Union Vitality: Current and Future Impacts, Barriers, and Solutions from a Big Ten Study

College unions have been an integral part of university communities since the 1800s. On many college campuses, these facilities have historically served important roles in the development of campus communities and the success of college students. Over $4 billion has been invested in college union programs and infrastructure since 2008, illustrating that the college union remains a vital part of modern college campuses.  

However, in recent years, colleges and universities have undergone a transformation in how and where learning occurs on campuses. With regard to campus facilities, students are engaging in learning both in formal and informal settings, and active learning is occurring more often for students away from traditional classrooms. With these transformations and the changing needs of students today, college unions have been forced to evolve to meet the ever-changing demands. Examples of these changing demands include expanding and accommodating the 24-hour educational schedule of students, understanding the need and how to best serve a more diverse university demographic, and developing strategies to meet the ever-changing technology demands that require constant evaluation to effectively serve tomorrow’s student. The recent financial investments by numerous colleges and universities illustrate the commitment to college union facilities and programs, but how college unions can evolve and adapt to continue to meet the changing needs of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and broad campus communities will determine the future vitality of these historically important campus facilities and programs.  

About The Study 

This study explored the current impacts student unions are making on Big Ten campuses, while also identifying future priorities, potential barriers to success, and solutions to those barriers, all in an effort to aid in an informed decision-making process to ensure the future vitality of Big Ten student unions, and on a larger scale, student unions in general. 

This study focused on the 14 member institutions within the Big Ten Academic Alliance and was conducted with Big Ten union directors, a seasoned group of professionals, many with over 20 years of experience in the field of college union management. Together, they are responsible for management of over $230 million annually, provide vision and supervision for thousands of employees, and serve millions of individuals each year. Collectively, the directors are a close-knit group, meeting annually at one of the member institutions to discuss trends in college union administration, happenings on the specific campuses, and networking to have a solid foundation of support. 

This study used a forecasting process framework called the Delphi method that is commonly used in higher education research for explorations around the future trends of programs or academic areas. It’s based on the results of multiple rounds of questionnaires sent to Big Ten union directors, after which the anonymous responses are aggregated and shared with the group after each round. This study administered questionnaires electronically to all Big Ten union directors, and the number of questionnaires was determined by the findings and review process as consensus among the group was attempted. Research on the needed number of rounds to reach consensus varies among researchers; however, there is agreement that repeated rounds tend to yield minimal increases in consensus. Coupled with the previous research by Michelle Janisz, Ed.D., director of the office of student activities at Western Illinois University, this study contained two rounds of questions. 

Janisz’s research included a sample of 22 public, private, large, and small colleges and universities, and some of the key findings from that 2014 doctoral thesis, “College Student Unions: A Delphi Study Regarding Purposes, Amenities, Barriers, and Future Influences,” also became evident in this study. When comparing the two studies, the overall purpose and mission of student unions was found to be very similar in both studies, and some of the barriers for future success were also consistent. 

During this “unnamed present stage,” support for union infrastructure, improvements, and new projects has continued with well over $4 billion spent on student union projects since 2008, as projects at the University of California–Berkeley and the University of Kentucky have surpassed $200 million each in cost. Yet, among the potential barriers identified prior to this study was that students were increasingly demanding more dynamic services and facilities outside of the classroom and an increase in union-like facilities on campus in residence halls, libraries, and other buildings like recreational facilities. 

A case in point is the University of Nebraska–Lincoln where, over the course of three years (2015-17), significant changes were seen across campus as renovations, new buildings, and programmatic shifts created spaces that had traditionally been reserved for the unions on campus. Five examples at this one campus included: 

  • The renovation of a recreation and wellness center included informal lounges and a coffee and smoothie bar. 
  • A new campus library learning commons added informal lounges, a coffee shop, and meeting spaces, while being nearly devoid of books. 
  • A new dining facility included a multipurpose event space and a grand ballroom. 
  • New residence halls featured lounge spaces, common areas,
    a courtyard with a fire pit, and group student spaces. 
  • A new academic building for the business college added information lounge spaces, a coffee shop and deli, and event spaces with catering support kitchens. 

Future Mission 

The respondents of this study indicated that the mission of the student union has not changed over time, but how that mission was accomplished has. The findings suggest the foundations that have built the current missions and purposes of Big Ten unions are strong and will remain relevant in the future, and that the mission of building community, providing services, supporting learning, and aiding in the development of students was seen as the most important aspects of student unions in the future. The three themes identified as the most important current and future purposes of the student union were: serving as a location on campus that facilitates the building of community; providing event spaces and services for student and university events; and serving as a location on campus that creates a welcoming environment. 

When current mission themes were compared to future mission themes the most important theme for both was building community, which all respondents selected as “very important.” This resoundingly indicates that regardless of changes that might occur within the unions, respondents believe that building community will remain a very important aspect of student unions. 

It is apparent that student unions should continue to strive to be a place to build community on campus by providing key services to the university community in support of cocurricular learning on campus. To achieve these mission-centric goals, student unions in the future will need to continue to provide facilities that aid in the building of community, provide event spaces and services for students and the broader university community, and serve as a location that creates a welcoming environment. 

There will be barriers to achieving these items in the future, many of which are financially driven. How future union administrators can remain flexible with spaces and services to meet the changing needs of students, can position the student union strategically within the broader campus structure, and can assess and quantify the impacts of student unions on the broader campus as a whole will be key factors to overcoming these barriers and ultimately achieving future success. 


In the initial round of questions, themes around finance both in the area of the overall cost of higher education for students and also funding streams for the union were identified as potential barriers. Other potential, non-financial barriers were related to facilities conditions, lack of facility space, an expectation to provide more with less, additional union-like facilities on campus, and the ability and flexibility to understand the changing needs of students. 

A second round of questions identified six barriers believed to be significant, but no barriers achieved true consensus, which may indicate a lower degree in the confidence of individual barriers by the respondents, or a lack of strong agreement. Of these six perceived barriers that achieved consensus, but not true consensus, from round two, four of the six were directly tied to finance and the lack of financial resources. The other two barriers were related to facilities, size, and the deterioration of existing facilities. 

Solutions to Barriers 

Positioning Student Unions Strategically within the broader campus structure 

Understanding the strategic position of student unions on campus will aid in future success of student unions in the Big Ten. They are currently strategically positioned in various parts of campus, some within student affairs, business affairs, or auxiliary services. Regardless of organizational structure, how union directors can position the priorities and impacts of the union programs and services strategically within the broader university mission and priorities is key and will be important in the future. To accomplish this, directors can cultivate relationships with key university decision makers for the student union to have a seat at the table, and align union strategic priorities with those of the larger institution play a significant role in accomplishing this objective. 

A necessary step will be to: understand campus space dynamics and what role the union can play within those dynamics; interface with faculty and staff as partners and customers; and create strategic partnerships within the institutions. 

Assessing and quantifying impacts of the student union on the campus as a whole 

Key performance indicators are intended to aid in the measurement, tracking, and assessment of specific objectives. The indicators can aid in quantifying impacts and tracking success measures, inform on strategic direction creation and validation, as well as direct the strategic positioning of student unions within the broader
campus dynamic. 

Developing key performance indicators for unions will vary by institution as the indicators should directly align with key strategic priorities for the areas where the unions report, be it student affairs, business and finance, or other, and holistically at the institutional level. The creation of indicators that speak directly to divisional or institutional priorities can aid in the value proposition created by programs and facilities in unions. In today’s competitive, success-driven higher education arena indicators that are likely to transfer from institution to institution could be in the areas of successful financial resource management and how union programs directly contribute to recruitment, retention, and graduation through programs, services, and student employment opportunities. 

Generating support of the student body for the overall student union 

Generating support of the student body is an important element of the student union. Student union facilities are often one of the largest and most frequented locations on campus, so maintaining these facilities is integral to success. Looking to the future with depreciation and replacement schedules for building systems can help ensure the long-term vitality of the student union. Also, storytelling opportunities of the impact student unions make on the university was something all study respondents either identified as important or very important. 

Future Vitality of Big Ten unions 

Unions should be leveraging things that they already do well, like building community, managing events and reservations, operating retail entities, creating and maintaining dynamic campus programs, and developing student staff members outside of the classroom. Union professionals should look for opportunities on campus where these items can be expanded to grow union programs and also create efficiencies and provide growth opportunities in other areas of campus. Campus-wide and centralized event and reservations management, oversight of retail programs across campus, and other broader campus initiatives utilizing these areas of expertise will allow student unions to expand and grow campus relevancy in the future. To maximize success in this area, directors must have a collaborative mindset, creative thinking, flexibility, and a commitment to overall campus success by union professionals. 

The student union has traditionally been the living room of campus, a place where the university builds community, and where key services and co-curricular opportunities are provided. Building on this across campus to make intentional impacts in a thoughtful way will aid the university to better serve the changing needs of the campus and scale up the efficient use of campus financial resources. Creating redundant spaces and services on campus in isolation will only minimize the intended impacts and act as a drain on already shrinking financial resources. 

Now is an ideal time to discuss redefining the role of the student union from a brick and mortar facility to a more holistic provider of community on campus, regardless of physical space on campus. It should be seen as an opportunity to both strengthen the student union program and provide better, more efficient services to campus. Union directors are experts in building campus community and should actively participate in the overall decisions affecting campus environments regardless of the physical location on campus.
One perfect example of how a division of student affairs and its student union has made, in what Ryan Lahne describes in his article as, “intentional impacts in a thoughtful way” that redefines “the role of the student union from a brick and mortar facility to a more holistic provider of community,” has been the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance at the University of Maryland–College Park. 

One perfect example of how a division of student affairs and its student union has made, in what Ryan Lahne describes in his article as, “intentional impacts in a thoughtful way” that redefines “the role of the student union from a brick and mortar facility to a more holistic provider of community,” has been the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance at the University of Maryland–College Park. 

Originating from student responses to national tragedies like the Virginia Tech massacre and the 9/11 attacks, and envisioned as a way to process and understand such loss, the garden has become a place that serves multiple university populations in diverse ways. Located near the campus’ Memorial Chapel, funded in part by a $200,000 grant from an area non-profit, and designed by students from the landscape architecture program, the memorial garden and labyrinth were dedicated in 2011 as a sanctuary for contemplation, healing, renewal, and solace. In addition to the labyrinth, lush natural beauty, and wooded paths, it features benches that contain all-weather journals, additional seating areas, and a nearby veteran’s memorial. 

Since 2011 it has served as a site for public memorials, special events, community gatherings, and even research. 

In asking the question, “What are people sharing or experiencing through the journals?” a research team from the Adele H. Stamp Student Union–Center for Campus Life reviewed 15 of the journals, containing 3,162 journal entries, excerpts, and drawings that had been written at the garden between 2011 and 2014. Using a modified version of a research method called qualitative content analysis characterized by a systematic analysis of data broken into smaller units or individual entries, the team assigned each entry one or more of 64 codes that had been developed to define potential categories. 

Instances of each code were counted, and comparisons and analyses made. After conducting a pilot coding of one journal, two team members were tasked with coding the entries, engaging in member-checking to further refine codes and ensure consistency across coders. In the end, the 64 codes appeared 7,628 times across the 3,162 entries. Examples of the codes (and number of assignments) were love (561), encouragement (548), contemplation/meditation/thoughtfulness (342), happiness/joy (260), romantic (257), creator (229), jokes/whimsy (228), sadness/depression (188), and prayer (166). 

“As the garden provides both public and private space for individuals, the journals reflect these two major thematic areas: the public life of the writer in community and relationship; and the private life of the writer focused on introspection and self-knowledge,” noted the report, “The Gardened Heart: Garden of Reflection and Remembrance Journal Project,” published in 2016. 

Student affairs currently offers a program in which University of Maryland student organizations and departments, and off-campus organizations can apply for $250 grants that supplement the cost of events or initiatives at the garden and labyrinth, and university events like Veteran’s Day gatherings and 9/11 memorials are held there regularly. In December the chapel, garden, and labyrinth hosted an interfaith Labyrinth Lighting ceremony. 

Union History 

Unions are no strangers to change, and a basic understanding of the foundational history of student unions is more important than the actual stages themselves. In drawing on the prior work of others, Janisz identified nine stages, beginning in 1815 with the Debate Stage, to the present, which she described as the Unnamed Present and Unknown Future Stage. 

Debate Stage

The free and open discussion and the ability to actively debate issues of the day was the foundation of the early college unions first founded in England. 

Club Stage

The college union movement grew in popularity as an effort to create areas of common space for men to gather for
social association. 

Campus Democracy Stage

Following World War I, the Campus Democracy Stage brought a sense of democratic pride and spirit to American colleges that influenced unions. New and existing student unions were transformed and renamed memorial unions to honors both fallen students and university members. 

Community Recreation Stage

The depression and growing unemployment rate emphasized a need for college unions to play a role in the problem of how individuals used their spare time, and unions were suited to offer music, art, literature, discussion, social gathering, crafts, games, and outings. 

Educational Stage

With the end of World War II and passage of the GI Bill, additional federal and state funding provided for the energy and expansion of educational institutions, and in turn, colleges unions. 

Personalization Stage

Unions again became the centers for debates as the number of college unions increased from 150 in 1949 to over 800 operating or planned in 1961. 

Humanization Stage

Student unions became more involved in policy development and interest in social issues rose to an all-time high on college campuses. Student involvement and a renewed focus by administrators to provide support to students led to the expansion of programs and formal and informal services offered by the union. 

Unnamed Present and Unknown Future Stage

In recent years, university libraries, campus residence facilities, recreation buildings, and even academic buildings have begun to evolve and incorporate traditional union functions.