BEI Survey: Improving Engagement One Admission at a Time

In this fourth installment of our series on engagement in business schools based on our survey of graduate business school administrators, we turn our focus to students. As we discussed in previous postings, policymakers overwhelming indicate that, next to full-time faculty, having engaged students is one of the most important factors affecting a business school’s success. Yet, other results from our engagement survey highlight the challenges schools face when trying to build a highly engaged student body. For instance, policymakers largely agreed that very few graduate business students have time for activities outside of class—activities that are seen as key to promoting levels of engagement. Couple this finding with other research that shows prospective students regularly indicate their “most preferred” graduate program type is one that requires less than two years to complete (see GMAC surveys of prospective students). In short, business schools now must do more with even less when it comes to fostering student engagement.

Tactics to increase engagement of current students are certainly important and worthwhile. At the same time, however, it is critical to recognize that any efforts designed to foster engagement of current students represent only half of the engagement equation. Daniel Feldman recently articulated this fact when he noted:

“Many of the challenges MBA programs face in engaging students are due to misalignment between admissions criteria and program goals. Rather than trying to force students to engage in activities program staff view as desirable, MBA programs might be better off selecting students whom they can readily engage in the activities that already fit their programs’ core missions and strategic goals.”

Put simply, the path to having an engaged student body should begin in part before individuals find themselves enrolled in business school programs.

Admissions as an Engagement Tool?

Along these lines, we were curious about the extent to which business schools expanded their concerns about student engagement beyond a “what should we do once we have them?” mentality to also include a focus on more front-end activities. We specifically asked policymakers questions about recruitment and admissions processes and how these activities incorporated issues of engagement. Several interesting results were revealed:

  • Over two-thirds of policymakers indicated that they spend time during the recruitment process “helping students determine how a graduate degree in business can contribute to their success.” Such efforts are certainly important, as a better understanding of the utility or relevance of education is a key factor influencing individuals’ motivation to learn. And, talking about the relevance of a graduate degree to students’ future careers could be a first step in convincing them of the need to be highly engaged in their own learning.
  • Two-thirds of policymakers endorsed that they “actively recruit students who have a good understanding of how they will use their business education to further their career.”
  • Very few (less than one-third) said that they would deny students who have no clear rationale for pursuing the degree. These findings present a clear point of tension or misalignment between the different goals common to business school recruitment (i.e., boosting enrollment numbers vs. boosting an engaged student body).
  • Only 60 percent of policymakers indicated that they look for evidence that prospective students can devote the required time and energy to be engaged.
  • Still fewer remarked that they actually examine specific indicators of the capacity to be engaged. For example, only 34 percent paid attention to professional association membership, while only 40 percent considered undergraduate extracurricular activities during the recruitment and admissions process.

Taken together, our results suggest that there may be a strong disconnect between policymakers’ thoughts and actions. That is, policymakers seem to understand the importance of selecting the “whole person” and applicants who might be predisposed to engagement while on campus. At the same time, they seem less likely to collect data during the admissions process that would allow for improved inferences about future engagement in a given program.

Steps to Boost Engagement

Fortunately, closing this gap is much easier than one might think. Here are few key action steps to integrate engagement into the admissions process:

  1. Don’t ignore data you already collect. Many admission offices routinely ask applicants to supply information about prior engagement in the undergraduate curriculum, including involvement in extracurricular activities. As the old saying goes, past behavior is an excellent predictor of future behavior in similar contexts. Thus, if students engaged in extracurricular activities as undergraduates, they are likely to do so as graduates. Further, extracurricular involvement has been linked to increased interpersonal skills and even career success.
  1. Collect data about past experiences linked to engagement. Use structured training and experience essay questions that are scored for evidence of learning or other indicators of engagement proclivity (e.g., conscientiousness).
  1. Develop clear expectations during the student onboarding process. Student orientation is the optimal time to reinforce messages given during the recruitment and admissions process. Students ought to have a clear understanding about what it takes to be engaged in a school’s program and the cost and benefits of such involvement.
  1. Align engagement activities with your unique mission and strategy. As each new set of students arrives on campus, engagement success should not be measured solely in percent increases of students involved, but rather the quality of engagement in activities that best represent the business school’s unique mission. If your program is geared heavily toward improving project management skills, for example, then engagement activities around project management ought to be given substantially more attention and weight when measuring engagement success.

If student engagement is as important as we so often say it is, we must begin to think more holistically about how to engender it. Our engagement survey results clearly show that many opportunities exist to leverage activities we already implement, but the key is to view engagement as a process that has important beginnings that precede admittance to graduate business programs.

Click below to read this survey report as a PDF.

Business Education Insider Survey 4 – Engagement and Admissions

By Erich C. Dierdorff and Robert S. Rubin, DePaul University Driehaus College of Business

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