With the economic and social disruption of the pandemic, graduate student populations around the country find themselves in a tenuous spot.
“Do I really need a graduate degree?”
“Can I afford to go back to school right now?”
“How will my career prospects be any different after I graduate?”
At Mentor Collective, we know that our institutional partners are finding innovative ways to add services and programs to elevate graduate student success and engagement throughout the college lifecycle. Recently, we brought together a roundtable of experts from Princeton University, Claremont Graduate University, and Georgia Southern University to elaborate on what’s working for them—and their students—to ensure that graduate students are succeeding in a post-pandemic world.
Here are five solutions that were discussed during the event:
For the 2021/2022 year, Princeton University welcomed its most diverse graduate student cohort in its history, with more than 700 graduate students from 54 countries; in addition, 24 percent of their incoming domestic students are from underrepresented backgrounds.
Evangeline Kubu, MS, associate dean and director of professional development at Princeton, attributes this success in part to three signature programs run through the university’s Office of Accessibility, Diversity, and Inclusion:
- Prospective PhD Preview (P3) – designed to increase the number of underrepresented graduate students at universities everywhere
- Pre-doctoral Fellowship initiative – intended for students who would benefit from an additional year of training before formally entering the sponsoring department’s PhD program
- Grad Scholars Program – fosters community for entering first-year graduate students and pre-doctoral students from diverse backgrounds
Princeton’s programs fall in line with data from the Survey of Graduate Enrollment Management Professionals, which asked prospective graduate students of color what resources are most important to helping maintain their interest and motivation in pursuing a graduate degree. Some of the most important resources include:
- Additional funding opportunities to reduce student loan debt
- Opportunities for informational interviews with current graduate students or graduate program alumni
- More information on career opportunities for graduate degree holders by field or discipline
“When we look at the availability of resources, I think we really have to think about meeting students where they are, rather than requiring them to meet us where we are,” says Gretchen Presley, senior partnerships director at Mentor Collective. “And that’s a big shift in higher education across the board, especially over the last 18 months.”
Also according to the Survey of Graduate Enrollment Management Professionals, prospective graduate students around the country express concerns about different aspects of their education—and their background makes a difference:
- Campus Climate & Culture
- 51.8% students overall
- 66.3% students of color
- Work-Life Balance
- 63.2% students overall
- 66.7% women students
- 64.9% students of color
Len Jessup, PhD, president at Claremont Graduate University stated that he has seen graduate students’ needs develop around mental health, belongingness, and self-actualization: “Am I majoring in the right thing? Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life, or do I want to pivot slightly?”
“Oftentimes the mindset around professional development is that it’s more of an end-game strategy, but we think it should be an intrinsic part of graduate education,” says Kubu. “Engaging as early as possible with our graduate students and sending a strong message that professional development will help you thrive in your graduate program and in terms of lifelong career success.”
In 2019, Princeton launched their GradFUTURES Professional Development Initiative, a campus-wide professional development initiative empowering graduate students to envision their futures with clarity and confidence.
GradFUTURES has five strategic pillars—including mobilizing stakeholders across campus; creating bespoke academic, community, and industry partnerships; and leveraging Princeton’s alumni networks—that provide a start-to-finish model for graduate student success.
It’s one thing to survey students or hold focus groups, but it’s quite another to actuate what they have to say. Many of Mentor Collective’s successful graduate partners are putting what their students say into action, such as:
- Asking students (and faculty) what kind of environment they want to learn in during the 2021 academic year and moving to a 50/50 on-campus/hybrid model as a result
- Adding degree programs specifically for micro-credentialing, certification, and/or career change
- Extending digital versions of mental health support services to graduate students to help them connect on issues of personal, physical, and financial wellness
- Offering mentorship programs for online adult learners to connect with current students to learn about available resources
Princeton’s GradFUTURES initiative was co-created by graduate students and benefits from a professional development working group of campus and industry partners, current students, and alumni who meetly several times a year. Together, they decide how they can serve the unique professional development needs of each department and embed career planning success into each academic program.
Claremont Graduate University is devoting funds from endowments and other philanthropy directly to support graduate students financially to make education less costly and more manageable. They’ve also created a new Vice President of Student Success and Innovation role to oversee the entire student lifecycle, from advertising and marketing to prospective students, to onboarding admitted students, to partnering with Alumni Relations to track career outcomes and preparedness.
“We’re also careful about what new programs we’re choosing to launch,” says Jessup. “We’re grounded in the question of the value proposition, so the recent ones we’ve added lead to excellent career options after graduation—like the Master of Arts in Leadership, the MS in Information Systems & Technology, and a collaboration with Western University of Health Sciences in which their osteopathic medicine students can also earn their Master of Public Health with us.”