Written by: Larry Goodfellow
Over the years, the problems that educational institutions face with student, faculty and alumni engagement have become more complex, but I believe that online research communities can truly help educational institutions address engagement.
It is funny how life has a way of coming around. After 14 years as a business executive, I was offered a faculty position at the University of Saskatchewan, Edwards School of Business teaching students in the undergrad and MBA program. Little did I know that teaching as a post-secondary professor would prove useful when ten years later, we founded Insightrix Research Inc, a full service market research company. Many of our early clients in Canada and Australia were educational institutions and the work we were doing included grad follow-ups and employer surveys on behalf of universities, colleges and provincial ministries.
Problems for the Post-Secondary Institution
It was while teaching at a university that I learned about the typical problems that universities face, such as new students dropping out in their first year, student concerns about finding a job after having accumulated $30,000+ of unavoidable debt, intense entry level competition for students, tight budgets, and a lack of alumni support on donations.
Students entering university can find it difficult to fit in, and meet the requirements that are placed upon them. We know from our education research that early engagement and support are critical factors in first-year undergraduates’ success. During the first few months, students can find the differences between high school and university overwhelming and sometimes isolating. In our research of first year undergraduate students, we have found that the majority of students felt that high school did not prepare them for academic studies.
Retention is vitally important for all colleges but especially the professional colleges. A loss of a student has an impact on the organization for more than the current year. A student that leaves in second year law, dentistry, medicine, vet med, nursing, engineering, physics or business, to name a few, will result in a seat not filled in third year, fourth year or master’s program.
Universities are in competition with other institutions on attracting domestic students. They are also in competition with attracting foreign students because of the higher tuition fees they can charge. Reputation is very important and the universities and their departments want to attract the best and brightest students, obtain alumni funding, as well as corporate and government grants for faculty research.
Employer satisfaction surveys provide the opportunity to gauge the reputation of the university or college, and what needs to be changed if anything. Surveys on employer satisfaction with recent graduate hires speak to the rigor, training, critical thinking skills, and attitude that the recent graduate brings to the job. A successful hire means more hires in the future. More hires in the future answer the currently enrolled students’ major concern of whether they will get a suitable career, at an attractive salary when they graduate.
Alumni research – three and five years after graduation provides publishable details about salaries, job satisfaction, and program satisfaction. These stats are great incentives for students who are considering these colleges, because it provides a more in depth analysis on performance metrics of the institution. Alumni research is also a tremendous resource to faculty providing input on class and program modification of the department, to ensure future needs are met.
The problem is that universities and colleges lose contact with alumni. Students graduate, move away, change employers, create new emails or manage such communications through social media, get new phone numbers, and through it all they slowly lose touch. This loss in the ability to connect with alumni can be costly, both in the amount of time spent trying to track down former students, as well as the future support that alumni can give had they stayed connected to their graduating university.
A formidable array of problems for any organization, but especially with institutions facing tighter financial resources, pressure to have more qualified faculty, and of course the ‘ratings race’ with other institutions.
If the answer is better two way communications to these target groups, what is stopping this?
Part of the answer is having up to date contact information, from day one of student initiation right through to alumni. Engagement with the student has to ideally commence when students start their program following high school. This engagement has to be maintained through their undergrad and for five or more years after graduation at a minimum. We are talking about a time frame of 9 plus years. Now it may be possible to start in their final year, but again we are looking at maintaining that relationship for 6 years.
The tool that can serve as the medium is Market Research Online Community software. The tool offers multi-dimensional solutions. It has the potential to connect first year students to help them with the transition period, to help students in gaining clarity on the major they choose, and with staying connected to alumni after they graduate. The software can also assist foreign and exchange students in becoming engaged on campus, and enable alumni to provide mentoring to students, both domestic and foreign without concern about location.
Online research communities can provide a comfortable two-way communication for students to make greater, more informed decisions. Using our insight community tool, students can talk with alumni and ask them the questions that can help make these decisions easier. “Was it hard getting a job as a chemical engineer here in the city? Relocation isn’t desirable as my girlfriend would like to work here when we graduate.”
MROC’s can allow alumni to provide advice on one of the most important decisions a student will make in their life, which is where to focus their education and training. Speaking from personal experience, it is an area that is also very rewarding to the alumni when they help navigate a student’s journey based on their own experience.
Staying in contact with students will always be beneficial to a university. Insight communities can help universities retain new students and keep them from falling behind in those crucial first few weeks due to transitioning. Insight communities can also provide support with students needing to make decisions about their career path and which major to take. And as students go on to enter the marketplace, insight communities can help ensure that the universities have updated contact information for the graduated student, and are able to keep in touch on a regular basis.Whatever your needs are, insight communities can be a great way to ensure connectivity and communication. Feel free to contact us for more information.
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