Jamie Heck, Chair, Advising Community on Graduate & Professional Students
Angie Cook, Member, Advising Community on Graduate & Professional Students
Student retention services have grown substantially in higher education over the years. Educators now boast an arsenal of best practices for student engagement, orientation, advising, and myriad other facets of the student experience. One truth remains, however: institutions cannot treat these best practices as one-size-fits-all. Do retention strategies have the same outcomes regardless of institution type, academic program, and student population? The challenge behind any best practice is determining what is most effective for a specific context and student population, and this is especially true for graduate student populations. As graduate students become more diverse with added complex life situations, advisors must further develop their existing retention strategies to reflect students’ needs.
Consider, for example, a welcome event planned for new graduate students in the fall semester. This welcome event, held in the student center, included short speeches from the graduate student government, giveaways, and opportunities to meet students from other programs and colleges. Without question, this event format appears on campuses across the country every year, often with great success and student satisfaction. However, think about what happens when graduate students are predominantly distance learners, begin programs in the spring and summer instead of fall, or have families that make evening events more difficult. Is this classic engagement strategy truly a best practice in all scenarios?
This article seeks to challenge common approaches to student retention efforts, providing some strategies for identifying the unique considerations of a student population. The article will also discuss the importance of collaboration for enriching the graduate student experience and provide a call to action for any educator invested in graduate student success. Advisors are encouraged to reflect on their student populations and contemplate how best to support their students’ unique situations and needs—for example, the types of programs, the variety of student circumstances and demographics, and the culture of support for graduate students at the institution. Centering on the specific needs of a population provides the foundation required for truly effective strategies of support, engagement, and success.
Existing literature on graduate and professional students has focused on a variety of topics, including graduate student advising experiences (Schroeder & Terras, 2015), creating an environment of inclusion and community (Bernstine et al., 2014; Curtin et al., 2013; Duranczyk et al., 2015; Irani et al., 2014), mentorship (Scott & Miller, 2017), mental health (Di Pierro, 2017), retention programming initiatives (Nelson & Lovitts, 2001; Sheehy, 2016), and the role of the graduate advisor (Bloom et al., 2007; Cross, 2015). Admittedly, literature that has focused on graduate and professional students is meager compared to the abundance of resources on undergraduate students. The existing literature on graduate and professional students offers a glimpse into their needs and experiences. This insight, in addition to practical experiences, helps faculty and professional staff advisors create frameworks of support throughout students’ educational endeavors.
As graduate student characteristics evolve, so too must higher education’s common student experiences. As stated earlier, massive, in-person orientation events may not meet the needs or interests of online learners, older students with families, or students working full-time jobs. In academic advising, educators should consider the effectiveness of standard office hours and explore alternative methods of connecting with students. Communication around school policies, important dates/deadlines, and curriculum plans may require multiple delivery methods and student-friendly language. Student organizations, social events, and other engagement strategies that are common at the undergraduate level or among full-time students may not translate well to students whose life responsibilities require their attention. Rather than assuming that graduate students are disengaged, educators can benefit from delving into specific student needs, interests, and abilities to engage outside of their courses, and then design opportunities that are reflective of students’ realities. A common pitfall of graduate education is the mindset that graduate students should have everything figured out already and are solely responsible for reaching out for help, making connections with potential mentors, having an awareness of and adhering to all policies and deadlines, and engaging how they see fit. Not only does existing literature contradict this (e.g., Benshoff et al., 2015; Cohen & Greenberg, 2011; Coulter et al., 2004; Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Oswalt & Riddock, 2007; Polson, 2003; Pontius & Harper, 2006), but common experience with graduate students demonstrates that students thrive best when provided ample communication/onboarding, opportunities for meaningful connection and mentorship, tailored engagement, and a genuine sense of belonging.
Though drastically changing the traditional approaches to student support can feel daunting, a few strategies can assist educators in getting started. These ideas, developed through the authors’ practical experiences, can translate across many types of student support and can help to not only identify, but also respond to students’ needs.
- Data-driven decision-making: The specific strategies to support graduate student populations could vary based on the characteristics and needs of the students, the institutional culture, and the resources available to accomplish such efforts. Literature is helpful to reference, but educators often and easily make assumptions about graduate students’ needs, circumstances, existing knowledge, and perspectives on their programs. Combatting those assumptions requires assessing students both directly and indirectly. Educators can deploy a variety of information-gathering strategies, from written surveys to more informal focus groups, and even searching for patterns in student questions, challenges, and re-occurring needs. Getting acquainted with the graduate student population will inform the optimal ways in which educators can support students during their educational journey.
- Multiple delivery methods: Providing information through multiple means not only helps students to engage in the ways they prefer; it also improves accessibility to that information. When planning orientation or sending onboarding materials, for example, consider videos, FAQ documents, online resources or gatherings, and recording in-person events. In establishing advising methods, investigate the best ways for students to connect—over the phone, video chat, and evening or weekend availability. Giving students options in the ways they connect provides numerous benefits to both students and educators while also easing the transition from traditional methods to newer practices that could require trial and error before finding the most effective strategies.
- Collaboration across departments: Because graduate programs often function differently and more independently than their undergraduate counterparts, educators working with graduate and professional students can feel isolated from their institution’s common student support structures. To combat this, graduate educators can make intentional efforts to connect with resources in financial aid, housing, dining, transportation, international services, counseling services, health services, etc. Graduate advisors may have to make additional efforts to learn about opportunities available for students, advocate for decision-making with graduate and professional students in mind, and seek support from other individuals who are equally invested in student success. At the University of Cincinnati, graduate advisors began a community among themselves to share ideas, address common questions, design relevant trainings/workshops, and collectively advocate for graduate and professional students to university officials. Such a community for undergraduate advisors has existed for many years, but an equivalent has just started at the graduate level. Like assessment and multiple delivery methods, seeking collaboration is a strategy that has the potential to drastically influence the graduate and professional student experience.
As with all student support initiatives and retention services, it is imperative to examine these efforts and ensure that they are purposeful, timely, and relevant to the targeted graduate student population. Otherwise, departments and institutions are implementing wasted initiatives and services that students view as ineffective and stagnant, subsequently resulting in poor attendance/utilization, student dissatisfaction, and an inadequate attempt to enhance the overall graduate student experience. The time and effort placed toward the creation, implementation, and assessment of coordinated and fluid recruitment, engagement, and retention strategies is pivotal to the success and impact of such efforts. In a similar manner to the initiatives implemented to recruit, orient, and retain undergraduate students, these efforts should truly be implemented as a campus-wide initiative, in which representatives across campus are actively involved and aware of the needs and experiences of graduate students. This does not negate the value and importance of personalizing efforts based on the needs of the respective student population. However, supporting the overall graduate student experience requires campus-wide initiatives in which members across departments and colleges demonstrate a true commitment to graduate students. This commitment should be embedded in the institutional culture, creating a coherent, consistent, and systematic approach to supporting the needs and experiences of graduate students while allowing programs to customize these initiatives. Institutions need to foster an inclusive environment in which graduate education and the overall graduate student experience is rooted in data-driven decision-making, varying delivery methods, and campus-wide collaborations. Cultivating an inclusive environment for graduate students exemplifies the enhanced value and awareness an institution has in supporting the overall graduate student experience.
Graduate Retention Services
College of Nursing Office of Student Affairs
University of Cincinnati
Director of Academic Affairs
College of Nursing Academic Affairs
University of Cincinnati
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Cite this article using APA style as: Heck, J., & Cook, A. (2020, September). Empowering graduate students: Cultivating environments for student success. Academic Advising Today, 43(3). [insert url here]