Innovation in Action at the CSGS Annual Meeting: Working Toward a More Diverse and Inclusive Future

RJ Nichol
Jan 31, 2019

Each year, the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools’ (CSGS) Annual Meeting gives member institutions a unique opportunity to discuss the most pressing issues in graduate education, to share best practices, to network with each other and to establish mutually beneficial partnerships. Attendees who participate in the passionate discussions about emerging trends, new opportunities and potential challenges in the world of graduate-level education all return to their home campuses armed with new insights and ideas for achieving continued growth and institutional excellence.

As this year’s meeting theme is “Enhancing the Graduate Student Experience,” one topic likely to be covered in detail is the importance of improving the graduate admissions process — and graduate education outcomes — while simultaneously working to achieve a more inclusive, diverse student population.

Why wait until the CSGS Annual Meeting to start thinking about this important work? Start now by asking yourself these two key questions:

  • Do your institution’s inclusiveness initiatives reflect the real-world concerns and aspirations of potential applicants, current students, faculty and staff?
  • Will they be sufficient to address the priorities of important partners beyond your campus walls, such as community and business leaders?

Engaging with all of your stakeholders is the only way to answer those questions. If you haven’t already done so, consider conducting “campus climate” surveys to get a sense of what others see as your top priorities and responsibilities.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the most effective campus climate surveys share five key characteristics. They:

  • Ensure confidentially.
  • Incorporate a long-term action plan.
  • Can be delivered to mobile platforms and be completed quickly.
  • Feature initiatives to encourage participation.
  • Contain very specific questions.**

On-campus roundtable- or town hall-style forums can also help foster productive conversations and demonstrate your program’s commitment to giving everyone an equal voice and sense of place. Inviting faculty and students who passionately advocate diversity of thought and action to serve as facilitators also sends the message that you are working toward change, not just telling people about it.

Anticipate Obstacles

Once you have an understanding of the types of changes that are needed on your campus, your next step — implementing culture-shifting innovations — can be expensive and occasionally unpopular. Once you’ve identified the concrete goals you’d like to achieve, it’s essential to identify roadblocks that may hinder your progress, such as a lack of funding or a lack of enthusiasm among faculty members.

In either case, explaining the tangible benefits of new policies — such as increasing a program’s reputation, enrollment and relevance — might help overcome objections and bring doubters on board.

Offering early-stage diversity and anti-bias training may also help alleviate the tensions that can mount when change and uncertainty loom just over the horizon. That way, the ideals and practices you’re striving to implement will be clear to all. In a perfect world, everyone should walk away feeling like a respected and equal partner eager to pursue shared goals.

Keep in mind, too, that the tools and tactics employed to place greater emphasis on diversity in the admissions process may also come under scrutiny. For example, “holistic assessments” of applicants are supposed to provide a better understanding of the “whole person” behind the application than test scores and GPAs alone might reveal. But it can be difficult, if not impossible, to quantify “non-cognitive” personal characteristics such as resilience, collegiality, and leadership abilities.

That may be why letters of recommendation continue to be so popular. According to one recent study, at least 90% of graduate program directors continue to use them as a way of looking beyond hard numbers in order to more comprehensively evaluate each applicant.** Yet drawbacks and questions remain.

How do you quantify the relative merits of two different letters for two different applicants? How can you account for letter writers’ inherent biases, writing abilities and levels of commitment to applicants’ success? How do you make fair and inclusive decisions about numerous applicants with similar grades but with vastly different personal qualities and experiences?

Offer Transparency and Training 

A recent report issued by the Conference of Graduate Schools examining “the processes and criteria by which master’s students are admitted to their programs of study” listed several ways graduate schools can improve their admissions processes, for the benefits of students and programs alike. The recommendations include:

  • Improving transparency about your definition of program success and the characteristics applicants should demonstrate in order to gain admission. This can be accomplished, for example, by offering web site content that provides specific examples of those criteria as well as tips for writing effective personal statements. You may also want to post practical guidelines for recommenders and develop profiles of students who have successfully completed your program.
  • Providing training and tools for faculty and staff so they have the resources to accomplish your institution’s admissions goals. According to CGS, just one-quarter (26%) of the graduate schools participating in its survey provide training for those evaluating master’s applications.

Other tips include developing rubrics to assess non-quantitative qualities and pursuing additional research on best practices in master’s admissions.***

Rethink Technology

Taking advantage of cutting-edge recruitment and admissions technology won’t necessarily provide easy answers to every question encountered on the road to enhancing the graduate student experience, but it can have a tremendous influence on your progress.

Consider, for example, the benefits provided by Liaison’s Centralized Application Services (CASs™). Liaison’s CASs greatly simplify the task of admitting and enrolling best-fit students while also supporting your diversity and inclusion efforts.

“We leapfrogged into the use of technology early on, especially in the recruiting process, so the next step for us was to apply technology to the way we actually process our admissions files,” says Loubna Bouamane, PhD, Director of Admissions at University of Miami Business School and a member of Liaison’s BusinessCAS™ [the CAS for graduate management education programs] advisory board. “We were really looking for a way to make the application experience as smooth as possible and then to bring that seamlessness to the admissions process. That’s why we saw BusinessCAS as a great opportunity to create the best experience possible for applicants.”

Among other things, Liaison’s CASs:

  • Scale your effort and effectiveness without scaling your resources.
  • Drive your application volume through exposure to a broader global pool of best-fit applicants.
  • Centralize your data to facilitate trend analyses for benchmarking and forecasting.

To learn more about how Liaison can support your work to enhance the graduate student experience, please visit the Liaison table at the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools’ 2019 Annual Meeting, February 14-16, 2019, in Knoxville, Tennessee.

We hope to see you there!


*Department of Justice, “Best Practices: Campus Climate Surveys, Oct. 14, 2016.
**Council of Graduate Schools, “In Master’s Degree Programs, Admissions Processes Prioritize Retention,” December 4, 2018.
***Council of Graduate Schools, “Master’s Admissions Transparency, Guidance, and Training,” December 4, 2018.

RJ Nichol

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Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.