Between Convocation and Commencement: Developing Undergraduates as Stakeholders

Truly laying the groundwork for long-term private support requires rethinking how your institution manages its relationship with students. From the moment of their transition to your campus, it is critical to treat students as stakeholders, not merely consumers or "kids." This mindset has implications for how offices across your campus interact with students. Each office -- academic advising, admissions, financial aid, residence life, campus safety -- has a responsibility to ensure a successful and positive student experience that can lead later to an engaged and positive alumni experience. Inviting students to see themselves as stakeholders also entails informing them (in an open and transparent manner) about key issues the institution is facing and inviting their input and help.

We interviewed Raj Bellani, associate provost and dean of students at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Jim Langley, president of Langley Innovations, to learn how institutions can develop students as both short-term and long-term stakeholders in your institution's success. Bellani and Langley suggest:

  • Audit the services you offer students -- solicit student feedback, correct inefficiencies that may drive "wedges" between student and institution
  • Invite students to participate in open dialogue with administrative and academic leaders about the financial challenges faced by the institution
  • Invite students to take ownership of their future alma mater by giving them meaningful, participatory roles in moving the institution forward

Audit Your Services

Langley notes that some alumni respond negatively to the ask because they did not feel cared about while they were undergraduates. This suggests that institutions need to be rigorous about identifying what activities or policies on campus are driving wedges between students and their alma mater.

"From financial aid to campus safety to parking, are all of your business functions committed to developing the same kind of student experience? You can do a great job in the classroom and still have a student feeling disaffected because of their relationships with other offices on campus."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Langley cites the example of one institution whose campus safety department had a standing policy to "pull over" any pedestrian student on campus who did not appear to be walking in a straight line and administer a breathalyzer test to the student. The students felt that the policy was punitive and treated them as children rather than as members of the institution's community.

"The key is to understand students' expectations coming in. What kind of service are they hoping to find? Survey incoming freshmen, and then conduct follow-up surveys at least once a year. Find out where they are feeling frustrated or uncared for, then listen and determine what adjustments can be made to improve relationship management across the institution."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Asking simple, direct questions like the following can provide institutional leaders with a wealth of insight into what factors in the campus experience may be alienating future alumni:

  • Do you feel like you are falling through the cracks?
  • Do you feel cared for and well-served?
  • Do you feel a part of the community? Why or why not?

"Ask your students, frequently," Bellani advises. "They will tell you what frustrates them." Besides a survey, consider holding focus groups or even inviting staff in key departments (enrollment services, academic advising, residence life, etc.) to spend an evening occasionally in the student lounge, listening to concerns and dialoguing with students.

In auditing your services across different campus departments, look especially for evidence of excessive "red tape":

  • How much of a "one-stop shop" are your enrollment services? When a student goes to the registrar, admissions, or the financial aid office, are these staff cross-trained? Are staff trained to go the extra mile and ask, "How can I help you?" and are they prepared to connect students swiftly with the resources or points of contact they need?
  • How easy is it for students to evaluate their own progress toward their degree? Can students get a degree audit quickly? Can you offer them the ability to conduct their own degree audit online, though a Web-based interface?
  • Does your course scheduling support your programmatic objectives adequately? For example, if it is a priority for your institution to encourage service learning and civic engagement, does your course scheduling facilitate that engagement or offer impediments to it? For instance, do most of your students attend daily classes throughout the afternoon and then find themselves having to scramble and compete for 6 p.m. service times at agencies that close at 7 p.m.?

It's critical to set baseline expectations about what the student/institution relationship needs to look like, across all offices that interact with students.

"The airline experience doesn't just happen in the cabin. It happens in the ticketing process, the check-in process, and during disembarking. The brand experience is impacted at all of these moments. We need to build a positive emotional connection between students and their alma mater throughout the student experience. Otherwise, you spend masses of money later deploying alumni relations and development resources to do what is essentially remedial work."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Adopt a Family Council Approach

Langley uses the "family council" model to illustrate how institutions can convey throughout the undergraduate years that they have respect for students as stakeholders. During a time of crisis, some families hold a "family council," in which all family members -- parents, children, uncles, aunts -- gather around the table and hold an open discussion of the challenge the family is facing and how the family can work through it. Langley suggests that a similar model can work for universities, particularly in a time of financial uncertainty.

"The institution needs to be open with students about the state of the budget.  Hold a town hall meeting at residence halls or other venues, and present the financial challenges from a leadership perspective. If this is not done, then later the student graduates and receives an appeal for alumni support without any knowledge of why that money is needed or how it is to be spent. Many young alumni just don't know. You will have missed 4-5 years to involve them in that conversation."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

To derive the maximum benefit out of a town hall setting, Bellani recommends prepping the students beforehand by providing them with the key information they need in order to come to the town hall with informed questions. Bellani points to University of California president Mark Yudof's recent approach to keeping stakeholders informed on the financial challenges his university system faces; Yudof provides messages from the president (and even requests for input) through brief video statements that are disseminated through email, the institution's website, and the institution's YouTube channel.

Bellani suggests that a similar approach could be adopted to prepare students and other campus stakeholders to address key questions in a town hall setting. Give them the information ahead of time by video, then spend the actual face time in earnest dialogue. Finally, record the town hall meeting on video and post that online as well.


For practical tips, read our article "Marketing with Online Video"

Bellani notes that the town hall approach can also be adapted to address the concerns of particular divisions within the institution; for example, you could hold a town hall with student affairs leaders, housing staff, RAs, and students attending to address key issues in residence life.


The University of South Carolina's "Mutual Expectations" program looks to achieve a similar objective by bringing students and faculty together to address issues related to classroom instruction in a series of ongoing round-table discussions. In each 75-minute meeting, students and faculty share their expectations of each other around a given issue (classroom technology, academic integrity, textbook costs, etc.) in a discussion co-facilitated by one student and one faculty facilitator. Jimmie Gahagan, USC's director of student engagement, notes: "This dialogue creates an environment where students' opinions are valued and where students have input into the academic experience of the university."

Invite Students to Take Ownership of their Future Alma Mater

Besides offering venues where student concerns can be voiced and heard, Langley stresses the importance of giving students meaningful responsibilities related to the running of the institution. Beyond encouraging students to take active roles in student government and various affinity groups, he suggests:

  • Involving students in developing your emergency notification system
  • Recruiting student ambassadors to interview alumni
  • Creating a student foundation -- "give them real money to invest and use the return to fund student scholarships"
  • Identifying ways that students can provide significant work in helping to determine the quality of campus life, selecting visiting speakers, and running the residence halls

"Convey that this is their institution, their campus, they can help shape it," Langley advises. "Show them that they are stakeholders and contributors in the success of the institution."

"By treating students as stakeholders in the future success of the institution, we predispose them to be more understanding, engaged, and supportive of their alma mater. We err by treating them like kids. The more we treat them as adults and community members, the more they will feel a valued part of the enterprise. Entrust them with real responsibilities."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations