student success

How graduation ceremonies can motivate students to complete college and give back

Julie BryantVice President for Student SuccessJuly 20, 2017

My daughter, Kylie, graduated from a private, liberal arts college in Iowa this spring. I experienced her graduation ceremony both as a proud parent and as a higher education professional, observing what the college did right in celebrating the class of 2017.

You may have been following along on my parental observations over the past five years as Kylie visited potential colleges, went through orientation and arrived on campus, reflected on her freshman and sophomore years, and began her senior year.

Since I manage the Satisfaction-Priorities Surveys for Ruffalo Noel Levitz, the keynote speaker at my daughter’s graduation ceremony was definitely speaking my language when he told students he hoped they were satisfied with their experience! (Yes, he really said that, and my ears perked up!) As they left the college, he wanted them to feel that their investment of time and tuition had been worthwhile.  (I would definitely echo that from the national data perspective, and further point out that a 2015 study indicated that institutions with higher satisfaction levels also have higher alumni giving). But the speaker also said he hoped the students were dissatisfied enough with the world around them that they would want to find what they were passionate about and make a change in something that matters. (This fits with how I advise institutions to improve the college experience for students in areas that matter: areas with high importance and low satisfaction to the student body).

What did they celebrate during the graduation ceremony?

A few observations on how the speakers motivated the audience toward college completion and giving back to the college:

  • The president acknowledged first-generation students and their families for blazing the trail and persevering. She also had legacy students stand and be recognized. There was one student who was a fifth-generation legacy, along with several who were fourth- and third-generation students. I was impressed with the strong family commitments to the college, but can you imagine the expectations those students felt to continue the family tradition?
  • The college’s young alumni award was presented during the graduation ceremony. (My alma mater presents it during homecoming.) By acknowledging the young alumni during graduation, it encouraged today’s graduates—and their younger peers in the audience—to see what they can accomplish within ten years after graduation. These young alumni stories were an inspiration and a validation of what can be done with a degree from the college.
  • As part of the Senior Giving Campaign, students who pledged to give back to the college were given a cord to wear with their cap and gown as a visible acknowledgment of their commitment. Kylie commented that she heard several classmates signed up because they wanted some “bling” for the gown, and the Senior Giving commitment was up 10% to 60% with this first year of the graduation cord offer.

Are you implementing acknowledgments like these during your graduation ceremony? Are there additional ways you can motivate students toward completion and celebrate students who blazed a trail or continued a legacy? How else can you reinforce the value of the tuition to the students and their families so they will continue to feel positive about your college? And what is going to motivate your new alumni to stay engaged with your institution as they move on to the next phase of their lives?

What did my daughter value most about college? Experiential learning

Kylie’s four-year college experience went very quickly for both of us, but it had a lot of highlights for her. When I asked her which moments stood out, she said the highlights were her experiential learning experiences:

  • Translating at the local legal and medical clinics, using her Spanish skills to assist immigrants in the community.
  • Participating with the campus Spanish group to make students aware of immigration issues.
  • Working at summer internships with two nonprofit international organizations, applying her communication skills.
  • Studying abroad for a semester in Chile, plus traveling for January-term classes to South Africa and Cambodia.
  • Writing her senior paper with the guidance and support of her advisor and other key faculty members.

How are you encouraging your students to take advantage of experiential learning opportunities at your institution? These may be the most memorable experiences for them and may do the most to prepare them for a career after college.

Kylie has accepted a position to teach elementary Spanish in the Twin Cities, as part of the Teach for America program. Graduate school is likely in her future, so I may have new insights for you as the parent of a grad student in the years ahead.

Interested in motivational strategies for college completion?

Learn about our Motivational Surveys and our Satisfaction-Priorities Surveys for college completion, or see all of our student success solutions. With a new round of incoming students about to start college, now is the perfect time to plan for completion.

About the Author

Julie Bryant

Julie L. Bryant, vice president for student success at RNL, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America in the area of satisfaction assessment. Julie is responsible for client service to more than 2,700 institutions...

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