Helping University Staff Contribute to Student Success
Students interact frequently with staff members at higher education institutions to obtain critical information about financial aid, housing, library services, student organizations, dining services, records and registration, advising, and many other areas. Students may also need support for emotional or physical concerns. Interactions between students and staff are intended to lead to two results- students gain the information or support they need, and have positive experiences that further their desire to remain at school and complete their degree programs.
So clearly, staff who are positive, helpful, and focused on student success play a critical role in ensuring that students are retained on campus. Therefore, it is important that staff have the support they need to provide the type of interactions that will help students stay in school.
We believe one key element in engaging staff is to make it clear that staff members’ opinions are sought after and valued. In many cases, staff members who are working directly with students have a perspective that is not available to faculty, supervisors, or administrators regarding areas where change could improve the student experience. At UW-Stout, one way we work to gain feedback from staff is to have yearly engagement sessions. These meetings are the result of extensive planning which leads to a focus on two or three key topics. The engagement sessions begin with a presentation of the topics, and are followed by small group feedback sessions. This feedback is compiled, acted on, and then reported out in a “You Said, We Did” session in January, providing clear examples of how the institution has used information from the engagement sessions to continue to improve how the university functions.
We believe another element that contributes to staff engagement is a clear understanding of the institution’s mission, and the role of each individual in that mission. This can be challenging in higher education, because mission statements are often broad, and a great deal of activity could fall under an institutional mission. At UW-Stout, as a polytechnic institution, we have a mission that is based on tenets of applied learning, a career focus, and collaboration that provide clear guidance. This clarity of mission, in turn, helps staff focus on their roles and how they assist with applied learning (perhaps they help develop student internships that promote applied learning), focus on careers (many of our staff engage employers in our career conferences and through other means) or collaborate (both on and off campus) to help ensure student success.
We also work to ensure that UW-Stout employees understand the university’s mission and the importance of the work they do through a comprehensive onboarding process. Before beginning employment at the university, employees complete three online orientation modules that outline what they need to know to have a successful start at the university from university policies to where to park. They also participate in a half-day in-person orientation session. At this half-day session, employees hear from the chancellor, provost and vice chancellor on the mission, vision and values of the university. In addition, the chancellor presents on “everyday leadership.” Through stories of his own experiences as a student, faculty member, dean and now, chancellor, the presentation emphasizes that every single employee at the university is a leader and has an impact on the lives of the students. Separating the policy and procedures into online modules allows for a more positive in-person orientation experience with quality time devoted to employees connecting with administrators. Employees hear first-hand how important the university’s mission, vision and values are to the culture of the university.
Investing in opportunities for staff professional and personal growth is another way the university supports engaged staff members. Professional development programming is revised annually to address changing needs in technology and trends in higher education. The programming is varied to meet a wide range of needs and employee roles including training on software, leadership skills, and conflict management as well as personal growth topics such as wellness, financial planning, and stress management. In addition to opportunities offered on campus, professional development support is available for attendance at conferences and a tuition reimbursement program is available. As we continue to face competition for talented employees, providing professional development opportunities to support our employees has become more important. Staff that are supported professionally and personally in their growth translates to enhanced student experiences throughout the university.
Another key to ensuring staff can continue to provide high-quality service to students is to address workload at a time when budget cuts have reduced the number of staff at our campus. Frequently, in dealing with budget cuts, the dictum has been to “do more with less,” but we think a more appropriate slogan would be to do “less with less” in a way that still meets student needs. One strategy that we have used in our work is to provide a level of autonomy and flexibility to staff to develop more efficient ways of doing things, so they can more effectively use their talents. At UW-Stout, staff have contributed to streamlining many processes, which has enabled us to do less with less, and still meet student and faculty needs.
As many institutions increasingly depend on tuition revenue, the time-worn saying that “all campus employees are engaged in recruitment and retention” takes on even greater importance. Consequently, it becomes even more critical that institutions of higher education take the necessary steps to ensure that staff have the tools and information needed to enhance student success.
Author Perspective: Administrator