The Graduate School is investing time and money to attract top doctoral students to Washington State University and make it easier for departments to recruit those students.

“Our objective is to put higher quality student applications and greater numbers of those applications in front of every department at WSU,” said Howard Grimes, Graduate School dean. “These are students who are well qualified to initiate and complete a doctoral dissertation.”

To achieve that goal, the school has launched a $75,000 communication plan to facilitate contact between students, faculty, departments and the Graduate School. Parts of the plan are in effect now, just in time for the traditional November start of the recruitment season for students entering in Fall 2005.

Faculty are often most familiar with one-on-one recruitment of graduate students; i.e., a student is aware of a faculty member’s research and publications and wants to work with him or her specifically. But Grimes estimated at most 20 percent of graduate students choose a university based on that model.

“A significant number of students instead make their decisions based on a combination of other things — geography, location of a significant other, cost and assistantships, availability of specific programs and more,” he said.

The communication plan is designed to reach those students and to increase WSU’s visibility regionally and nationally as a graduate student destination.

According to the broad out-lines of the plan, the Graduate School will invest in most of the initial contacts with and mailings to potential students, said Kris Johnson, professor of animal sciences, who is working on this special project for the school. Then the Graduate School will help departments develop materials and coordinate mailings and other contacts, targeting students of particular interest to departments.

“We want to work with the departments to develop their own communication plans based on what they already know helps them recruit students,” Johnson said.

Attention grabbers

One aspect of the Graduate School communication plan is the development of sophisticated mailings that are being sent out at timed intervals to potential graduate students who express an interest in WSU and to high-achieving students in five target areas selected by the Graduate School. Created by Anna Sherwood, Dave Hoyt, Sharon White and others at WSU Marketing Communications, “These materials are high impact,” Grimes said. “They grab the attention right away and help us stand apart from our peers, some of whom are sending Xerox copies of information.”

The materials — which stress the concepts “Investigate, Collaborate, Lead” — showcase some of the best programs at WSU while also highlighting the quality of all programs and the university as a whole, Grimes said. They include alumni testimonials, comments on the quality of life in Pullman and Washington State, information about what graduate students have achieved after completing their degrees at WSU and more.

Among those receiving the mailings are prospective graduate students from lists the Graduate School is buying of students who score well on the Graduate Record Exam and have indicated interest in subject areas in which WSU excels. These areas are targeted, Grimes said, because they are some of the best programs WSU offers and/or because they have the capacity to accept significantly more graduate students. The areas are biotechnology, molecular plant sciences, sociology, the MBA program and environmental research. Marketing Communication also is doing some precision advertising about these programs in specific media targeting these students.

The subject areas were chosen for the pilot program, Grimes said. But they are five areas to start with, not end with.

“They are part of the initial materials we are mailing out, but we already are developing similar materials on the humanities and social sciences,” he said. “Furthermore, templates for these materials have been developed at different costs that every unit can access. The communication plan is designed to benefit all departments.”

Streamlined process

Also part of the communication plan is streamlining of student applications and access to the applications process.

“Students have had to apply to both the Graduate School and the department in which they are interested,” Grimes said. “In the future, they will apply to the Graduate School and an e-mail automatically will go out to notify the department.”

In addition, the application form has been simplified, and students can apply online. In the works is a “saveable” online application — that is, one that won’t lose already filled-in data in the event of a power surge or other online interruption.

A key to coordinating all of this work is a powerful database that, among other things, will allow easy access for departments and the Graduate School to view and track all of a student’s application materials.

Eventually, the database will allow searches for students by specific criteria, such as grade point average, gender, diversity, international or domestic origin, new or returning status and more. “Departments will be able to tailor the makeup of their graduate student population according to what they determine is the most desirable mix for them,” Johnson said.

Timing and customizing

The database also will regulate the timing of mailings, e-mails and other communication between the Graduate School, departments and students. Once students are mailed an initial packet of information, their names will be on file to automatically receive, for example, a postcard two weeks later, an e-mail a week after that, a letter from a dean or department graduate coordinator two weeks after that, etc.

The Graduate School plans to solicit help from alumni in making contact with students, Johnson said. It also plans to train current graduate students. “At times other graduate students can provide information to prospective students in a way that faculty or staff cannot, which makes current graduate students effective recruiters” she said.

Construction of the database is just beginning, Grimes said. Some pieces may be ready by January, Johnson said, and she anticipates it will be completed by Fall 2005. Both agreed that it is critical the database be functional for and useful to every department and site within the WSU system.

The database will apprise departments of contacts they should make with potential students and when. Each department will program the database with their own communication plan containing their own types and timings of reminders, based on what works best for that department. For example, after an initial contact from the student to the Graduate School, one department’s communication plan might have the database send an e-mail asking the department to e-mail the student with additional information. Two weeks later, the database might trigger an e-mail to the department requesting that a letter from the graduate coordinator be sent to the student. Two weeks after that, the department’s plan might have the database e-mail the dean or a faculty member requesting that they make personal contact with the student.

As her next step in implementing the communication plan, Johnson intends to contact departments soon to gather information for two documents essential to the plan. The first will be a page of information that links to that department or program from the main Graduate School webpage. The second will be a fact sheet that the Graduate School will mail out about the department or program.

“Hopefully, departments will see this as a benefit,” Grimes said.

“By implementing this communication plan, the Graduate School is taking huge financial and time burdens off the departments,” he said. “This way, they can invest their time and efforts at the personal level, where it really benefits the students and has the greatest impact.”