Student governments in the United States

Student governments in the United States

In the United States, these groups are often known as student government or "Associated Students." In the U.S., the phrase "student union" often refers to a "student activity center" (also known as a "student center" or "student commons"), a building containing a "union" of many dining halls, game rooms, lounges, student offices, and other spaces for student activities. At institutions with large graduate, medical school, and individual "college" populations, there are often student governments that serve those specific constituencies.

The first student union built at a public university in the United States was the Ohio Union (1909) at The Ohio State University. The largest students' union/center building is at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, [ [ ANSTHE] , "Oklahoma State University", retrieved April 23, 2006] however, it is unusual in the United States in that it combines the US terms of "student union" (meaning a "student activity center") and a "student government".

Universities that call their legislative councils "Student Assembly" include Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, Dartmouth College, Cornell University, the College of William and Mary, and the State University of New York (SUNY).


* President (chief executive officer)
* Vice President (sometimes also serves as chair of the council)
* Secretary
* Treasurer (sometimes combined with secretary to form the position of Secretary/Treasurer)
* Speaker (and sometimes Deputy Speaker)
* Senator (sometimes called a Councilman, Representative, or Member of Parliament)
* Parliamentarian
* Sergeant-at-Arms


Many student governments are structured similarly to the United States Government, consisting of distinct executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Alternatively, a parliamentary model is followed. As a result of the particularities of university environments, these structures often include elements which are not found in the federal government (e.g. legislative veto, programming branches, initiative, recall, referendum). In some cases, student governments follow a corporate model where offices reflect business roles such as Vice President of Finance, Director, etc.

Also, many universities with significant graduate, law, and medical school programs have separate student governments for the graduate and undergraduate student bodies. Similarly, multiple undergraduate student governments sometimes form to address specific facets of university decision-making. At the University of Texas, for example, students are served by three equal and independent student governance organizations: the Student Government represents students generally, but focuses on undergraduate student life matters; the Senate of College Councils represents undergraduate and graduate students in academic affairs; and the Graduate Student Assembly represents graduate students in both academic and student affairs. The areas of overlap among the three organizations leads to inevitable competition, which many commentators have suggested is healthy and leads to positive outcomes for the student body. Former Senate of College Councils chair Kate Nanney has recently written a [ History of the Senate of College Councils] , which details the interactions of these groups over a period of more than 30 years.


Within their capacity as representatives of the student body, student governments may fulfill a range of responsibilities, such as:
* Representing the interests and concerns of the student body and serving on college-wide committees made up of students, faculty, and administrators
* Disbursing mandatory fees for student activities to clubs, organizations, and campus offices
* Sponsoring campus-wide programs (e.g. Homecoming, concerts, parades, speakers, entertainment, etc.)
* Chartering and regulating student organizations

Relationship to the Institution

Most universities and colleges (both public and private) in the United States are governed by a Board of Trustees or Regents. Student governments tend to be chartered by the Board but, in the case of public universities operated by a State, may be recognized by the state legislature. Their structure, purpose and responsibilities are usually established in a constitution ratified by the student body. Some states, such as California and Florida, specifically provide for "student body organizations" in their public institutions by statute. (e.g. Cal Education Code § 76060 (Community Colleges); Cal Education Code § 89300 (Universities)).

Student governments have historically been considered auxiliaries of the university to which they belong. Since ultimate responsibility over the direction of a university is usually vested in a Chancellor or President appointed by the Board, some conflicts may arise between Student Government and the university administration, especially in the area of fiscal matters. In addition to a student government, many universities also establish governments for faculty (e.g. Faculty Senate) and staff (e.g. Staff Assembly). In such cases, there often exist links and dependencies between these bodies. Many colleges/universities also allow the student governments to control the student activities (student life) funds generated by the fees students pay each quarter/semester. This usually establishes a strong power for the governing body of students because control over money is power and strong influence.

Student government budgets range from as high as $30 million (the University of Colorado/Boulder) to less than a few thousand dollars. Large public residential universities tend to enjoy the largest operational budgets, while commuter-based public colleges and private colleges tend to have the smallest budgets. More than 71 percent of American "SG" officers are compensated through salaries, stipends, scholarships, and tuition waivers, according to the SG Salary Survey. The American Student Government Association, the professional association for collegiate student govoernments, maintains a database of student government information including budgets, number of members, salaries, corporate structure and number of recognized clubs.

Most American student governments are "official, on-campus organizations" recognized by their institutions. But particularly in California, Minnesota, and Oregon, the "Associated Students, Inc." are non-profit corporations that operate independently of the institution. They derive some of their funding through the sale of services such as "discount cards" that students can use at local establishments.

Average voter turnout in all 4,700 student governments nationwide is in the range of 2 to 4 percent, according to the ASGA SG databsae. This number is negatively skewed by poor participation overall in SG at the more than 2,000 American community colleges which have larger commuter and non-traditional populations and therefore have less emphasis on traditional student services and programs like student government. State universities and colleges tend to have a 10-15 percent voter turnout, while private colleges often have much higher totals, sometimes into 40 percent or higher, according to ASGA.

Most student government leaders serve one-year terms, but there are isolated examples of multi-year officers. This cyclical nature of student government officers often prevents them from attaining real influence on college campuses. By the time student leaders learn their roles, their terms of office are nearing completion.


University of Central Florida

The University of Central Florida's Student Government is the leading advocacy group for the students who attend the University of Central Florida, representing the university's 49,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. It the largest Student Government within the state of Florida and one of the largest in the US. In addition, it also often places in the top 10 SGA's nationally for the services and outreach it provides for the students it serves. The student government association at UCF operates on an annual $13.6 - $13.7 million dollar budget. With its budget, SGA funds and owns 2 campus facilities (The Recreation and Wellness Center and the Student Union) while also providing $1.5 million dollars in funding to over 350 student organizations and an additional one-half to 1 million dollars in funding to its 6 - 10 adjunct agencies.

It was officially established in 1976 and consists of an executive, judicial, and legislative branch. The executive branch is headed by the Student Body President and Student Body Vice President. Within the executive branch are between 30 - 40 appointed and paid cabinet members that oversee everything from university policies to tracking the state's legislature. The Student Body President, by mandate of Florida law serves on the university's Board of Trustees for a period of 1 year. The Student Body President and Student Body Vice President are elected in annual elections held in the spring, and both receive a paid salary that ranges from $18,000/yr to $21,000/yr. The legislative branch is composed of 52 senators, who serve one year terms. All senate seats are elected each spring semester. The senators elect a Speaker of the Senate who receives a an annual salary between $17,000/yr to $20,000/yr and a Senate President Pro Tempore once a year in the fall to lead the Student Senate. The judicial branch consists of a paid Chief Justice and 10 associate Justices who preside over student conduct hearings and traffic appeals.

The SGA at UCF operates a website under and its chief financial office's website is under

Michigan State University

Michigan State's Student Assembly comprises one half of the ASMSU undergraduate student government, along with the Academic Assembly. At MSU, the Student Assembly has control over student-life affairs, and controls three seats in the University Academic Governance System, as well as 96.5% of the nearly $1.3 million ASMSU budget. The number of representatives per college varies on the population of the college, like the United States House of Representatives.

The ASMSU Student Assembly has five officers and forty-five staff members, with three of those being executive staff. The Chair, Vice-Chairperson of Internal Affairs, Vice-Chairperson of External Affairs, Vice-Chairperson of Student Funding, and Vice-Chairperson of Student Programming are elected each April by the newly-elected representatives. The Assembly usually - but not always - votes its own members to leadership positions. The staff members are hired by a Human Resources hiring committee. They include the Director and Assistant Director of Legislative Affairs, the Director of Community Affairs, the Director of Legal Services, and the Director of Student Defenders. Three of these staff members, the Director and Assistant Director of Legislative Affairs and the Director of Community Affairs, make up the E-Staff, a lobbying group that works closely with the ASMSU Academic Assembly Director of Education Policy to lobby the Michigan State Legislature on behalf of the almost 40,000 undergraduate students of Michigan State University. As of May 2006, the ASMSU Student Assembly is in its 43nd session.


Below is the basic structure for the ASMSU Student Assembly. For the entire organizational flowchart, please see the article on ASMSU

University of Michigan

The Michigan Student Assembly is the University of Michigan's central student government. It is composed of the Assembly, the Steering Committee, and the Central Student Judiciary.

The Assembly represents both undergraduate and graduate students, where the number of representatives per college varies on the population of the college. The College of Literature, Science and Arts (LSA) has almost half of the seats on the assembly (19), since it is by far the university's largest college. Following that is the Rackham Graduate School (7), Engineering (6), Business (3), as well as several schools with single student representation.

MSA is governed by a president and vice-president who are popularly elected by the student body at-large. Each college at the University of Michigan is given a representative number of seats (based on enrollment figures). Each representative on the Assembly was voted on by popular vote of their college or school. Elections for representatives and officers are highly competitive.

The executive positions include the President, Vice President, Student General Counsel, Treasurer, and Chief of Staff.

The 19 committees and commissions of MSA accomplish much of the work on the Assembly. These range from the External Relations Committee, to the Peace and Justice Commission, to the Budget Priorities Committee to the Voice Your Vote Commission. The Assembly runs many successful programs, including Airbus (an inexpensive airport shuttle service), a Rate Your Landlords website, Advice Online, a website with statistical information on every class and professor on campus, and is active in registering students to vote and get out the vote activities.

College of William and Mary

The Student Assembly of the College of William and Mary (SA) is the official student government of William and Mary. It is designed to represent all students at the college, both undergraduate and graduate. At William and Mary, the SA has control of over $500,000 in student activities fees, over $100,000 in reserve funding, and is the primary source of student representation to the college administration, the City of Williamsburg, and the Commonwealth of Virginia.


The SA is divided into three branches, executive, legislative, and judicial, much like the United States government. The executive is headed by a President and Vice President, who run together on a ticket and are directly elected by all students each March. The executive branch also contains many non-elected officials, including a staff led by the Chief of Staff, a communications office, and many executive departments, such as the Department of Student Life and the Department of Public Affairs.

The legislative branch is divided into three parts: the Senate, the Undergraduate Council, and the Graduate Council. The Senate is the upper house; it is charged with writing legislation that distributes student activity funds, expressing the will of the student body, and organizing the internal structure of the SA. Also, it confirms the principal officers of the executive departments and independent agencies. It is made up of 16 undergraduate students (four from each class), and 6 graduate students (one from the five graduate schools, plus an at-large seat). The Undergraduate Council consists of officers from each undergraduate class: a President, Vice President for Advocacy, Vice President for Social Affairs, Treasurer, and Secretary. The Graduate Council consists of officers from each graduate school. Only the Senate can pass binding legislation; however, the Councils may veto constitutional amendments.

The judicial branch is the Review Board, which resolves disputes between all bodies. It functions much like the Supreme Court of the United States, in that it is a panel of justices deciding cases. There are six associate justices and one Chairman, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate every year.

Finally, there are three independent agencies, not affiliated with any branch: the Elections Commission, led by a powerful Chairman and charged with overseeing the successful implementation of elections every semester, the Agency for Internal Affairs, which deals with matters internal to the SA, and the First Year Council, which orients freshmen to the SA. There are also various independent class councils such as the 2008 Class Council, which consist of students who want to help class officers plan events; these councils are not officially a part of the SA.

As of the now, the Assembly is in its 315th session (the numbering represents the number of years since the founding of the College), or its 93nd year (the organization itself being founded in 1915).

Stetson University

* website []

Student governance has existed since 1908 at Stetson University in many forms. Currently, the Stetson University Student Government Association (SGA) is the representative body for all undergraduate students enrolled at Stetson University. The Association is divided into two branches: Legislative and Executive. The Association has direct control over $100,000 in student fee monies, which go to 100+ student organizations and has oversight of $500,000 in student fee monies, which go to other University programing.

The Legislative is a unicameral branch composed of a Student Senate. The Senate challenges, creates, and clarifies policies affecting Stetson Students. The Senate is chaired by the SGA Vice-President, who acts as the Senate President. Senators are elected from Residence Halls and from the commuter population. Also, each campus organization may appoint a Senator. This results in an average Senate of 100 members each year. The Senate has six committees which consider legislation brought before the Senate: Academic Affairs, Budget and Finance, Campus Life, Policy Reform, Residential Living, and Values and Ethics. The Chairmen of the committees and the Senate parliamentarian are appointed by the Senate President. The President Pro Temp is elected by the Senate.

The Executive is headed by the SGA President who, jointly with the Vice President, is elected in an annual, campus-wide election. The President is responsible for the general operations of the Association. She/He serves as the Student Body President, and is the official spokesperson for the Association and the Student Body. The President serves as a member of the University Board of Trustees and Alumni Board of Directors and appoints students to other University committees and boards. She/He is responsible for implementing the resolutions passed by the Senate. She/He appoints the three Secretaries: Communication, Finance, Student Involvement.The Secretary of Communications serves as the chief marketing officer of the Association, maintains all of its documents, is responsible for community development issues, and is the Secretary of the Senate.The Secretary of Finance is responsible for the oversight of $100,000 in student fees, which go to SGA's budget and to the budgets of student organizations. He/she oversees the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee (SAFAC) which distributes funds to organizations.The Secretary of Student Involvement is responsible for the Associations programing initiatives. She/he also oversees the development of the Association's First Year members.

The President meets with all the executive officers and the chairpersons of the Senate to discuss issues and unite the two branches of government.

The President may veto legislation from the Senate; however, a veto may be overturned via a 2/3 vote of the Senate.

The elections for President and VP are governed by a special committee which is comprised of Senators. A majority of votes cast is required to win the election.

Stetson's SGA is a founding member of the Academy of Florida Independent Colleges and Universities. The Academy seeks to better higher education student governance in the state of Florida.

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