In a Time of Unrest, How Can College Students Feel Heard on Campus?

UNREST

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Speed Read (tldr): How Can We Support Productive Communication on College Campuses?

Initial survey responses indicate three levers to help college students feel heard: 

  1. Clear Communication Channels: Colleges and universities need to clarify how students can feel heard as they voice concerns and administrators ensure feedback reaches decision-makers.
  2. Enhance Feedback Engagement: Institutions should simplify feedback mechanisms and demonstrate their impact to encourage student participation.
  3. Foster Open Dialogue: Many students feel their voices aren’t heard; colleges must create a more inclusive environment that encourages open discussions and acknowledges diverse backgrounds.

Read below for resources, tips, and the why!

Table of Contents

Colleges and universities are titans of innovation, human development, and thought leadership. Generally, higher education institutions willingly facilitate and hold space for uncomfortable conversations that challenge the status quo established by the working world. However, across the globe, growing protests reflect people who desperately want their voices to be heard and feel they are not. So how can we make sure college students feel heard?

Zac Klinger, a Possip intern majoring in Human and Organization Development at Vanderbilt University, explores communication breakdowns on college campuses. 

Prompted by the palpable unrest on college campuses, I wanted to listen to the voices of frustration and work toward generating a healthy solution. I started by surveying those on the ground level—students. The goal of the survey was essentially to figure out a) how students feel and b) why they feel that way. And while the pilot surveys are still growing in sample size and representation, the first impressions unequivocally put a voice to the struggles on campus portrayed by the media while optimistically pointing toward potential remedies.

Do College Students Feel Heard?

When asked if they felt they had a voice on campus, a significant portion of my pilot group of students expressed doubt. Specifically, 50% of respondents answered “No” or “Somewhat” when asked if they felt like they had a voice on campus. This indicates a substantial gap between the ideal of open dialogue and the actual experiences of many students.

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With more data, I am inclined to explore the demographic nuances of this question. Factors such as campus, race, grade classification, socio-economic background, and more could provide profound insight into the material dynamics.

How Do College Students Try to Communicate With Their Schools?

The survey asked students how they would voice their concerns if they wanted to give feedback on campus. Thirteen distinct responses emerged, with email being the most common method. Unfortunately, however, when students were asked who they would email to feel heard and drive change, the top response was, “I don’t know”. This highlights a critical problem: students don’t know the appropriate channels for their feedback, leading to frustration and disempowerment. Furthermore, I find it fascinating that the initial responders reported 13 different feedback channels. I imagine having so many different ways to collect feedback makes it extremely difficult for administration to aggregate and use the student input efficiently.

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Participation in Surveys and Feedback Forms

Many universities or student organizations ask students for their input through surveys and forms. But students don’t often participate. This remains an enormous barrier to effective communication. In fact, when asked how often they participate in these surveys, no student I’ve polled so far has responded, “Always.”

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To dig into this, we asked about four potential factors that could lead to low participation rates:

  • Lack of Interest
  • Lack of Time
  • Surveys are too long
  • Do not see the value

Interestingly, no student selected “Other” when asked what prevents them from participating, suggesting that the factors we hypothesized are confirmed so far as the primary barriers.

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Why Don't College Students Feel Heard?

The initial survey results point to three reasons why students find communication on college campuses challenging:

 

  1. Unclear Communication Channels: Students don’t know who to contact or how to voice their concerns effectively.
  2. Low Engagement in Feedback Mechanisms: Students are reluctant to participate in surveys and feedback forms for various reasons, primarily related to perceived value and practicality.
  3. Cultural and Structural Barriers: Diverse backgrounds and the bureaucratic nature of campus administration can further complicate effective communication.

 

In my experience generating change on campus, I have found that the only surefire way to influence the systems requires us to work from the top down. For example, when some like-minded friends and I wanted to start a new student club, we realized we  needed to gain Board of Trust backing before our idea was fully supported by the university. 

 

While I have seen working with the top leadership to be more effective than working bottom up, this does not align with the priorities or structures in place. Traditional paths of engagement for students typically lead to extended wait times, generic responses, or even complete abandonment. From the point of view of a student, the only strategy that has led to meaningful progress includes an aggressive approach of going above traditional methods.

Moving Towards Solutions

The good news: with data comes hope! By designing new structures around the feedback observed, higher education institutions have an opportunity to have student feedback be a powerhouse in the pursuit of campus flourishing. Here are five strategies to consider: 

1. Streamline Communication Channels

Rationale: The number one response to “Who would you contact to make change?” was “I don’t know”.

How: Universities should provide clear, accessible information on how students can voice their concerns and ensure that feedback reaches the right people to enact change. By decreasing fragmentation of communication channels, universities can provide causal evidence of listening to students.

2. Enhance the Value of Feedback

Rationale: “Do not see the value” was cited as a reason for non-participation in over 40% of surveys.

How: Institutions must demonstrate that they value student feedback and it leads to tangible improvements. This could involve regular updates on how feedback has been used to make changes.

3. Simplify Surveys and Feedback Forms

Rationale: Over 50% of students cited “surveys are too long” and “lack of time” for reasons of non-participation.

How: Reducing the length and complexity of surveys can encourage more students to participate. Offering incentives or integrating feedback opportunities into existing student activities also helps.

4. Foster a Culture of Open Dialogue

Rationale: 50% of students responded “no” or “somewhat” when asked if they have a voice on campus.

How: Encouraging open forums or allowing anonymity could help create spaces where students feel safe and valued when expressing their opinions, which can help bridge the communication gap.

5. Data, Data, and More Data

To devise a solution, we must understand the issue at hand truly. To my fellow students: I implore you to add your voice to this survey in order to effectively communicate with your campus administrators.

In my experience, university administrators absolutely have the desire to listen to students. Students must take the time to provide them with productive data points and anecdotes. When they do, students can seize the opportunity to shape the systems around them in a way that promotes universal flourishing.

Conclusion

College campuses should be havens for dialogue and learning, yet communication often falls short. Our survey highlights significant challenges but also provides valuable insights that can guide us toward effective solutions. By supporting higher ed institutions in streamlining communication channels, demonstrating the value of feedback, simplifying surveys, and fostering a culture of open dialogue, we can move closer to the ideal of truly engaged and connected campus communities.

As students, your participation is crucial. Each response helps build a stronger, more inclusive dialogue on campus. Your voice matters—let’s work together to make our campuses true havens for dialogue and learning. Together, we can turn these insights into actions that benefit everyone in our academic communities.