Why the Student Agency Model?
College students are graduating into a changing and complex economic and political landscape. Income inequality continues to grow and the middle class has shrunk to its smallest percentage in 40 years, affecting the stability of the economy and job market. The public’s trust in the federal government is the lowest it has been in over fifty years (Gao, 2015), at a time when the country faces crises including global warming, war, gun violence, and worsening race relations. As with previous generations, students have gone to college seeking “a path that offers a stable, secure future” (Rios-Aguilar, Eagan, & Stolzenberg, 2015). However, in this turbulent moment in America’s history, students need to be prepared to navigate and lead change in workplaces, communities, and political arenas.
Are graduates ready for this challenge? According to the Gallup-Purdue Index, only 11% of business leaders surveyed thought colleges were preparing students to be successful in the workplace (Bidwell, 2014). In a separate study, employers prioritized the skill sets needed in today’s workplace and expressed a desire for colleges to place more emphasis on critical thinking and analytic reasoning, applied knowledge in real-world settings, ethical decision-making, complex problem solving, and intercultural competence (Hart Research Associates, 2010).
A Crucible Moment, a report by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, examined how colleges and universities prepared students for effective civic participation. While acknowledging some innovative developments, many of its conclusions were discouraging. One finding indicated that “the longer the students stay in college, the wider the gap becomes between their endorsement of social responsibility as a goal of college and their assessment of whether the institution provides opportunities for growth in this area” (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012, p. 5). In other words, students are less likely to learn how to engage in the very opportunities that will help them become the leaders community, industry, and government need. A Crucible Moment proposed a comprehensive framework of knowledge, skills, values, and collective action to strengthen civic learning and democratic engagement. The outcomes identified were viewed as essential for effective civic participation and parallel to the complex skill sets prioritized by employers (ibid).
The Student Agency Model
Given the complex social and political obstacles students need to navigate, how do colleges and universities provide educational experiences that teach these important 21st century learning outcomes? This report argues that college student organizations that are guided by a strong Student Agency Model infrastructure can provide students with real-world experiences that are grounded in the knowledge, values, and skills necessary for navigating the global workplace and engaged and dynamic civic participation.
The Student Agency Model is an innovative approach to student development that fosters each student’s sense of agency or the “capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life” (Manning, Kinzie, & Schuh, 2014, p. 146). This essential capacity is not easily learned. Young people, in particular youth from underrepresented and underresourced communities, face pervasive societal messages, which define them as “either irrational actors who sometimes make unintentional and ill-informed choices or actors not to be trusted to make their own choices” (Manning, Kinzie, & Schuh, 2014, p. 147). These messages are reinforced by the marginalization of youth and the lack of opportunities for them to participate in democratic activities that reflect and affirm their experiences, opinions, and ideas for social change.
The Student Agency Model turns these messages and experiences on their head. In this model, students are “completely responsible for student life and perform as full, equal partners with faculty and staff in these efforts” (Manning, Kinzie, & Schuh, 2014, p. 145). The assumption and message of this model is that young people are conscientious, responsible agents of change. It emphasizes that students are not only leaders of the future, but also leaders today.
Students have historically shown leadership and engagement with current issues. Contrary to stereotypes of “Generation Me,” 6 out of 10 first-year students (62.5%) currently report interest in seeking out information on current social and political issues. A majority of all seniors (57.4%) surveyed nationally, and an even higher percentage of African American seniors (67.5%), report publicly communicating their opinion about a cause. Approximately one-quarter (24.5%) of all seniors report demonstrating for a cause (Rios-Aguilar, Eagan, etc., 2015). These findings, in combination with those from A Crucible Moment, suggest that it is important for colleges and universities to create spaces that support students’ interests in civic participation.
When a college vests students with full responsibility for campus programs, the impact is transformative. As one student organization leader describes it, “No one tells you what to do. You’re given the tools to solve the problem, but you have to figure it out and rely on yourself and your other members.” With staff offering information and advice while refraining from telling students what to do, students have full responsibility for the success, failure, and lessons learned from their actions. These experiences of empowerment motivate students to actively and critically examine their processes and circumstances in order to contribute effectively.
According to the Documenting Effective Educational Practices (DEEP) national study, universities that practice this innovative model of student agency found that education from a position of student agency teaches students about their rights and their responsibilities. This balance not only teaches them how to make decisions and choices that affect their lives but also fosters independence. Engaging students in their own learning by having them be active in and contribute to the campus community enables them to develop autonomy and personal responsibility (Manning, Kinzie, & Schuh, 2014, p. 151).
Balancing rights and responsibilities in the context of a community is a dynamic and active endeavor that requires students to reflect and develop a critical reading of the world around them.
The Student Agency Model is particularly important for the success of underrepresented and underresourced students. Universities often utilize practices informed by retention theory which emphasizes that student assimilate into an established university culture. As other researchers have noted, this poses a dilemma for students who may not see themselves reflected in the university (Hurtado, 1999). This effectively alienates students instead of engaging and retaining them. The Student Agency Model empowers underrepresented and underresourced students to create their own programs, processes, and services, including those that initiate change to the campus. This could manifest in the creation of new organizations, cultural programs, or working to change aspects of the environment that do not promote fair treatment. Thus, students who have experienced lives of tremendous disparities and disenfranchisement gain an understanding of their experiences as a base of strength from which they can become leaders and agents of positive social change.