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The Role of Student Organizations in Developing Leadership

David M. Rosch

Number 155 • Fall 2017


San Francisco

Editor's Notes

Student organizations in secondary and postsecondary institutions have been in existence almost as long as the institutions themselves and have arguably served as one of the most popular and durable processes for student leadership development. Most tours of college campuses tout the number and breadth of student organizations available for prospective students to join, and local newspapers often highlight the achievements of high school students working in cocurricular or extracurricular formal organizations that create positive change within their communities. A generation of research shows that students deeply engaged in any educationally purposeful activity are likely to also express heightened leadership capacity (see, for example, Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2010). However, student organizations are almost uniquely suited for serving as efficient containers for developing the types of leadership-related skills, values, and behaviors associated with success in professional organizations and community associations. Student groups often mimic the structure, roles, processes, and challenges associated with postgraduate organizations and afford students the opportunity to experiment with and strengthen their leadership capacity in ways directly beneficial to their future leadership-related responsibilities. These organizations provide the dynamics to expand the student's view of leadership from only positional to being an interdependent process among group members in which everyone participates (Komives, Owen, Longerbeam, Mainella, & Osteen, 2005).

Simply becoming involved in organizations, however, does not always result in positive student growth. Research in human development reveals an ambiguous relationship between involvement in student organizations and positive development (e.g., Foubert & Grainger, 2006), and headlines abound of student groups engaged in systemic hazing, overconsumption of alcohol and other drugs, or other dangerous and harmful behaviors. These realities should not be taken as an indication of the mixed results of student organization involvement but rather as signs that the way that students become involved in them matters. Just as students placed in collaborative learning environments in classrooms without any knowledge of how to organize the human elements of their work often learn negative lessons from the experience (Colbeck, Campbell, & Bjorklund, 2000), the same could be said for student organizations. Without specific designs and values in place, student organizations may cause their participants to take away negative lessons. Alternatively, creating certain nurturing environments for and within these organizations can trigger a wealth of opportunities for positive development.

In this issue, we examine the structure, processes, and activities that take place in student organizations that, when employed, are designed both to optimize the individual leadership capacity of engaged students and accelerate leadership-related growth across the entire group. How should the introduction of new members be managed? What are the optimal learning experiences that should regularly occur for creating a pipeline of emerging leaders? What types of relationships should be developed between executive boards and rank-and-file members? In what context should important decisions be made regarding the state of the organization? Well-structured student organizations smartly leverage these and several other factors in the service of the leadership development of their participants.

This issue also examines the complex linkages between student organizations and their hosting institutions. The context of faculty and staff advising of these groups is particularly complex and includes both the relationship between organizations and individual support staff and how organizations are situated to benefit from the financial and infrastructural resources available to them. Institutions that value the role-trusted faculty and staff play in helping advance initiatives that build leadership development capacity within student organizations create an intentional structure of training and support for these advisors and leadership educators. Likewise, as educational institutions are increasingly seen as centers for activism and social justice, we examine the relationship between student organizations that seek to create positive social change and the institutions that host them. Without strong values of inclusion and support of students’ experiences, institutions often resort to behaviors the result in stifling an organized student voice. With such values, not only can engaged students benefit from leadership development opportunities, but the institution as a whole can be positively affected.

Although it would be impossible to focus on individual context-specific differences that might occur between all various types of student organizations, this issue examines the singular environments for two popular categories: identity-based organizations, such as a Hindu student association, and professions-based organizations, such as a business fraternity. Identity-based organizations, especially for students with underrepresented social identities within their institutions, provide a unique opportunity to accelerate the leadership development of their members within an environment of support and inclusion that may not be nearly as strongly felt by members within the institution as a whole. In addition, professions-based student organizations can serve as a direct highway to gaining the skills necessary for success within the unique context of a particular profession. Both types of student organizations require distinctive patterns of support and organizational design to optimize the growth and leadership learning that can potentially occur within them.

We examine the relative lack of support students encounter in continuing on their path of engagement in student groups as they transition from secondary to postsecondary education. The final chapter in this issue highlights good practices for keeping students connected in a coherent pipeline of involvement designed for their intentional leadership growth and makes a number of suggestions for linking high schools and postsecondary institutions.

Student organizations are ubiquitous across our educational institutions. Student organizations can be rich environments for the development of leadership capacity. Recognizing and implementing research-based practices in supporting leadership development within them results in healthier and more vibrant campuses, a more prepared workforce, and emerging adults better prepared to face the challenges of their future communities.

David M Rosch


  1. Colbeck, C. L., Campbell, S. E., & Bjorklund, S. A. (2000). Grouping in the dark: What college students learn from group projects. Journal of Higher Education, 71, 60–83.
  2. Foubert, J. D., & Grainger, L. U. (2006). Effects of involvement in clubs and organizations on the psychosocial development of first-year and senior college students. NASPA Journal, 43, 166–182.
  3. Komives, S. R., Owen, J. E., Longerbeam, S., Mainella, F. C., & Osteen, L. (2005). Developing a leadership identity: A grounded theory. Journal of College Student Development, 46, 593–611.
  4. Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2010). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.