The most significant challenge to how institutions currently approach student engagement is in thinking of it as merely being tactical communication for a specific purpose at a point in the student lifecycle. Many higher education leaders seem to think of student engagement in terms of how best to leverage the channels of engagement—email, text messages, social media, etc.—for recruitment and alumni gift giving. Thinking of student engagement this way narrows its power, brings fewer foundational considerations to the forefront, and reduces it to little more than simple outreach. For example, rather than considering it a robust path for providing a better student experience, increasing students’ sense of belonging, driving better student achievement, or enhancing the reputation of their institution, higher education leaders often focus instead on the technological delivery methods and the timing of the specific engagement activities.
As a result, institutions miss more critical aspects of student engagement, such as how it could benefit students across their entire life-cycles. Likewise, this view also overlooks what key relationships genuinely promote it, i.e., between students and their institution’s mission and culture, between students and their faculty and advisors, between students and their learning activities, or between students and their social networks.
What It Takes to Deliver Truly Robust Student Engagement
Besides having the broader and deeper view of student engagement mentioned above, institutional leaders who want to develop a robust, next-level student engagement must start with three things:
Focusing on the student viewpoint
Although student engagement is beneficial to the institution, the primary audience is the student. Therefore, any engagement approach needs to start with a clear understanding of what engagement will mean for students themselves. For example, should fully engaged students feel as if they are partners with the institution in furthering their learning activities and institutional experience or should they just feel as if they belong to the institutional community?
Understanding that engagement crosses organizational boundaries
Often, we see many engagement approaches live within one department, such as recruitment or advancement. Colleges and universities who want to enable student-centered engagement across the student life cycles and universities should recognize that they must bring together admissions, enrollment, student success, alumni, and other teams to ensure that they identify, coordinate and implement all engagement activities.
Overcoming a reliance on technology
Many institutions seem to think that the “silver bullet” of student engagement is technology, such as email, text messaging, social media or mobile apps. Given the different goals and relationships that student engagement might have, however, expecting technology to be the answer might not be the best approach. For example, email, text messaging, and social media might be perfectly fine for recruitment, but insufficient to help with student belonging and recruitment.
The Benefits of Improving Student Engagement
There are two significant institutional benefits of an improved engagement strategy:
An often-discussed advantage is the enhanced retention rates. This advantage is more critical for specific groups—first-year students, adult learners, low-income students, and under-prepared or under-motivated students—who may struggle to adapt to the demands of higher education and who need to be fully engaged with their institutions to persist and learn.
Greater alumni donations:
A less discussed, but still important benefit is more significant alumni participation in fundraising campaigns, which may, in turn, lead to higher alumni gift giving. Overlooking engagement with enrolled students often forces advancement teams to seek donations and contributions from alumni that only see their institution as the place that provided them with their education and degree and not as somewhere that engenders a strong sense of loyalty. As a result, these teams must attempt to overcome the lack of engagement in the prior portion of the student lifecycles to forge a bond between the institution and the student after graduation. Any college or university seeking to ensure that their alumni feel comfortable to take part in fundraising campaigns must first provide that they feel engaged well before graduation or—as a colleague mentioned—“leave money on the table.”
Students also see significant benefits from improved institutional engagement strategies. Fundamentally, the two main benefits for students are a more profound sense of belonging to a community and higher academic achievement.
Belonging to a community:
As mentioned above, some students might find college and university life to be jarring and foreign. For these students, then, there is the feeling that they do not fit in the culture of their institutions, such as its social life, civic mission, or daily atmosphere. As a result, an improved student engagement approach would serve to change that, by helping them see the institutional environment as being more inclusive and supportive and thereby improving their student experience.
Improved student achievement:
A robust, next-generation engagement plan may have a positive impact on student achievement in two ways. Firstly, such a student engagement plan might involve improving how to students engage with course content, such as making the content interactive, available via mobile or tablets, etc. Secondly, such an engagement plan may include a focus on the environment within which learning takes place, i.e., peer-to-peer learning groups, student-faculty interaction, etc.
A robust, next-level student engagement plan can positively influence student learning by improving either component and allowing students to shape their activities to provide them the best avenues to enhance their education.
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