Unleashing Student Power in Colleges and Universities

By: Eric Billbrough

Special thanks to Salvator Asaro, Alexander Kolokotronis, Jenni Innes, William Novello, Michael Menser, and Jacob Klipstein for sharing their experiences with PB and student government at their colleges and for their continued efforts to organize for more democratic campuses.

As summer comes to a close, an energy inside college students like myself begins to rise. Late nights with friends, living on your own, and college football are within sight. College towns big and small will percolate with magical energy. But as we move into our overpriced dorm rooms and rundown apartments, one thing is still missing in college life: power.

 The infrastructure of colleges is no longer suitable to this generation of students. Today’s college students are more informed and plugged-in to the world than any generation prior. This, combined with a student debt crisis larger than the GDP of Russia, creates a pool of students prepared and eager to make the change they desire. It’s no wonder students get frustrated when we don’t have a say over the endless fees and tuition hikes forced upon us. Participatory budgeting (PB), however, offers an opportunity for universities to more deeply engage their students in the future of their campus -- and get them hooked on lifelong civic participation -- through a tangible and structured process. While participatory budgeting has been steadily spreading across North America and the world, it remains largely underutilized in higher education, for now.

Palo Alto Community College in San Antonio, Texas, as well as several schools in the City University of New York system are the only known North American PB processes in higher education. Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to hear from several participatory budgeting organizers at Queens College and Brooklyn College, two schools in the CUNY system. They all gave me insight into the different challenges, approaches, and opportunities of running PB on a college campus.  

First, the scope of possibilities for PB in colleges is broad. Colleges have administrators that cover every aspect of a student’s college experience. From residence life and recreation, to facilities and academic departments, the amount of sectors available for possible PB processes is promising for the prospect of increased power amongst students. Focusing a PB process on one of these areas, as opposed to having a process that encompasses an entire university, would allow for a highly motivated group of students to make the change in their area of interest, while also proving that students as a whole can make these difficult budget decisions. 

Second, college students themselves already have the infrastructure to run a successful PB process: Student government. Student governments were initially instituted as a way to model a real government, but they often face steep challenges when it comes to student engagement. Student bodies as a whole often don't know about student government or feel they have a reason to care. Only 10% of Penn State University Park students voted in student government elections held in March of 2019, and that number mirror's the turnout at other large universities. I can think of no better way for student governments to build stronger ties with their constituents than by giving the student body voting power over how their money is spent. 

University administrators also stand to gain greatly from participatory budgeting. To most students, university presidents are seen only at graduation ceremonies. They play the important role of garnering donations and overseeing key initiatives, but that work is done behind the scenes. Participatory budgeting sends a loud message from administrators to the rest of the university: high level officials care about what students have to say. 

Finally, college students learn critical thinking and problem solving skills in our classes and get pummeled with long-term projects and research papers. If you are familiar with participatory budgeting, you know that these skills are vital to a successful PB process and more effective spending decisions. Instituting a democratic process like participatory budgeting will also enlighten young people the importance of voting, and hopefully lead to higher election turnout. 

Participatory budgeting has unique challenges as well. College students face many barriers and other priorities during their time at school. Between full course loads, family obligations, jobs, and the stress of mounting student loans, students may not have the time nor energy to participate in PB. In addition, students retaining control of student organizations means that recruitment for a PB process is difficult. On top of this, universities like mine, Penn State, are so deeply ingrained in history and nostalgia, that students can be complacent in creating change in lieu of enjoying the traditional college experience that gets passed down from generation to generation. Once off the ground, PB needs to be implanted into the culture and infrastructure of the university. 

These obstacles are not insurmountable. PB is possible — student leaders and faculty allies have made it happen, and you can, too. There is no reason that young adults can’t look around their school and point out what needs to be done. Doing this will only deepen the relationship between student bodies and university administration and teach young people that they don’t have to be left in the dark when it comes to decisions that impact their lives. 


Eric Bilbrough was a Summer 2019 Nevins Fellow with PBP. The Nevins Fellowship program trains students on the current issues surrounding civic engagement and democratic reform. The program also allows Penn State students to complete internships at organizations that bring people together to solve common problems.

Eric is a junior studying Political Science and Communications Arts and Sciences at the Schreyer Honors College of The Pennsylvania State University.