Classes are in full swing and students have (hopefully) settled happily into campus life. For most higher education institutions, it’s not just your first-year students that are new to campus living but, thanks to Covid, many second-year students are just experiencing the ins and outs of their new in-person school life as well. Your upper-class students might be missing ‘the good old days’ of unrestricted social gatherings, bare faces, and the absence of a brain probing nose swab on a weekly basis. Regardless of year, these students have experienced a significant shift in their lives with the new academic year.
Aside from the pandemic, a lot has changed since the ‘age of innocence’ pre-March 2020. Awareness of societal justice and involvement for change has increased in the past year for the college-aged generation – it’s very likely that most students did their research before they made the choice to attend to be sure that your university’s cultural climate is in line with their beliefs. So now the big question is – are you appropriately communicating your culture to prospective students so they can get a good sense of your institution’s identity and traditions? Is the climate on campus ingrained at all levels, or simply a mission statement on a website? Is your institution really living up to the ideals and values promised in your marketing and messaging?
Sometimes an institution’s efforts to develop and support certain standards clash with actual practices or “underground” subcultures – and these inconsistencies can lead to cynicism amongst students. Not understanding if your vision or values are being conceived as hypocritical can negatively affect your retention and enrollment rates if not properly managed. If it seems like the negative feedback is starting to outweigh the good and you suspect your institution’s culture needs an overhaul, it is possible to implement change. Here’s how:
Do your research. This is an important first step. If you don’t understand your students’ (and staff’s!) perceptions of your institution, you won’t be able to effectively address the real issues and evolve. You need real data that demonstrates the need for change – not just data about your institution but data that informs how similar institutions are seen by your students in order to benchmark favorability and identify opportunities. Surveys are a great way to gather these insights, but interviews can be even more valuable as there is no room for misinterpretation and you will likely get feedback on topics you haven’t thought of previously.
Create a shared vision informed by personal visions. You’ve already done the work to understand the student perception of your institution, don’t make the mistake of not using these individual inputs to inform the overall strategy. Understand that this vision should be influenced by everyone within the institution and their collective needs, not just from an exclusive group of lead administrators making assumptions about what students want from their university.
Communicate and educate. Determine how you will convey campus climate efforts to the entire community. The shared vision should be ingrained in the day-to-day to avoid being superficial. Without the full adoption and support of the faculty and student body, your efforts for change will be meaningless. Implement staff diversity training sessions, culturally enriching lectures and events, and a selection of classes and course materials that expose students to a globally inclusive perspective.
Convey a positive visual message. Don’t just say it, show it. This includes signage and other tangible materials, but also less obvious visual clues as well. For example, if your institution is hoping to increase inclusivity, it would be wise to ensure meeting space for one student organization is of equal size and appeal to all, cuisine and dietary restrictions are representative of all choices and cultures, visual arts programs are given the same space as sporting events on the university calendar, men’s and women’s athletic facilities are of equitable quality – you get the picture. You can’t just talk the talk, you must also walk the walk.
Be accessible. Students struggle in even the most positive of campus cultures. Whether they are having difficulty finding their social circle, wrestling with grades and time management, or grappling with stress, anxiety, or depression, it’s important for students to know that they have somewhere to turn for help. Implement services and programs that can proactively identify a problem and set every student up for success.
Make it evergreen, but also fluid. Your campus culture should be easily translated through the years and administrations but should also be assessed routinely to adapt to societal changes and generational interests. If you haven’t evaluated your campus climate recently, particularly post-pandemic and considering recent societal tensions, there’s a good chance your institution needs a culture refresh.
It may seem like an impossible task but improving your campus climate IS achievable with the right amount of commitment and support. The team at Vennli can get you started by delivering fast, simple, and actionable insights into how your students and staff view the culture at your institution -- and how you can use those insights to improve student favorability and increase enrollments and retention.