Elsewhere: Analysing the outcomes of student employment

In this article from our partners at ACUI, the University of Minnesota Student Unions & Activities dept discuss their organization’s positive impact on student success over the past decade.


It all began in 2004 when the university’s vice provost embraced concepts from Learning Reconsidered: A Campus Wide Focus on the Student Experience, a joint publication of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the American College Personnel Association. The publication’s message was that true learning on campuses occurs when academic learning and student development outcomes are integrated to provide a holistic experience for our students.

According to Learning Reconsidered, “Society expects [universities] to graduate students who can get things done in the world and are prepared for effective and engaged citizenship.” The publication further emphasized that it is not only the academic side that bears responsibility for the development of students, but rather that, “All of the resources of the campus must be brought to bear on the student’s learning process.”

The vice provost had previously been an administrator in the business school where he spent many years hearing directly from employers about the characteristics they were looking for when hiring students. These characteristics included the ability to problem solve, a tolerance of ambiguity, and self-awareness.

After reading Learning Reconsidered and learning from the vice provost’s experience, the division of student affairs developed a set of student development outcomes, also known as the SDOs, which complemented the university’s academic learning outcomes. All departments within student affairs were then challenged to think of ways to integrate the student development outcomes into their everyday work with students. Additionally, information about the student development outcomes and their importance to holistic learning was presented at first-year orientation. Therefore, all new students were familiar with the development outcomes starting their first day on campus.

A Modern Approach to Student Employment

2Astronomer Zechariah Brigden of Harvard University was noted in the game Trivial Pursuit as being the first person, in 1657, to have said: “I worked my way through college.” As recently as 20 or 30 years ago, students could still say they worked their way through college. That is virtually impossible today. Postsecondary Education Opportunity estimated that a student would have to work 61 hours a week for 52 weeks a year to afford nine months of full-time study at a public university.

Still, according to the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, more than two-thirds of students at four year colleges and four-fifths of students at two-year colleges work at some point in their college career. Other than attending class, it is the most common experience for undergraduates, and ranks higher than participation in student groups. More intentional student employment can be a low- or no-cost way of improving student success as we are already doing it.

Among the 250 students employed in the University of Minnesota’s college unions, approximately 25% are work-study positions. There is a broad variety of positions in areas such as graphic design, custodial, retail, office support, games room and facilities maintenance, and event services. While most of the student employees are undergraduates, graduate students may fill these positions as well.

In 2004–05, a pilot program was developed in which student development outcomes were integrated into student employee job descriptions. A survey instrument was created to measure students on the outcomes and was administered in the pilot project three times: at the beginning of the program, at the end of the first semester, and at the end of the second semester.

The department and supervisors of the student employees, who were full-time staff members, introduced the program to student employees at the beginning of the year. Supervisors also discussed progress on the student development outcomes at mid-year and at the end of year, using individual student survey results as the basis for the conversation.

This pilot program included 12 students and three supervisors. Immediately, supervisors reported benefits they received from being involved in the pilot project. They started to feel more like mentors and educators versus simply overseeing day-to-day student employee operations. They valued their discussions and felt the student development outcomes helped them articulate the strengths and challenges the students were having with their job and skill development. They understood how important their role was as a supervisor in providing a holistic educational experience for students.

3Tina Siverson, one of the staff supervisors in the pilot project who continues to work for the department, said: “As supervisors, working with the student development outcomes revolutionized our jobs. Our main focus changed from standard management to developing students. Focusing on student development gives depth, meaning, and purpose to jobs. The SDOs provide a language in which to easily talk to students about their development on the job and provide a framework for goals. Students are able to see their progress and get more out of the work they do.”

Another lesson from the pilot was how important it was to educate and train supervisors on why to include the student development outcomes as part of the job description. Initially supervisors thought more work was being added to their plates and that they wouldn’t have time for the conversations with their students. However, once they started the program, supervisors found the discussions valuable.

In 2005, the vice provost and Student Unions & Activities staff were asked to present the program information at a Board of Regents meeting and were given many accolades. Some of the regents were current or former employers or CEOs and felt the program was necessary to developing specific skill sets so students would be prepared to join the workforce. One regent commented that many students leave the university with knowledge regarding leadership skills, but have no idea how to supervise or manage people, solve problems, nor work in the “gray areas” that are practical aspects of most jobs.

Based on feedback from the pilot, the program was expanded to student employees in entry-level positions in 2005-06 (about 160) and to all 250 student employees with the unions in 2006-07.

Until 2007, supervisors conducted student job performance reviews in addition to the outcomes process. At that time, Student Unions & Activities staff decided that the two separate processes, to assess outcomes development and to assess job performance, should be one and the same. A new tool was developed, the Performance & Development Process, dubbed the PDP internally. The Performance & Development Process incorporated the student development outcomes into the criteria upon which student job performance was assessed and thus mirrored the student job descriptions.

In 2011, student managers in the retail area were trained and began facilitating the Performance & Development Process with student employees. Because that area is the department’s largest at 120 student employees, this change further alleviated the problem of staff time allocated to the process and provided further opportunities for student development.

Lindsey Hendricks, a current senior student manager of the information desk, said: “Getting to work with PDPs and the SDO process has made me more aware of my individual growth as a student employee. I am constantly thinking about how aspects of my position apply to each one of the SDOs or multiple at the same time. Being a part of the PDP review process has definitely been the most challenging part of being a student manager because not only do you have to review everything a student has done over the semester and discuss their strengths and mistakes, you also have to come up with a plan with the student on how they can improve in the upcoming semesters. It can be difficult to come up with step-by-step attainable goals, but the more I work on it with other students, the better I get at doing it for myself. Being a part of PDPs has really helped me improve my professionalism and supervisory skills.”

Measuring Student Development

4Since 2004, Student Unions & Activities has worked with the Office of Measurement Services on campus to measure students’ progress on the development outcomes, which are: Responsibility and Accountability, Independence and Interdependence, Goal Orientation, Self-Awareness, Resilience, Appreciation of Differences, and Tolerance of Ambiguity. Ten years of data clearly show the impact the program has on students.

At the end of each fiscal year, Student Unions & Activities administers an end-of-year survey. The data are summarized, shared with staff, and utilized to improve and maintain successful development processes for students. Additionally, information is provided to supervisors to help them successfully coach student employees.

While the method of assessment has changed somewhat in each year of the study, students have consistently scored highly on the development outcomes. The emphasis on the development outcomes in job descriptions, performance review criteria, and supervisor/employee coaching and mentoring sessions seem to be working.

In 2014, Student Unions & Activities conducted a broad survey on the impact of Coffman Memorial Union on student life. That opportunity was used to compare student development of students working or volunteering in a union setting with the general student population.

The survey was statistically valid with 992 respondents from a random sample of 3,000 students; 165 of the respondents were Student Unions & Activities student employees or volunteers who have been part of the student development outcomes program.

As part of the Coffman survey, seven questions were asked, each correlating with one of the student development outcomes. A majority of the general sample reported that their experience with Coffman/Student Unions & Activities positively affected them in developing all seven outcomes. While this was an impressive result, more so was that the Student Unions & Activities student employees and volunteers (student governing and program board members) consistently experienced all of the identified outcomes to a greater degree than the average university student.

There was a significant positive difference on all seven factors comparing Student Unions & Activities students to the general student body. It was also interesting to note that Appreciation of Differences was ranked as having the most positive impact of the seven outcomes for both groups (72.1% of all students, 90.3% for SUA students). That is an item that warrants further study and resonates with higher education’s role in developing students to work in the current global economy.

In addition to the student development outcomes, in 2013-14, student employees indicated that working at Student Unions & Activities has had a positive impact on their career development (88.5%), personal life (87%), and academic performance (63.5%). Most also agreed with the following statements:

  • Working at Student Unions & Activities has helped me understand how the skills I have learned can be transferred into other careers (85.4%)
  • My on the job tasks allowed me to continuously improve my job skills (80.8%)
  • I was provided with enough coaching to develop my skills on the job (89.9%)
  • The conversations and meetings I had with my supervisor helped me with my skill development (93.0%)
  • I would recommend working at Student Unions & Activities to others (93.4%)

In addition to these data points, alumni and supervisors confirm the program’s positive effects on students. Paul Downing, a 2012 graduate who served as a student manager at both Goldy’s Gameroom and the Coffman Information Desk, recalled: “Coffman was able to harness my previous leadership skills, develop them to better adapt in a work environment, and teach me how to use them effectively. As a student manager, I had the opportunity to get direct experience in reviewing applications, managing colleagues, and creating new initiatives—all skills which are vital to my current position and developed me as a strong leader in my work place.

“While working with Coffman, I also had the opportunity to work with colleagues and customers of many different races, genders, and cultures. Coffman taught me how to keep an open mind and understand that not everyone learns the same way, and not everyone has the same experiences. This experience is timeless and applies not only to my new work environment, but also to my everyday life.”

5In addition to development outcomes, alumni report a strong feeling of connection based on their employment at the student union. Felipe Checa, an international student who worked in Coffman until his graduation in 2010, said: “Coffman has a special place in my heart; it’s a family, a learning experience, and a journey that helped me adapt to American college life and culture.”

Savina Proykova, a 2014 graduate and recipient of a 2014 President’s Student Leadership and Service Award, now works in Chicago in graphic and web design. She started working in Coffman at the information desk and went on to be a program board visual arts chair and to work for Student Union & Activities web team. Proykova said: “The most important thing I took away from my time working for SUA was definitely a mixture of character and professional development skills. The student development outcomes have certainly come in very handy during interviews and often, in my experience, even impress employers. The outcomes also teach students a lot about themselves through resilience and self-awareness. I’ve also met quite a few awesome students and staff that I am glad to still call my friends even upon graduating. I’ve taken away friendships and a better understanding of my goals and strengths.”

Andrea Johnke, event services manager, oversees student employees and said: “Students don’t always see the value of the daily tasks that employment involves and what they are learning from those experiences, but if you can show them they are practising valuable soft skills they can pair with the concrete skills they are learning in their classes, it makes their experience more significant and meaningful.”

The longitudinal data on student employees in the department, the comparison to the rest of the university population, and the qualitative insights from program alumni and supervisors collectively confirm that employment offers measurable benefits to the learning process.

What’s Next?

Since its inception, departments throughout the university have adopted the Student Unions & Activities program as a framework. It’s also been used as a model for other university campuses throughout the United States. Future implications for these student employment programs and their findings include:

  • Retention – There is support for the positive impact of outside-the-classroom experiences on student satisfaction and retention. Future studies should include the impact of intentionally structured student employment experiences on these Impact on career and success – Longitudinal studies could connect the impact of student employment in college to career path and success/happiness.
  • Accreditation – As accreditation becomes more focused on outcomes and employability, a university’s student employment program can be an asset.
  • Outsourcing services – According to Enhancing Student Learning through College Employment, as more services are outsourced, some campuses have required bookstores, dining, and retail to use development outcomes for their employees.

At a University of Minnesota Board of Regents committee meeting in October 2014, the university’s vice president for human resources used the student development outcomes program to highlight the good work being done in skill development of student employees. One of the Student Unions & Activities student information desk managers, Samantha Scheiecher, spoke about her personal experience working with the department and the student development outcomes. She concluded her remarks by saying: “Working with Student Unions & Activities has allowed me to develop into a superb young professional. When asked what I do I always share that SUA and the university community prides itself on preparing students for professional endeavours. I always strongly suggest working as a student employee for the University of Minnesota.”

The learning offered through student employment is an important story to assess and tell. As has been the case at the University of Minnesota, adding structure to the process and evaluating its success can attract the attention unions and activities departments deserve from the campus administration and governing board.

Posted in Elsewhere, Our sector.

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