College Student Leaders Divided on Benefits of Student Government

Applicants may find no middle ground in the ways people view the student government experience.

By + More

As president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's class of 1983, Steve Silberberg remembers that the residents of one dorm elected a bag of popcorn as its student government representative. "MIT students inspire themselves and pride themselves on independence and take a cynical view of politics," says Silberberg, who runs a Boston-based weight loss backpacking company. 

MIT student governors' portfolios earned them invitations to social functions with free food and access to faculty and administrators, Silberberg says, but notes that his campus political experience has had "extremely little impact" on his life since graduation. 

It's a matter of controversy whether college applicants and students, who may be giving particular consideration to student government in this primary season, can benefit in school or afterward from serving as student leaders and representatives to their respective school administration. 

Many former student governors suggested their organizations did not have any actual power, while others said that applicants and students can reap a lot of benefit from serving as student leaders. 

"I think that student governments—even supposedly 'powerful' ones like Cornell's—are close to useless," says Eli Lehrer, a former member of Cornell University's Student Assembly in 1996. 

[Read about M.B.A.'s touting the benefits of political study.] 

As vice president at The Heartland Institute, a conservative research organization in Chicago, and a former speech writer to a U.S. senator, Lehrer is the kind of person one might expect to be a poster child for leveraging student government experience into a position on Capitol Hill. But just about the only thing that makes Lehrer thankful for his experience in Cornell's student association was his interaction with liberal students, which he says turned him into a Republican. 

"They aren't real governments," he says of student associations. "I can never remember hiring anyone who put student government on their résumé, and I would probably look down on it despite having done it myself." 

But some former student leaders reject what they say is a false differentiation between "real" governments and student governments. 

"There's a lot of similarities," says Alex Torpey, the 24-year-old mayor of South Orange, N.J., and a former president of Hampshire College's student government. "Anyone that's thinking about political science or political activism or social change or anything like that, I would highly recommend getting involved." 

[Learn whether applicants should weigh colleges' partnerships.] 

Student leaders can develop a variety of practical and transferable skills, such as time management, how to run a meeting, managing a budget, and event planning, Torpey says, who notes that Hampshire's student government was disorganized when he took over the helm. 

"If someone really wants to learn how the process works, find the most disorganized student government in the United States and go to that school, because then it's only on you and the people you can recruit in your cause to make it better," he says. 

Applicants should consider a smaller school to maximize their chances of being able to get involved in student government, says Jimmy Knowles, president of the senior class at Ithaca College, a school in New York with approximately 6,500 students. 

"I know for a fact that if I would have gone to a larger school, either [I] wouldn't have had the confidence or it would just have been so competitive—with so many people—that I think I would have almost been discouraged to get involved," says Knowles. 

[See five reasons to get involved in college.] 

While he thinks it's "going a little too far" for applicants to weigh a prospective school's student government, Patrick Gotham, a 2011 graduate of Salisbury University and former president of the Maryland school's Student Government Association, says a school's size does make a difference. 

"From my experience with other schools, larger schools have more red tape to go through but also have larger budgets to work with. Smaller schools have more freedom yet less resources, so it's a trade off," he says.