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Campus communication onboarding guide for new students

March 2, 2022

Grace Gardner

Director of Academic Affairs, Missoula College, University of Montana

Lexi Stoneburner

Assistant Director of Admissions & Visitor Experience, Converse University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

Effective institutional onboarding communication with new students is extremely challenging. However, if it’s done in a strategic manner, with the right timing, and includes all entities involved in the onboarding process, it can be one of the most powerful tools for student retention and persistence for incoming students at your institution.

If higher education institutions want to compete, onboard, retain and ultimately see their students persist to graduation, they need to be explicit with their strategic communications across all sectors. This is particularly more important than ever as new students absorb communication in many different modalities.

Today, higher education institutions are communicating with incoming students in a myriad of ways, and what we have found is that most of these communications are siloed, ineffective, and oftentimes result in information overload, stress and confusion for incoming students. More often than not, communications are jumbled and students can quickly observe the communications are not coordinated. Moreover, different offices within institutions do not receive copies of new student communication from other offices, so they have limited ideas of what the student might already know.

When faculty, professional advisors, or career coaches are meeting with the student, they are not aware of what institutional communication or tasks have already been communicated to the student. This in turn hurts and discredits the image of institutions and professionals that work within the institution that make up the fabric of student success across all sectors.

It potentially sends a message to incoming students that if the very offices that are recruiting them do not effectively communicate with each other, how can the student expect the institution to effectively communicate with the student? Students then may choose to pivot and turn away to another institution that can effectively communicate.

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The University of Montana is a public flagship four-year institution with an embedded two-year institution in the heart of Western Montana. With a newer president at the helm and a new cabinet, UM is making great strides in a strategic enrollment planning process and turning historical institutional processes around to better serve their students.

While UM is making great gains, in Dr. Gardner’s previous role overseeing the summer semester, she noticed the communication surrounding and within the onboarding process for new students still could use some work specifically in coordinated communications from all offices including financial aid, admissions, business services, office for student success, etc.

Too many offices are communicating with students from different areas and programs. Students do not know where to start, what task is most important to complete, and the timeline for completion while knowing the end goals in mind. Finally, with the many different types of “new learners” that walk through the door, it is imperative that institutions have a beat on where the student might be in their higher education journey. Different “new types” of students should also result in different targeted communications.

Converse University is a private, liberal arts, four-year institution located in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Converse also deals with siloed departments where communication oftentimes becomes ineffective, overwhelming, and confusing for students. As Assistant Director of Admissions and Visitor Experience, Lexi hopes that Converse is able to develop a cohesive communication plan where departments can work together to improve outgoing communications to students that are effective and on brand.

In Grace and Lexi’s research, they found Michigan State participated in a communication process mapping exercise with students. This exercise found that students were receiving 400 plus email messages in one year that resulted in many duplicative and contradictory student messages in over 50 different online portals that they were expected to navigate.

Moving forward, Grace and Lexi will continue to work with their leadership to assess this problem and create a process map student communication tool. The goal is to ultimately create a streamlined campus communication onboarding guide for new students. Once institutions are confident that their onboarding communications are definitive, transparent with all campus student support entities, they can then start working on communication to their current students in another “next step” in improving institutional student success communications.

They both thoroughly enjoyed EAB’s Rising Education Leaders Fellowship and would highly recommend it to any interested entities that work in higher education. For more information on this particular project or to speak about their experience with the fellowship, please contact:

Other resources:

See the fellows’ blogs from the capstone projects

Grace Gardner, Lexi Stoneburner, and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in fall 2021

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