New Student Onboarding: 4 Tips to Maximize Engagement

Every touchpoint with a student has the potential to impact their level of engagement, and that starts with the onboarding process. Your earliest interactions may have an outsized impact as students develop an understanding of where you fit into their future plans. From the start, it’s important to focus on the relationship-building that will serve as the foundation of this work moving forward.

At Bright Star Schools, our Alumni Support and College Success (ASCS) Program tracks, supports, and coaches alumni to get to and through higher education. Our goal is for 60% of alumni to graduate with a bachelor’s or associate degree, vocational certificate, or from a workplace development program within six years of high school graduation.

We don’t have a scholarship or financial incentives to keep students engaged after high school, and without the right relationships in place, advisors face an uphill battle trying to connect with students once a busy college semester is underway. Here’s what we have learned over the years about how to nurture those relationships and lay the groundwork for student engagement – starting on day one.

Show up early and often.

Before our students step foot on campus, we want our alumni coordinators to have earned their trust. Since we’re based at a charter school, Bright Star coordinators can start getting to know students while they are still in high school, starting in the fall of their senior year. While high school counselors lead senior programming, alumni coordinators are always in attendance, supporting events and showing up for students and parents. From financial aid night to local college visits, the coordinator is a consistent presence every step of the way.

Coordinators also host their own sessions to help students prepare for college, covering topics like digital etiquette, time management, self-care, and how to find a community that aligns with their interests. Students are also free to schedule a meeting with their coordinator at any time for individual coaching and support.

Recognize that every student has their own goals.

There is more than one path to a successful career. Above all else, we want our students to understand that we’re here to support them in fulfilling their own vision for the future, whether that includes pursuing a four-year degree, enrolling in community college, or training in the skilled trades. Guest speakers introduce our students to a range of career opportunities they may never have considered, and our messaging is inclusive of a range of post-secondary pathways.

In the past, we heavily emphasized the opportunities afforded by a four-year degree alone. But for students considering other options, this approach suggested that we wouldn’t be here to support them along the way. Today, our alumni coordinators focus on starting a two-way conversation that recognizes each student’s individual goals and motivations. After all, being a good listener is an important part of any relationship.

Make it personal.

During the summer after high school graduation, alumni coordinators schedule one-on-one coaching with every graduating senior. These summer success meetings are the formal onboarding to alumni programming, a time when coordinators review students’ college plans to make sure everything is on track. This includes confirming contact information and a detailed review of financial aid packages, plans for housing and transportation, orientation arrangements, and fall coursework, along with a pulse check on how they’re feeling.

There’s a lot to cover in these conversations, but it’s perhaps most valuable as a time to deepen the coordinator-student relationship and understand each student’s unique goals and challenges for the journey ahead.

Find the right incentives.

Coordinators need the right information to provide effective support during college. To encourage participation in summer success meetings, the school has put coordinators in charge of disbursing high school diplomas. Today, we have a 96% participation rate, which means our coordinators are equipped with a detailed view of almost every student’s circumstances as they begin the next chapter of their lives.

The fact is, after our students leave high school, their participation in alumni programming is completely voluntary. There isn’t a scholarship waiting after they complete annual surveys. Ongoing engagement is based solely on the strength of their relationship with the program and their coordinator. That’s why we work so hard to help them understand the benefits of what we have to offer and show how our support system can help them reach their own goals.

Building the foundation for strong student engagement is so crucial to our success that we invest nearly a year of time and resources before students show up to college. While we are fortunate to have access to our students throughout senior year, every college success program can prioritize building relationships and establishing trust early on. There’s no better way to begin the college journey together.

Genoveva Cortes is the Director of the Alumni Support and College Success (ASCS) Program at Bright Star Schools. She has over two decades of experience working as an elementary and middle school teacher, K-12 and college administrator, and program coordinator. Geno developed and launched Bright Star’s ASCS Program to support the organization’s alumni to persist in and graduate from higher education.

Geno is a former foster youth and the first in her family to have graduated from college, and she is passionate about educational equity and reform and social justice. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and her Master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Ready to schedule your own student welcome meetings? Click here to access our step-by-step guide which includes what to consider in advance and how to follow up effectively: Advisor Guide to Welcome Meetings