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Graduate Student Recruitment and Retention: A Relationship Building Approach

Co-Written with Kevin Mokhtarian | Assistant Director for Institutional Effectiveness, MidAmerica Nazarene University

Graduate Student Recruitment and Retention: A Relationship Building Approach
It is critically important for institutions to maintain a ‘personal touch’ with their adult students in order to retain them to graduation.

Recruitment and retention of a diverse graduate student body is often one of the fundamental goals of any college. While there are many approaches to identifying, contacting and encouraging promising applicants, understanding the prospective student’s disciplinary interests and personal background can be key to determining what he or she finds engaging and persuasive in a graduate degree. How does one accomplish this task? A skilled recruiter understands the student population and hones in on the nuances of what it takes to recruit the best and brightest for the institution’s graduate programs. This skill, however, doesn’t just appear. It must be intentionally developed and practiced diligently.

A brief overview of the literature demonstrates that academic institutions often want to separate recruitment from retention, but the fact is, these two practices are closely related, if not synonymous, in higher education (Ackerman & Schibrowsky, 2007). Best practices for consideration in recruitment and retention today include:

1. The Development of Formal Strategies

Realistic and shared goals should be set by the department. Collaboration of faculty is key as it comes across in the curriculum.

The recruiting, advising and retention functions typically operate separately on campus, the idea being that each function requires distinct skills and each step is, therefore, executed distinctly from the others. That is simply a fallacy that has caused a wasteful and cumbersome organizational design.

Graduate students are retained one student at a time and it is crucial that administrators, staff and faculty partner together to optimize the student learning experience for each student. While the way this occurs may differ from program to program, including guiding theories such as Appreciate Inquiry (used in organizational development) can help to positively reflect the institutional mission. Appreciative Inquiry comes from positive psychology literature and can provide a flexible framework for professionals seeking to optimize student success. Appreciative Inquiry as a positive framework fundamentally seeks to bridge the gap between one’s past and present capacities, which can include: achievements, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, opportunities, benchmarks, high point moments, lived values, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper corporate spirit or soul and visions of valued and possible futures (Cooperrider, Whitney, & Stavros, 2008). Stephen Covey, author of several books on effective leadership, once said, “Start with the end in mind.” Recruiters and program managers should not rely on enrollment objectives to grow programs, but should instead focus on graduation objectives. Shifting to this perspective can, by itself, change the behavior and methods of all of those involved in recruiting, advising and teaching graduate students.

2. Accurately Showcasing Your Program

Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your program. This means including student testimonials and understanding who your top competitors are, both in the region and online.

Identification of the program’s strengths and weaknesses is critical when it comes to matching student objectives with program outcomes. A student may feel encouraged to enroll due to a positive interaction with a recruiter, but will quickly lose interest in a program if there is no clear connection between what is being taught and his or her objectives. This disappointment can manifest itself in a high level of dissatisfaction, which could eventually cause the student to drop out of the program. It also leads to bad marketing of the program via word-of-mouth. The student will often associate any failure to endure in a program with a lack of clear information offered during the recruiting process; therefore, it is imperative to set encouraging, yet realistic, expectations from the very beginning.

3. Maintaining and Leveraging Alumni Contacts

Engaging alumni and current students as fellow recruiters can be a key tool for recruitment and retention. Establishing effective networks can be crucial and may occur at mid- or end-of-program intervals. Ongoing insight into the realities of the marketplace offered by a knowledgeable alumnus brings a value-added component to the program. It also enables students to make mid-course corrections of their expectations upon program completion. This assists in maintaining program integrity while facilitating program and student adjustments. In addition, having a connection for research projects, internships and potential job referrals is a valuable aspect of the student experience. The alumni relationship becomes a de facto career services outlet.

What is important in terms of maintaining alumni contacts is that it’s not enough to simply have a network; it’s what you do with it that counts. Innovative ideas for engaging alumni might include actively connecting them with current or prospective students, offering resume-building opportunities to present and publish through the university, relevant webinar opportunities to enhance career knowledge and development and even incentivizing their involvement (for example, giving tickets to games or venues they can use within their own business opportunities).

4. Implementation of Mentoring Programs

Quality mentoring through peers, alumni or faculty members can be key to retention efforts. It’s a departmental responsibility! In a national survey, graduate students indicated a desire for ongoing academic advising as the second most important aspect of pursuing a degree (Noel-Levitz, 2012). Mentoring is critical to the learning experience and advising is critical to the planning and execution of the student’s academic career. The student must be confident that he or she has made the right decision long after the first class is over. And, despite the relatively individualized nature of graduate education, a relationship with an advisor is important to adult students. This relationship also substitutes for the relationship with the institution that is a normal part of a traditional, undergraduate experience. This relationship can lead to an active alumnus, which is far more valuable than just a satisfied graduate.

5. Recognizing and Supporting Achievements

Both student and faculty success are a direct reflection of any graduate program. It’s important to highlight these achievements, which should be distinct from successes of the traditional campus community. Accomplishments should appear prominently on the school’s web site; carve out a section of the alumni magazine for graduate and adult programs; establish separate awards and recognition mechanisms. It’s not enough to highlight the graduate student in his or her classroom. To encourage alumni to establish a life-long connection with the school — something that is often lacking in adult programs — it is important to recognize their achievements at the university or college level.

While the literature is clear regarding best practices of graduate programs, the number one un-cited best practice is a caring attitude. However, truth be told, all five of the best practices listed above can be a natural outcome of this humanistic approach. This is evidenced by the continued strength of enrollment in on-ground programs despite the growth in online education. Individuals agree that they like to associate with people who show a genuine interest in them. They like to be treated with compassion, with an attitude of “you are important to us.” Graduate students are no different; they want, and deserve, to be treated with dignity and compassion.

In today’s fast-paced, bottom-dollar environment the personal touch is often hard to find and difficult to provide. We’ve often become so focused on the outcome that the actual experience somehow gets lost in the shuffle. As educators, it is important to recognize that an individualized experience is what students are looking for in a graduate program, along with academic excellence. Therefore, recruiters and program advisors must be confident the programs offered are relevant to the market and assist students in achieving their career objectives. The top reason for returning to school as expressed by adults is career advancement / career change (Aslanian & Giles, 2008). As many recruiters indicate, they have to have something to sell. Students returning for a graduate degree also indicate that academic reputation plays a major role in selecting a school. Having access to faculty who understand adult learners and how programs relate to them instills confidence and a sense of satisfaction in the selection process. In business, customer satisfaction and confidence is a strong indicator of repeat business or, in the case of education, an indicator of persistence. After all, the objective is to not simply enroll students, but to educate and enlighten, and facilitate growth. Having a holistic recruiting and admissions process can go a long way in ensuring your mission is fulfilled.

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Ackerman, R. & Schibrowsky, J. (2007). A business marketing strategy applied to student retention: A higher education initiative. Journal of College Student Retention, 9(3), 307-336.

Aslanian, C. & Giles, N.G. (2008). Hindsight, Insight, Foresight: Understanding adult learning trends to predict future opportunities. Education Dynamics

Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D. D., & Stavros, J. (2008). The appreciative inquiry handbook: For leaders of change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Noel-Levitz (2012). 2012 national adult student priorities report. Coralville, Iowa: Author. Retrieved from

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