Foster Student Belonging With a Coherent Deposit to Day One Strategy

Earlier this summer, Tyton Partners released Driving Toward a Degree: Awareness, Belonging, and Coordination, which revealed a disturbing gap in awareness about student support services by students and the employees at the institutions they attend.

The report—based on responses from more than 2,000 students and 1,750 employees at about 900 two- and four-year private and public postsecondary institutions—shows that while institutional employees are highly aware of what their institutions offer, the students they serve are shockingly unaware:

“…less than two-thirds of the student survey respondents identified academic advising, career advising, or academic registration as available student support services, whereas close to all surveyed institutions said these services were available to students.”


Furthermore, the report notes, “…only 60% of students know about the full range of mental health, financial aid, and career services offered at their institutions. Students aware of more of these non-academic support services express a stronger sense of belonging at their institutions.”

Think about that:

  • Roughly 33% of students are unaware of the academic and co-curricular support most of us consider to be commonplace offerings at our institutions.
  • Another 40% are unaware of the full range of other services institutions have put in place to help ensure student success. (And there’s probably significant overlap in both groups.)

These results align with the past few years of data about first-year student perceptions reported by the National Survey of Student Engagement: 70% believe their institutions place substantial emphasis on providing them with support to succeed academically; and a little more than 60% believe that their institutions emphasize providing support for their overall well-being (e.g., recreation, health care, counseling, etc.)

Students who feel supported feel a sense of belonging at their institutions.

Students who feel a sense of belonging at their institutions are more likely to persist and graduate.

Put in those terms, the path toward student success seems fairly straightforward:

  • Communicate proactively, clearly and coherently with your students about the full range of your support services.
  • Describe how and under what circumstances those services work, when they’re available, who can use them and where students can take advantage of them.
  • Start doing so from the moment your students say “yes” to your offer of admission.
  • Continue to do so consistently and coherently all the way through their first day at your institution … and beyond.

Here are four things you can do as part of a coherent deposit to day one strategy to foster a greater sense of belonging for your students:

1. Cohere Your Communications

Admissions offices invest months (sometimes years) carefully nurturing relationships with students throughout the recruitment process, deploying communication campaigns that raise awareness, nurture inquiries, generate applications and effect yield. These campaigns—if done well—are compelling and coherent: they inform, inspire and assure students throughout the process equitably with an institutionally truthful and authentic voice, tone and message.

After students say “yes” to your offer of admission—and other institutional voices enter the conversation—ensure your students continue to experience a similar voice, tone and message, thereby reinforcing their confidence in their choice.

One way many RHB clients, such as Agnes Scott College and Mississippi State University, have done so is through the strategic use of an admitted student experience portal and integrated communication strategy that extends from deposit through day one on campus, bridging the tonal look and feel of their institution from the admission process all the way through the onboarding process.

“We have a very uniform voice making sure it’s as pleasant an experience as possible while reminding [new students] of deadlines.”

—Alexa Wood Gaeta, Agnes Scott College VP for Enrollment


During that onboarding time, colleges can introduce their new students (and their supporters at home) to those at the institution who will become “their people,” those who will support all the facets of their student experience, from academic and co-curricular advising to personal health and financial counseling, and everything in between. They can normalize the use of these support services through compelling stories and examples, making it easy for new students to know how to take advantage of the offerings long before they will need them.

And when colleges deliver those touches with the same voice, look and feel they used in the recruitment process, it only further helps to put students at ease.

Alexa Wood Gaeta, Vice President for Enrollment at Agnes Scott College, acknowledges it’s not easy. “You think about the 15 different groups on campus, how the wellness center speaks about vaccinations, how accounting speaks to a student about their bill.”

This is why Agnes Scott coordinates all of these communications through one person in the admissions office.

“We have a very uniform voice,” Alexa acknowledges, “Making sure it’s as pleasant an experience as possible while reminding them of deadlines.”

2. Communicate Directly With Your Students

Just having a website that lists your orientation dates and support services isn’t enough to create the conditions for student success. You need to ensure that critical information is not only delivered, but learned and reinforced at the right time to the right students. Not only is it key to student success, it’s also a great way to prevent melt. (See Rick Bailey’s Holding On During the Summer.)

Some colleges frontload key advising conversations into the summer, like Agnes Scott College does as part of its vaunted Summit program. “Students and parents are motivated by the concept of the Summit Advisor,” says Gaeta, who says that they pitch the advisor to new students as someone whose job is “to be an expert in you,” who talks with them about their passions, concerns, goals and dreams.

“From a stickiness standpoint,” says Gaeta, “This has helped us significantly.”

Many institutions redeploy content often reserved for New Student Orientation, breaking it into modules, delivering it earlier and online in smaller, digestible themed clusters to help foster greater connection to the institution. Metabolizing the information over a longer time makes it easier for students to absorb important insights they might miss during the communications-heavy first few days of on-campus orientation. It also helps them join your community with the confidence that comes from a greater sense of readiness.

By leveraging a portal with campaigns composed of thoughtfully crafted, data-informed personalized messages–delivered via print, digital and text—you can help fan those cool breezes of anticipation while extinguishing those flickers of doubt, all while giving students assurances that they are on the right track to be successful on day one.

3. Integrate Your Support Systems

The people that form student support networks—academic advisors, student success coaches, counselors, financial aid officers and so on—need to have easily accessible information so they can focus on best serving their students. Unfortunately, as we have heard during many visits with clients who have asked for our help over the past few years, there is significant friction in the process when staff have to use multiple systems—one for scheduling appointments, another for recording meeting notes, yet another for referring students to other colleagues on campus—just to do their jobs.

With counseling loads already heavy on many campuses, managing multiple tools to do essential work only further slows down processes, thereby making it harder to serve students, not to mention creating more gaps between systems where students can fall into the cracks.

Continuity in a system, such as Slate for Student Success—which can handle appointments, scheduling and referrals—can foster equity in awareness, access and use among staff and faculty. These three in combination feed a virtuous cycle of trust in a reliable system where, for example, people know not only how to refer a student for support, but also that their referrals are being received and acted upon. It also–and this will make IT departments and institutional researchers happy—ensures that important data are being tracked where they need to be tracked, so they can inform institutional strategy.

4. Use Better Data for More Effective Interventions

Mounting your student onboarding experience in Slate gives stakeholders great insights into which new students are completing the necessary steps toward day one on their campuses, such as housing selection, class registration, health forms and Title IX training modules.

It also helps you see quickly which students may need an intervention, whether it’s an email, a text or a personal contact.

You can easily build reports that provide your front-line staff with helpful data so they can know more about the students who will come into their caseload environments. Whether its demographic information, risk factors, family circumstances or other useful information, institutions can empower their teams with better data by proactively delivering reports that give them only and exactly the details they need.

Institutions often struggle to organize themselves around “student success” or “retention” or fostering “student belonging” because those concepts can be big and complicated, especially since they often require a level of interdivisional collaboration that necessitates people moving outside the protective walls of their expertise and into vulnerable spaces of unknowing.

By focusing on the first part of that journey—from deposit through day one—with coherent direct communications, integrated support systems and better data, you can create a smoother transition for your students that boosts not only their confidence, but yours.

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Ken Anselment

Ken is the Vice President for Enrollment Management at RHB.