus environment. Oklahoma State University’s union features a mix of graphic displays and environmental branding that help to foster a supportive atmosphere for what members of the campus community call the “Cowboy family.”

The many prominent and well-crafted displays communicate campus values, history, and the importance of student success. For example, the university logo is prominently displayed throughout the building, including a three-story-tall banner framed by a clock tower in its light-filled atrium. The banner includes images of students involved in both academics and athletics, along with the university mascot – Pistol Pete – with the popular slogan: “LIVE ORANGE.” On the second floor overlooking the atrium are plaques and images from the Halligan Hall of Scholars, which honors undergraduate students and their faculty mentors who have won prestigious national and international scholarship competitions. Nearby, on the second floor, the Diversity Hall of Fame, established by the university’s Division of Inclusion, recognizes alumni and university supporters who have contributed to the advancement of university diversity and inclusion and who have distinguished themselves through their betterment of the community. Elsewhere in the union, the Fraternity and Sorority Hall of Fame displays plaques to honor students and staff who have contributed to a thriving Greek Life community. Both the content of these displays and the way they are physically presented are important to conveying and supporting connections to and community within the institution. Halligan Hall and the two other halls of fame share a consistent design language: large gold, sans-serif letters, and the Oklahoma State logo. This consistency and attention to graphic design underscore the importance that the university places on school pride, academic success, inclusion, and student life. 

The Kirby Student Union at the University at Minnesota-Duluth is another prime example of how the intentional design of a physical setting can enhance student involvement and engagement, as well as people’s daily lived experience. The renovation of Kirby’s ground floor supports the university’s strategic goals of integrating curricular and co-curricular learning, sustainability, equity and diversity, and connection to the Duluth area community. Renovated in 2015 by Workshop Architects, it received an ACUI Design Award for Excellence and is notable for many reasons: 

  • It transformed a cramped, dark, and awkwardly configured space into a thriving crossroads for campus life.
  • New windows on the eastern wall provide abundant natural light and stunning views of this hillside campus, the city of Duluth, and Lake Superior below. 
  • Its efficient space planning increased lounge space by more than 4,000 square feet without sacrificing existing offices for student organizations and staff. 
  • A coordinated environmental branding strategy draws stronger connections to campus heritage and identity.  
  • A new space called the Garage double functions as a flexible conference room by day and a stage for student programming by night. 
  • The design successfully integrates student involvement and lounge areas across a busy corridor that accommodates over 10,000 passersby per day.  
At the Oklahoma State Union, a light-filled atrium and three-story banner are overlooked from the second floor by Halligan Hall on the far right. Photo: Brian Schermer 

Kirby Student Union’s key innovation, however, is a space called the Student Life Porch, a raised social platform that serves as a threshold between casual and involvement zones. Once hidden from view, student organization spaces were turned inside-out to create a visible presence along the heavily trafficked main path. The Student Life Porch now creates opportunities for peripheral participation by students. That is, passersby and those relaxing in lounge spaces are able to see and learn about student organizations and student government activities without having to take what might be, for introverts especially, the more challenging first step of physically entering them.  

Design interventions like the ones described above vary in expense. The Kirby Student Union, for example, cost just over four million dollars. Robust collaboration between design professionals with a philosophical understanding of and experience with college unions specifically, university staff and faculty, and engaged students can inspire creative solutions that yield transformative results.

Community and Academic Partnerships 

The college union… advances a sense of community, unifying the institution… and bolster[ing] the educational mission of the institution.

Ernest Boyer outlined in his seminal work, Campus Life: In Search of Community, the six characteristics necessary for a college campus to establish common community. Those characteristics are built upon the foundational principle of having “a place…” for community to occur; one which highlights purposeful education, institutional affinity, and feelings of belongingness. The college union has long been considered a neutral but intentional space for both social and intellectual interactions on a college campus, inviting within the physical design a more intimate and communal setting than a lecture hall or residence hall. The academic partnerships that enhance learning in today’s college union focus on creating conditions for active research engagement.

The Garage at University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Kirby Student Union, is part of the Student Life Porch located along the main corridor, where it serves as an impromptu stage. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota-Duluth. 

Faculty at North Carolina State University, for example, worked with the Talley Student Union to design class assignments that provided students with assessment and research experiences and hands-on learning opportunities; results from these assignments are routinely shared with u union staff who subsequently inform facility usage and service decisions. Although elements of academic linkages were not directly observed by researchers, they were well chronicled in documents supplied by Talley administrators, and mentioned during staff employee focus group interviews. One specific example includes this researcher observation: 

The College of Design: Nine undergraduate group projects explored Talley’s usage of the facility’s exterior. Results indicated a need for additional bike racks and locations. A second collaboration with the department had students explore LEED certification for operations and maintenance at Talley. The result was a fine tuning of operations that led to the submission of a LEED application and ultimately a LEED Platinum award.  

These academic partnerships have not only been beneficial for students taking these academic courses, but also nurturued career preparation for student union student employees. A Talley staff member detailed the value of these academic collaborations, stating:

“Most of the time, we have marketing majors, and majors from our College of Design, that work with our design department. So it’s really good at helping [students] figure out what they are doing in their classes so they can figure out what they need to do with their portfolios. We try to give them a wide span of environmental projects. This digital kiosk system was… designed in tandem with one of our students from our computer department.” 

Practice for Skill Development 

The college union… operate[s] as a student-centered organization that engages in shared decision making and holistic development through employment and involvement.  

Professionals in the college union have long known that students who participate in employment and involvement activities gain skills that benefit them after graduating from college. Experiential learning has repeatedly been identified as a strategy to promote learning within employment and involvement roles. Research confirms that experiential learning has beneficial outcomes related to student learning when reflection is included in the process. The college unions in this study have a significant amount of anecdotal data that captures stories of student-centered success. 

One example of student-centered success with post-college benefits is a student governing board at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The Union Council is the governing organization for the Wisconsin Union. The constitution for this governing body was written in 1928, and the Wisconsin Union’s commitment to student governance is evidenced in its documents and organizational structure. The director of the Wisconsin Union reports to both the Union Council and a university executive officer, demonstrating a focus on shared decision making in partnership with students.  

The Wisconsin Union Directorate, the student programming board, provides additional experiences for students in university citizenship. Focused on engaging students in shared decision making, the directorate’s vice president for internal relations described a funding discussion related to the use of sponsorship money. In this example, directorate members were split – some felt it should be divided among all committees, and others thought it should remain with the committee that secured the initial sponsorship. The directorate student vice president enthusiastically described this experience as analogous to the United States government and that the directorate was training for civic leadership.  

Finally, the self-described journey of the directorate’s student president provides an illustration of the Wisconsin Union’s vision of providing citizenship and leadership development experiences. The student’s journey began by participating in an alternative spring break as a first-year student. She described her experience as “amazing,” and subsequently continued her involvement into her junior year as chair of the Alternative Breaks Committee. She eventually served as the directorate president during her senior year. As president, she stated she is committed to creating partnerships and connections outside the Wisconsin Union to better address societal issues, such as food insecurity, social justice, and mental health. She stated that she used her role as president to support students holistically – mind, body and spirt. 


The Role of the College Union may be more important today than ever before in its history. As we provide findings from the results of this study, current global pandemic events have left our college campuses virtually empty, and many college union facilities closed. As we plan for a commonly expressed “new normal” on our campuses, it is important to consider how campus ecology is central to redefining the relationship between students and the collegiate environment.

Campus ecology emerged in the 1970s from a desire for change on campus, James Banning and Christopher Bryner identified seven frameworks to understand the scope of campus ecology research in their article, A Framework for Organizing the Scholarship of Campus Ecology. Today, college union professionals find themselves in a position of change: students are demanding higher education to address racism and inequities, and in a global pandemic forcing higher education to redesign how we use physical space to support learning. As we conclude, we invite you to consider how three of the concepts presented by Banning and Bryner apply to engagement within our college union facilities.  

Foundational – College Environment. Focusing on how the collegiate environment is a unique setting for learning, this concept highlights that research is often grounded in the understanding that the learning being studied occurs on a physical college campus. This study highlights that student success and learning are linked to a physical space. The college union is one of the few facility types that is continuously found on college campuses to support community engagement and learning. Since the University of Pennsylvania constructed the first college union in the United States, the college union has been a common gathering place that is not specifically liked to an academic unit or specific student population.

Campus Ecology and Student Development. While campus ecology is not a student development theory, it is a method for understanding how student development occurs and is heavily influenced by the context of physical space. This study highlights that student learning and success are linked to what occurs within college union space. The culture created by college union staff is directly connected to how students learn, process and apply experiences. This finding emphasizes the importance of intentionally establishing environments in which those who are responsible for the physical structure (e.g. art, furniture placement, customer service, etc.), and those responsible for the programmatic experiences (e.g. student leadership programs, student organization involvement, movies, lectures, etc.) work together to assure a common mission and seamless student learning experience. 

Campus Ecology and Campus Issues. This study also found that campus artifacts and iconography send powerful nonverbal messages of both inclusion and exclusion. The study also highlights that the college union is a central place to encourage peers to have difficult conversations about their experiences, and to gain skills in multicultural competence. This finding was grounded in a recognition that administrators responsible for the facility and the programming understood how to work collaboratively to create physical spaces experienced as safe and inclusive for the community. Further, the study noted that artifacts in the college union often represented how the campus has changed from a less inclusive time, and how individuals are welcomed at the university and within the facility. That is, artifacts in the college union are fundamental to the learning and are not just observable artwork. Once again, this finding emphasizes the importance of a college union organization for which the programmatic learning and physical facility responsibilities are part of the same organizational structure, all aligned with the Role of the College Union.


  • Loren Rullman

    Loren Rullman, Ph.D., serves as Vice Provost for Student Affairs at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has worked in higher education for over 30 years, all of which has included responsibility for the college union. Prior to his current role he spent 12 years at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor as director of university unions and then as associate vice president for student life, where he was responsible for student affairs construction, renovation and administration of residence halls, dining spaces, student unions, recreation facilities and multicultural centers. He has presented at over 40 conferences, authored 12 publications, consulted for two dozen universities, served on both the ACUI and CAS boards of directors, and served as founding coordinator of the higher education graduate program at Concordia University Ann Arbor. In 2011 he co-organized an ACUI national placemaking summit with 10 higher education associations and 50 thought leaders and his primary research interests include civic participation, placemaking and the social ecology of physical environments. He is the recipient of alumni achievement awards from Valparaiso University and the Indiana University School of Education, a dissertation award from the American Association of University Administrators, and a research award from the Japanese American Citizens League.

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  • Brian Schermer

    Brian Schermer, Ph.D., is a licensed architect and associate professor of architecture at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He is also a principal at Workshop Architects, a nationally known firm that specializes in the design of student life facilities for higher education. His research focuses on understanding the college campus as a social ecology and the planning and design of campus places that foster community, learning, well-being, and inclusion. His research on campus capital mapping received the 2017 Certificate of Research Excellence from the Environmental Design Research Association. He also received a National Architectural Registration Boards award for Creative Integration in Practice and the Academy. He is a regular presenter at academic conferences and conferences for higher education professionals. He is the co-author of two books, Law and Practice for Architects and Building Bridges, Blurring Boundaries: The Milwaukee School of Environment-Behavior Studies

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  • Danielle DeSawal

    Danielle M. DeSawal, Ph.D., is clinical professor for higher education and student affairs and the master’s program coordinator at Indiana University. She serves as the primary investigator on the research project focused on student learning and success in the college union and has co-edited a New Directions for Student Services monograph on the trends and issues facing the college union. She has been honored by Indiana University with the faculty award from the Commission on Multicultural Understanding, received the Gordon Faculty Award through the Division of Student Affairs, and was recognized with the Indiana University Trustees Teaching Award.

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