The Case for Student Employment in the College Union as a High-Impact Practice 

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 1996, 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 includes 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 tenants 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.  


Campus student employment is often identified as a method of engagement that contributes to academic success and retention, as noted by the authors Jacquelyn H. Fede, Kathleen S. Gorman, and Maria E. Cimini in “Student Employment as a Model for Experiential Learning.”  

The research team found that student employment programs within the college union provided experiences for students that directly contributed to their success both inside and outside of the classroom and prepared them for post-college work environments. Findings supported that the college union’s physical facility became a destination and “home” for students to both work and socialize.    

This aligns with Leah Barrett’s findings from her study in the Journal of Student Affairs that found that students’ sense of community on campus was influenced by their satisfaction with the college union more so than other physical facilities on campus. Specifically salient to college union professionals is thinking about how to promote student employment programs as an experience connected to student learning and engagement.   

In his forward for “A Good Job: Campus Employment as a High-Impact Practice,” Kuh notes that engaging in work is the most common activity for undergraduates after going to class. However, Kuh also points out that employers are concerned that new graduates are not able to readily transfer what they know to unstructured problems.    

The research team found the institutions studied invested significant time and effort in the design, implementation, and management of their student employment programs. The college union is able to distinguish itself as a model for student employment programs because these organizations can demonstrate the outcomes and attributes of high-impact practices.    

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has published eight key characteristics that high-impact practices share. Using those characteristics as the frame, the research team identified how the college union staff communicate expectations, provide considerable time and effort to employment programs, create meaningful interactions with faculty and students, and design opportunities for students to test and apply learning. As a result, students who participate in the employee programs gain substantial feedback from supervisors, reflect and integrate their learning inside and outside the classroom, learn to collaborate with diverse others, and demonstrate their knowledge in public.  

Eight Characteristics of High-Impact Practices:
Examples from College Union Student Employment Programs 

All six institutions demonstrated the eight characteristics of high-impact practices in the design of their student employment programs.  

Performance expectations are set at appropriately high levels  

College union student employee programs require students to complete their tasks both with staff or administrative supervision and while staff or administration are not present within the facility. The expectations for performance provide appropriate challenges at a high level that result in students developing an increased sense of confidence in their ability to solve problems independently.  

Considerable time and effort over a long period of time

Institutions provided extensive and documented student employee hiring, training, and evaluation programs. The intentional program design aligns with the academic calendar of each institution. Multiple staff are involved throughout the process, and time is dedicated toward the supervision and mentoring of student employees. 

Substantial interaction with faculty and peers  

While faculty were not direct supervisors, students did note that in their positions they were often required to work with faculty or administrators who were using the facility. Often these interactions require students to work with the faculty to solve problems related to service delivery. Additionally, students spoke about supervising peers through advancement within the employee structure, providing them with leadership and management skills.   

Opportunities to apply and test learning

The hierarchical structure of the college union operation provides an opportunity for management advancement in student employee programs. Students frequently indicated that they were working to advance to the next management level and part of their evaluation was being able to demonstrate and apply what they learned in their current position.  

Frequent and substantive feedback  

Staff conduct regular and substantive evaluations with students that are outlined in materials for students when they begin employment. Programs include feedback structures that have pre-constructed questions for evaluation and time already designated for extensive discussions. Students articulated that they are encouraged and feel supported to provide feedback about their experiences. As a result, students serve a key role in how to improve the services offered within the college union facility.  

Opportunities to reflect and integrate learning  

Student employees were able to articulate a clear connection between what they learned as a student employee and how that translated to the academic classroom. Students were able to articulate learning as a focus, while staff supervisors articulated skill development as the outcome.   

Encourage collaboration with diverse others  

The key purpose of the college union is to provide a physical location where all members of the campus are encouraged to gather both formally and informally. Student employee training is focused on ensuring that each individual contributes to a welcoming environment and intentionally promotes engagement across difference within the student employment teams.  

Demonstrating knowledge in public

The demonstration of knowledge in public comes in two distinct forms. One is the work that student employees complete that is observed by the public using the facility. The other is the ability to translate their learning and skill development into the job search process.   

Little research has been done to look at how specific on-campus student employment experiences differ by supervising unit on campus. These programs, broadly speaking, have the “the potential to deepen and enrich learning,” as Kuh notes in “Maybe Experience Really Can be the Best Teacher.” This research project identified specific conditions that are unique to the college union environment that not only replicate traits of a high impact practice, but also directly align with the National Association of Colleges and Employers Career Readiness Competencies.  

NACE Competencies: Student Employee Examples  

Critical Thinking/Problem Solving – Make Decisions and Overcome Problems  

The student employees at the University of Minnesota–Duluth recognize their roles allow them the opportunity to present and solve problems, sharing in a focus group that “As employees, I would say it’s [changes in the building related to policies] like 95% driven by what we are realizing, that we are noticing since we are on the forefront of all of this.” Another student employee adds that “a lot of stuff we suggest gets changed.”   

Oral/Written Communications – Expression of Ideas  

A student staff member at the University of Houston reflected on what they had learned about leadership, “My communication skills have improved over time based [on the nature of my work] in interacting with others on the phone, in face-to-face engagement, and in dealing with conflicts.”   

Teamwork/Collaboration – Build Collaborative Relationships  

At Oklahoma State University, student leaders reflected on opportunities to work together. “I would say you learn to work with people from all different backgrounds. So I think I mean before you go into the professional world a lot of the things that you’re going to need to know or like I would say more of like the things you learn outside of the classroom. … I think the union obviously plays a big role.”   

Digital Technology – Leverage Digital Technologies to Solve Problems  

A small group of student employees from the University of Houston’s Student Center staff commented on the various learning opportunities provided on the job. Specifically, one student employee on the audio-visual team summarized the ability to “participate in a technology training program and learn about AV along with developing skills in troubleshooting, being creative, and problem solving.”   

Leadership – Leverage Strengths of Others to Achieve Goals of the Organization  

A California State University–Northridge student said: “Opportunities [to] engage in things you’ve never done before. Oh, I think this is interesting and I would like to do that. Seeing you do it. They monitor that growth and they keep pushing you. They monitor that growth and keep pushing you; don’t stop here.”   

Professionalism/Work Ethic – Interests in the Larger Community

A North Carolina State University student employee from the Talley Student Union shared : “Pride in what we do. Like being here [and] knowing that Talley is a central point and yet so many people coming in here whether it be students, prospective students, clients outside of NC State. We are the focal point of NC State. We can help them feel happy. Pride is the biggest point.” 

Career Management – Professional Growth  

At California State University—Northridge: “The employment aspect is the most engaging. I think that as student assistant employees we are the people on campus who are most engaged in what the USU has to offer in the USU,” one student said. “Because a large part of the USU’s mission statement has to do with professional development, student development, and they execute that very well. And because they have that direct link to us with our employment, as opposed to the rest of campus … we are a very large university with tens of thousands of students … and a lot them are not reached in that same way. I definitely got more engaged after applying for and getting my employment here.”   

Global/Intercultural Fluency – Interaction and Appreciation with Diverse Others  

A University of Houston student employee shared this about their position: “For me it is kind of everything. This is my first job ever; I’ve never had a job before this. It is a great experience. Teaches me how to work with people, different people. Our AV (audio-visual) schedule is split in a way such that you have different colleagues or partners every single day of the shift, so it is not the same person. It is a different person every day, different personality, different characteristics. Do a lot of trouble shooting, didn’t know about that. Great experience that I can put on my resume.”   

Student Employment Program Development   

Student employment programs foster an educational experience inclusive of developing career-readiness competencies that can transfer to their postgraduate careers. The college union offers a unique environment where the administrative oversight of a student employment program can be implemented consistently for multiple types of student employees (e.g., front desk, building manager, food service and dining, and recreation center management). The college union offers a space where student gains in learning and engagement can be documented. Professionals responsible for the creation of student employment programs focus on a program that communicates high expectations, demands significant time and effort, and includes substantial opportunities for engagement with faculty and peers, as well as the application of learning to real world situations.   

The college union student employment program is a model for intentional learning conditions framed by high-impact practices. The research team identified that all the sites incorporated the characteristics associated with high-impact practices throughout the design, execution, and evaluation of a student employment program. College union professionals with oversight of student employment programs should include high expectations for performance, allocate significant time and effort to the program, allow for substantial interaction with faculty and peers, and provide students with opportunities to apply and test their learning.   

High Expectations for Performance  

Student employment programs must provide a framework for which the various student positions contribute to the success of the college union as a place for the campus community to gather, to host programs and services, and to support efforts to build community. Each student position should clearly outline duties. Through ongoing, intentional training and development, each employee will develop an understanding on what it will mean to be successful in their respective role.   

Within the college union, these high expectations for performance are specifically documented to allow for transparency of the entire process for the supervisors and student employees. While many documents outline learning outcomes for programs, college union employment programs in this study clearly documented and outlined the expectation in relation to the physical facility and those it serves. A good example came from Oklahoma State University as they provided a clear set of expectations in the building manager’s position description by stating, “The student building manager position requires a high level of responsibility and a tremendous amount of knowledge. You are responsible for the student union facilities, patrons, and activities during your shift.”   

Demands Significant Time and Effort  

The college union staff who work with the student employee program need to be intentional and consistent in their supervision to support the success of the overall program. The institutions in this research study all demonstrated a high level of ownership in their respected student employee programs through clearly outlined hiring and training programs along with effective performance evaluation tools. In addition to having student employee position statements, they also clearly defined the full-time and graduate staff who provided direct supervision or oversight to the different functional areas where the students worked.   

NACE describes a career-readiness competency of career management which is the ability for the individual to speak to their own strengths and skills along with navigating opportunities in their current role and or future roles. Many student employee programs have opportunities for student staff to grow professionally and take on additional

responsibilities. The University of Houston’s student center annual student employment program tasks are included in the student employment manual. The various student staff positions are defined with specific examples on the type of work expected in each position and at the differing levels of responsibility. Ongoing training, along with social opportunities for the team, are provided with an understanding on what is and is not mandatory. Finally, there is an acknowledgement statement that each employee signs stating that they have been provided the documentation to review and agree to uphold while serving as a student staff member of the student center.  

Substantive Interaction with Faculty and Peers  

A key characteristic in high-impact practices is for students to have substantive interactions with faculty and their peers. By the nature of the student employee program in a college union, the student staff are going to have regular contact with all the individuals who utilize meeting and common spaces in and around the facility. Depending on which role and shift a student may have on the college union staff, student employees will have direct contact with faculty and, more likely and at a higher frequency, their peers.   

NACE speaks to a career readiness competency of leadership with the ability to utilize interpersonal skills, assess and manage emotions, and to organize, prioritize, and delegate work. Each of these skills are critical and are utilized to differing degrees depending on the specific student employee position. As the college union serves as a physical space where communities can come together and connections are made, it is important that student employees effectively lead in their roles in fostering a space where all will feel welcomed. There is a connection with facility usage or use of the college union by and academic majors with advising, studying, and career fairs in the student union at North Carolina State University. One student shared “that there is a direct impact on the campus from all of the activities that happen in the student union. The student employment activities in the student union provide great opportunities for students to work on campus. It is a great place to study, meet up with friends, attend programs, and relax.”  

Opportunities to Apply and Test Learning

Successful student employee programs provide for skill introduction and development throughout their time of employment. Building on the need to provide a student employment program that demands significant time and effort over a long period, the college union offers a daily laboratory for the application and testing of learning taking place. NACE refers to these skills as career readiness competencies which transfer easily to most, if not all, post graduate career paths.   

Oral and written communication is a skill that college union student employees develop proficiency given the daily interactions with the campus community. Many positions in the college union require a high level or high-quality interaction with members of the campus, along with alumni and sometimes the broader community. The ability for the student staff to effectively communicate and, when necessary, outline policies and protocols, is important in supporting a space where all feel welcome and events are managed effectively and efficiently.  

College union student employees can contribute to the overall success of the department and facility; exemplary student employee programs will engage with their staff where both the overall program and the individuals will benefit. In the California State University–Northridge University Student Union student employee manual, the letter of welcome from the executive director and the human resource officer states, “The USU’s success is built by innovative and hardworking employees willing to make suggestions and think outside the box. Our hope is that all of our employees will use opportunities available to them, through their USU employment to experience, to grow their knowledge and skills and develop both personally and professionally.”   

Documenting Student Gains  

In addition to the four characteristics of high-impact practices that college union professionals intentionally create within their student employment programs, student gains in learning can be documented from the final four characteristics. College union professionals should provide their student employees with opportunities for substantial feedback, reflection and integration, to engage across differences, and to publicly demonstrate their knowledge.   

Substantive Feedback  

Across all sites, employment programs were designed to include regular two-way feedback. Programs included templates for multiple touch points for evaluation and student reflection. Supervisors are expected to spend a significant amount of time engaging with employees individually to discuss job performance. Students consistently articulated that this model provided a space where they are encouraged and feel supported to provide feedback.  

As a result of these conditions, students have a sense of pride in place, specifically the college union facility, and are invested in how they can contribute to the success of the union on campus. A student employee at University of Minnesota–Duluth working in the Kirby Student Center spoke to the importance of feedback and support in their role as a student employee. The student indicated that the professional staff at the student center “…always say that we’re students first, and work is second. If one is impeding the other, they’ll help us out with that. If we’re struggling, they’d come talk to us; they’ll ask, ‘Hey! What’s going on?’ They’re always there for us.”   

Reflection and Integration  

When structuring student employment programs, it is critical to provide students with intentional opportunities to reflect on their growth and learning while also integrating that learning to their academic and personal goals. The research team found that each site commits considerable time and effort to their student employment programs. This includes opportunities for reflection and integration that are embedded into a multistep evaluation process, regular staff meetings, resume reviews, and one-on-one meetings with specific topics for discussion.  

Many student employees at California State University–Northridge were able to articulate in their own voice how they have grown through their role, but also how being a student employee contributes to the success of their campus.  

One student noted that in their university student union (USU) supervisory position: “I have to learn how to manage working with my friends, peers. Learning how to supervise them and balance; that is professionalism.”  

Staff also make sure that these conditions exist for reflection and integration as noted by a union staff member: “We want to make sure students never lose sight of degree attainment. We want to support and celebrate that. The work being done here or engagements here should not be in conflict with that.”  

The integration of growth is driven by professional staff having the evidence from well-structured student employment programs to know when a student is ready to take on increased levels of challenge. The student’s reflections and interactions with a supervisor is the evidence that helps supervisors create appropriate levels of learning.  

Collaborate with Diverse Others  

In “Connecting Student Employment and Leadership Development,” Adam Peck and Kathleen Callahan note in their conclusion that student employment offers an opportunity for “equitable access to leadership training and development to a group of students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate.”   

The Role of the College Union has consistently articulated that the union represents a space where the campus gathers to advocate for inclusivity and equity. The college union offers student employees an environment that is designed to serve as an interdisciplinary space on a college campus. This space brings together not only a diversity of people, but a diversity of thought that is not often replicated on campus.   

All six institutions included a focus on teaching student employees how to respect and work between differences. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a staff member noted how “every shift is like a mini community” that requires cultivation of a sense of membership. Additionally, staff created recruitment posters in multiple languages to attract international students while also demonstrating the college union’s commitment to diversity.   

The student gains of learning through collaboration with others in the college union happens through community and intentional efforts to include and welcome students into that student community. As students graduate or depart their employment experience, new community members enter and the learning continues.  

Demonstrating Knowledge in Public  

College unions are public spaces that often offer services beyond a traditional 40-hour work week environment in which student employees are critical in order to operate with extended hours of operation. Coupled with the conditions of high-impact practices that staff create and the other three aspects students gain, public demonstration of knowledge brings to life opportunities for learning and application of knowledge that is unique to the college union.  

The intentional design of employment programs underscores college union administrators’ commitment to the high-profile nature of the college union and service provided by students. Students acquire knowledge through their employment, training, feedback, and reflection that they are then able to demonstrate to others through problem solving, communication, or leadership. Confidence in this system allows the union to extend its services and hours providing further opportunities to enhance campus community.  

One student building manager at North Carolina State University noted that student employees in the union are empowered to make self-guided decisions using internal and external resources provided by their supervisors to put a plan into action. During an evening severe weather event, without calling or seeking advice from a supervisor, the building manager assessed the safety of her clients, secured a meeting space on a lower level, and moved the group meeting. The student shared, “The supervisor can give us tools, but we make the decision to move people. … When we are on shift, we are the front point of contact for the clients. The supervisors don’t baby us.”   

College Union Employment Programs: Preparing Students for the Future  

The college union has the opportunity to intentionally design student employment programs that share the traits found in high impact practices. The Role of the College Union states that the purpose is to advance “a sense of community, unifying the institution by embracing the diversity of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and guests.”   

Few spaces on a college campus bring together the interdisciplinary nature of a collegiate institution, as well as invite the surrounding community into their spaces. A key trait that makes the college union a unique space for student employees is an environment where the facility management and the program management fall under the same administrator, ensuring a consistent communication of mission to all constituents and a dedication of considerable time and effort to student employee program processes.  

The college union offers a unique opportunity to allow students to gain a sense of pride with a campus facility that serves the entire institution and is leveraged as an institutional asset in recruitment, retention, and graduation. Hart Research Associates noted in a survey of employers that 93% of those surveyed indicated “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Aligning the key high-impact practices characteristics with the NACE competencies establishes a student employment program that not only promotes conditions for learning and engagement, but also documents student gains that can transfer to a global work environment.   

College union staff charged with oversight for student employment must carefully craft an environment where students and staff are partners in learning, providing space to acquire, reflect upon, and demonstrate knowledge in a real time environment. Programs that introduce and build on the eight career-readiness competencies identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers enrich the overall experience for the student employees and provide students with the skills needed to be successful in the post-graduate job search.   

At California State University–Northridge, a professional colleague commented on the student employment program at the union, “There is a very, very strong focus on career development on their student employees. It is clear they work for a group and a team and they are part of something. The student experience as employees is very positive.”   

While the focus of this discussion is student employment as a whole, it is important to note that student employees have a variety of backgrounds and identities and there is no “traditional” student employee. When creating and implementing student employment programs, supervisors need to consider the context of their institution, department, and performance on the National Survey of Engagement Indicators. High-impact practices can have significant gains for specific student populations on campus and can serve as an intervention strategy, further aligning with the role of the college union.   

The traits of high-impact practices provide a framework to build an intentional student employment program that is meaningful and impactful for student success and learning. Furthermore, college union administrators must not forget about graduate assistants that supervise student employees, but who are also student employees themselves. This intersection is an opportunity to strengthen theory-to-practice conversations within daily work. These programs are a learning partnership between college union professionals and student employees.  

The ACUI Student Employee Supervisors Community of Practice has numerous discussions and posts on topics related to student employment and the application of theory and practice. Join these conversations to further develop about high-impact practices. We want to see your examples of how implementation of these characteristics and the NACE competencies in student employment programs are occurring.  


  • TJ Willis

    TJ Willis, Associate Director of the NC State Student Centers, has over 18 years of experience in the college union in a variety of capacities, blending the areas of operations, programs, and retail to build synergy and bring the college union idea to life. This can also be seen through his work as a member of the editorial team for The College Union Idea, 2nd Edition and as a member of the ACUI Student Engagement Study research team.

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  • Daniel Maxwell

    Daniel M. Maxwell, Ed.D., is associate vice president for student affairs at the University of Houston and associate vice chancellor for student affairs for the University of Houston system.

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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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