Student Apathy

What to Do When Nobody Shows Up

Are there any solutions for student apathy?

Stereotypes of college-age youth are a dime a dozen—especially the regular complaint about student apathy.  College students, we often hear, are addicted to social media, glued to their cell phones, and have no etiquette.  But the most common complaint is about student apathy.  However, we believe that student apathy, if it exists, is the same sort of apathy that affects all organizations and businesses that haven’t made personal connections with their members.  So, is student apathy dragging down your organization?  Or could the problem be something else?

The “Symptoms” of Student Apathy

If you’re a student leader of an organization, then chances are you’re familiar with the following scenario:

It’s fall semester, and your first meeting of the school year went great.  A blockbuster crowd of students has arrived at your meeting to check out your organization and hear what you’re all about.  Student apathy?  You throw back your head and laugh.  That’s somebody else’s problem—certainly not yours!

But then the time comes for the second meeting.  Even though you believed things went very well the first time around, you find yourself staring at a mostly-empty room.  Where did everyone go?

There are all kinds of variations on this problem.  Maybe you didn’t have the turnout to match your fundraiser’s goals.  Maybe you invited a guest speaker (and paid a hefty honorarium, too), but they ended up addressing a couple of crickets.  Or perhaps you actually had strong attendance and participation at your meetings, but then, over the course of a few weeks, both of these steadily dropped until only a few of you remained.  Is student apathy to blame?  Or is the problem something else?

Student Apathy: a Misdiagnosis

If you’re in a position of leadership, it’s tempting to buy into the complaint about student apathy, especially if you’re looking for an explanation for why an event or project flopped.

But consider a possible alternative: maybe your ideas just aren’t very good.  This is hard to medicine to swallow for student leaders.  You’re in charge, after all, aren’t you?  Why would you be where you are if your ideas were no good?  The thing is, your ideas could be perfectly fine, but it’s just as important to consider your audience too.

Who is your audience?  A very good question.  Who is that vast and nebulous group of strangers, who, as part of your job, you’re meant to reach out to and connect with?

Think about this: billions of dollars are spent on marketing research in the United States alone, all so that sellers can draw consumers—their audience—to buy their products.  You might not have that kind of cash in your treasury, but you’ll need to consider your audience with the same diligence.  Who are they?  What do they want?  How can we reach them?  Most important, where do you start?  The answer is simple: with others around you.

Share your ideas with your group members and fellow officers, and don’t take criticism personally.  Instead, bask in it.  Your openness to feedback is a sign of your respect for others’ opinions—and it’s exactly these opinions that you’re searching for to better understand your audience.

Student Apathy Solutions

But maybe you’ve already done your homework, and you and your closest teammates have come up with an idea that you’re certain will take off, that will catapult your organization straight into the consciousness of your campus, lodged in the heart and mind of every student, faculty member, and staff person on campus.

Or let’s just say it’s a good idea.  How can you guarantee it gets the attention it deserves?

We disagree with the assumption that student apathy should spell the death sentence for your event, project, or campaign.  Student apathy is only real in the same way that some people (young and old, students and non-students alike) just aren’t interested in what’s happening around them.  Yet this isn’t impossible to overcome, not by any means.  Let’s look at the strategies we have for spreading the word about something.

Passive and Active Strategies for Filling Up Seats

We can start by sorting the strategies into two groups: passive strategies and active strategies.  Passive strategies include the obvious college club “musts” that organizations will first turn to: designing, printing, and distributing flyers; sending emails; creating an event on Facebook and inviting others to it.  These are important for keeping your organization on the campus radar, but on the basis of just these strategies, you’re lucky if you manage to fill even half the seats in the house.

Then there are active strategies.  What tops the list here?  Making personal connections.  Anybody can post flyers, send an email, or invite you to a Facebook event—but because everybody already does that, your own messaging can easily get buried in the mix.  Have you ever spent a few minutes staring at one of the bulletin boards full of flyers at your campus? The word “eyesore” has never been more appropriate.  It overwhelms the senses.

Meanwhile, very few organizations will make the effort to sit down with a member of their target audience, one-on-one, and offer a personal invitation to attend an event.

This can seem like an overwhelming task.  What if you want a turnout of a hundred people or more?  You can start by splitting up the load.  Each group member should commit to talking to thirty people.  You can talk to friends, your classmates, or you can even set up a table at the student center or another place with lots of traffic: just make sure you’re having direct, one-on-one conversations about your event, why it matters, and what’s in it for them.

Passive strategies are still important, since that’s where you’ll have the chance to brand your project and make it something identifiable, as well as generate a lot of social media buzz.  But at this point, you’re still leaving too much of the decision-making power up to them.  On the other hand, if you’ve met with your audience in person and have won a verbal commitment from them, and in a way their decision has already been made.

Keep Them Coming Back for More

So you’ve packed the meeting room, but this is only half the battle.  How do you do it again and again?

Here’s where personal connections become part of your practice as a leader.  You should use them constantly.  Instead of routinely trying to address and hold the attention of a large group of captive listeners, you should make time at each meeting or event to break people up into groups, and start making the rounds, engaging them on a small-group or individual basis.

There’s much more to be said about how to run effective meetings and the kinds of activities you can incorporate.  Take a look at our piece about setting SMART goals for some next steps.  But at least it’s no longer a mystery how to get people to show up in the first place.  You should no longer be afraid of student apathy, because now you have the tools you need to overcome it.


Pete Mockaitis explains active strategies for boosting your turnout.

Student Leadership Tips: #1 Boosting event attendance from Student Leadership on Vimeo.

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