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A young group of friends laughing and sharing pizza at a music festival.

College leaders should understand the different incentives that promote student engagement in campus events.

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In a post-pandemic world, getting students to feel comfortable showing up to in-person events has proven to be a challenge for higher education practitioners.

Engagement-based leadership is critical to creating successful campus events, Tom Krieglstein, founder of the leadership engagement company Swift Kick, shared during an Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities webinar, “Pivot Your Programs!” on Oct. 12.

A majority of college students will never participate in a campus-sponsored event—around 60 percent of students at four-year colleges and 84 percent at two-year colleges or any heavy commuter campus, Krieglstein says. A summer 2023 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College pulse found one-third of students spend no time weekly on extracurricular activities.

Krieglstein sorts students in six levels of engagement, from those who are neutral to participating (those who skip out on all events during their college careers) to those who are leading and organizing events themselves.

To effectively encourage student participation, Krieglstein argues, campus leaders should recognize the different incentives needed for each level of interest and how it changes. Actions can include:

  1. Interrupting the process. For disengaged students, campus leaders need to create disruption in their normal behaviors. Hosting an event or coordinating pre-event outreach in a highly trafficked era can cause the apathetic student to pause and check it out.
  1. Building connection. A curious student needs a reason to stick around, so investing in intentional outreach and a personal connection will promote involvement.
  2. Creating value. At this stage, students are looking for something to benefit themselves. Among the giveaways that keep students involved are free food, swag, money (like gift cards) or class credit.
  3. Creating belonging. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, at a higher stage of engagement comes a higher need for connection and relationships. Creating belonging among students and students who may not be as interested can promote the overall health of the event or the organization. Campus leaders should encourage established student leaders to step outside their comfort zones to create deeper relationships.
  1. Giving responsibility. Once a student is bought in to the event or the organization, they should be given a level of responsibility for the process. This is how you convert student leaders into campus leaders, Krieglstein says.
  2. Allowing ownership. For the highest level of student leaders, identify places that resonate with their interests and give them the resources to be successful at leading and managing this part of the organization. Krieglstein refers to this as “finding the parades that are already in motion” rather than looking to generate activity around a brand-new activity or role.

In converting students from disinterested passersby to champions, event organizers and club leaders should recognize that each engagement strategy is a step. Very few people want to go from “the edge of the dance floor to the center of the floor break dancing,” Krieglstein says. Instead, it’s “x plus one”—moving up gradually from new member to student leader.

Do you have a campus engagement tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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