History and Importance of Student Governments

by Genevieve Carlton
• 5 min read
TheBestSchools.org

Student governments play an important role on campus.

But very few students participate in their college's student government or even know what their student government association (SGA) does.

In 2019, only 12% of college students voted in student government elections at Big Ten schools. At Rutgers, a dismal 2% of the student body voted.

Jared Long, vice president of the University of Nebraska student government, said in The Michigan Daily, "Unfortunately, student government is not something students take interest in when they really should."

What is student government? And why does student government matter?

As Long explained to the paper, "When administrators are tackling a problem and they want student input, they turn to student government members. So student government is the easiest way to get connected with the university administration. For that reason alone, I think people should take an interest in student government."

The history and current impact of student government shows why college students should get more involved in their school's representative associations.

What Is Student Government?

Student government has come a long way since the days of running for high school class president by promising pizza and vending machines in the cafeteria. Today's college SGAs give students a voice in school policies. At some schools, elected student government officials even sit on the Board of Trustees and vote on major decisions.

For student governments, the mission statement reaffirms the value of democracy and the importance of a student voice in campus policy. At Southern Illinois University, the SGA speaks for students "in all matters pertaining to student welfare, student activities, and student life," in addition to "voicing the concerns of students in the planning and administration of the university at large."

Similarly, the student government at the University of Colorado "serves as a liaison between the student body and university administration."

Many student governments model their structure after the federal government.

University of California, Berkeley's Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) comprises elected executive officers, a senate, and a judicial council. ASUC also includes a graduate assembly, student-run commissions, and charter programs. At Rochester Institute of Technology, the SGA has an executive branch — including a cabinet — and a senate. The student government joins the academic senate and the staff council to form the university council, which advises the university president. Student governments also provide services to the student body. The Associated Students of the University of Washington uses its $1 million annual budget to hire students, host events, and run a radio station and a bike shop.

Student government positions often provide compensation for elected or appointed students. According to the 2020 Student Government Salary Survey from the American Student Government Association, 77% of elected SGA leaders receive salaries, tuition waivers, stipends, scholarships, or other forms of compensation.

The History of Student Government

The idea of students joining together to speak with one collective voice predates student government associations. In the 19th century, college campuses often turned rowdy when undergraduates united in protest, demanding things like better food on campus and criticizing administrators by hanging them in effigy.

Student government offered a more orderly way for students to shape their institutions. The first student government associations served a wide variety of functions, from enforcing moral codes to running athletics departments.


The first student government associations served a wide variety of functions, from enforcing moral codes to running athletics departments.

At Berkeley, ASUC dates back to 1887. In its early years, the student government ran the campus bookstore and offered students a forum to resolve disputes. ASUC even ran the intercollegiate athletics program.

The University of Southern Mississippi founded a student self-government association in 1912. However, that association included every member of the university and operated more like a social compact: The organization's motto was "Every Man a Gentleman and Every Woman a Lady." Still, the Southern Miss SGA oversaw student misconduct cases and later added a student senate.

Other universities linked their student governments with their student union buildings. When the University of Pennsylvania opened a new student union in 1896, they also created a student association to manage the facility and organize events.

While student activists pushed for change during the 1960s and 1970s, many avoided working within the structure of existing student governments. Instead, activists demanded a greater voice for students in college decisions. In response, many schools either reimagined or expanded their student governments to give elected students a voice in educational policies and student life.

Student governments have targeted issues both on and off campus. In 1984, the newly formed Student Government Resource Center brought together SGAs from multiple colleges to register voters. College students worked across the country to add 5 million people to the country's voter roles that summer.

The Impact of Student Government Today

College students play a major role in advocating for student-friendly university policies and highlighting issues that matter to students.

A 2016 survey of 73 student government association agendas identified the most common topics debated at SGA meetings. Some of these include:

  • The best ways to allocate student fees.
  • Academic procedures on campus.
  • State funding for public universities.
  • Community service opportunities.
  • Revisions to the general education requirements.
  • Sexual assault prevention.

In addition to focusing on campus issues, student governments also advocated for broader political positions like registering students to vote and endorsing the Dream Act, which grants residency rights to immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors.

The surveyers concluded that "the student governments identified in the study took on meaningful issues that potentially impact the lives of students on campus. The issues were substantive and meaningful."

Recently, student governments weighed in on major issues like climate change and policing. In 2021, all eight Ivy League student body presidents signed a resolution asking their institutions to divest from fossil fuels. As Harvard's Undergraduate Council President Noah Harris explained, "We know how much of our student body is behind this, and we're always looking for opportunities to uplift their voices."

The University of California Student Association petitioned the University of California Board of Regents to decrease police presence on UC campuses by 40%. Regent John Pérez signalled he was open to the possibility, saying, "I don't think the 40% number is wildly out of the range of possibility."

Thanks to their power on campus, student governments can shape policies at their schools. In a 2018 study, a majority of student government presidents said they "had a voice" in their school's decisions and felt "very influential" in those decisions.

As the history of student government shows, getting involved — whether by voting or running for office — is one of the best ways for college students to voice their concerns and shape policies at their schools.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images

Learn more, do more.

More topic-relevant resources to expand your knowledge.

Popular with our students.

Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.

Take the next step toward your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

woman in an office