Using Welcome Kits to Build New Student Connectedness to an Online Institution

Concurrent Session 4

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

As part of a larger first year student initiative, Walden University piloted the use of “Welcome Kits” using a treatment-control design. Kits were designed to build excitement, foster a sense of community, and provide information in order to increase persistence. Results showed statistically greater retention among students receiving Welcome Kits.


Dr. Gary J Burkholder is Senior Research Scholar and Faculty at Walden University. He also serves as Academic Research Lead for the Laureate Professional Assessment Initiative and as Chief Editor for the Higher Research Learning Communications Journal. He has served in several academic and business roles during his tenure with Walden University and Laureate Education, including Assistant Dean, Dean, and Vice President. Dr. Burkholder received his Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology (specializing in quantitative methods in psychology) from the University of Rhode Island (USA) in May 2000 and has undergraduate degrees in Psychology and in Engineering. Before coming to Walden University and Laureate Education, Dr. Burkholder worked as a senior research associate at the Institute for Community Research in Hartford, CT and as Director, Survey Center and Data Management for the Institute for Community Health Promotion at Brown University. He served as biostatistician on grants related to exercise behavior and nutrition education in diverse populations; community health promotion and community health education; patient-doctor communication; cancer screening; LGBT health issues; and drug use and abuse among adolescents and emerging adults and serves as a peer review in a number of public health, psychological, and educational journals. Dr. Burkholder has authored and coauthored more than 50 publications and 60 presentations on individual, community-based, and public health-related research; student outcomes in higher education; online education; and statistical methods in the social sciences. He has membership in the American Public Health Association and in the Society for Organizational and Industrial Psychology (SIOP). In the APHA, he previously served as Section Councilor for the Applied Statistics section.

Extended Abstract

Wardley, Belanger, and Leonard (2013) demonstrated the powerful potential of branding as a way to attract students. They found that non-traditional students reported academic environment is important to institutional commitment, more so than traditional aged students. Also found was that university and organizational features were less important for non-traditional students. This likely is due to the fact that most non-traditional students spend less time on campus due to competing work factors and that most live off campus. Brown (2004) also provided an analysis that points to the importance of marketing to the success of adult degree programs.  

As part of a larger first year student initiative, Walden University decided to test this hypothesis by piloting a marketing related “Welcome Kit” initiative which was designed to build excitement, provide a sense of identity and community for new students, and to provide helpful information upfront for incoming students in order to boost their likelihood of persisting. It was expected that the excitement, sense of identity, and information about the University would lead to a significantly greater percentage of students following through on their intent to start a program on their chosen start dates. Likewise, a greater feeling of preparedness would build confidence and alleviate anxiety associated with starting a new program, thereby leading to better retention at census. In the longer term, we expected a greater sense of commitment and satisfaction and that students would report a higher likelihood to persist to graduation. In order to assess the impact of Welcome Kits, several pilot studies were conducted using control group design. 

In the first study, undergraduates across all colleges and graduate students starting a program within the College of Management and Technology or the College of Education and Leadership were randomly assigned to either a treatment or control group; those in the treatment group were sent a Welcome Kit within a 1-2 weeks of their admission.  The Welcome Kit included a customized letter, pen, window cling, ID badge, t-shirt voucher, and a USB drive containing preloaded materials such as a welcome note from the President, information about student services, and information on financial aid. Students in both groups were then sent a survey asking about initial perceptions of the institution. Specifically, students were asked about their overall satisfaction with the University, feelings of preparedness to succeed, ability to manage other responsibilities with school, how the University is supporting their educational goals, feeling a part of the University community, and the likelihood of completing their degree. Results indicated that both groups were satisfied overall with the University, felt the University supported their educational goals, and were likely to complete their degree. Somewhat lower percentages of students in both groups felt able to manage other responsibilities with school and felt a part of the University community. Students in the treatment group were asked whether they received the Welcome Kit, if they found the kit helpful, and about the specific items contained in the kit. Over half of the students who received the kit found it helpful or very helpful. Students found the USB drive the most useful.

Additional pilots also assessed the impact of the initiative on retention within the first term. For example, a pilot of undergraduate students starting a program in the same term revealed differences in first term retention between control and treatment groups.  Comparison of treatment and control groups at one month into the term, two months into the term, and end of term showed statistically significant differences in retention (one month: 90% treatment versus 81% control; two month: 83% versus 74%; and end of term: 78% versus 71%).

Our approach to treating each of our retention projects as research studies provides a systematic way of assessing their impact. For this project, results from the initial pilot served mainly to improve the process by which Welcome Kits were administered as it became clear that many students were unaware of the informative materials contained on the USB Drive.  With more explicit communication in subsequent pilots, we were able to better assess the impact of the initiative. Analysis of retention data at various points in the term showed that, while beginning of the term (day 8 census) retention for the two groups was statistically the same, retention at end of term was higher for those receiving the welcome kits. Therefore, there is promise of welcome kits being useful for building a sense of identity and community with an institution that is primarily distance education.

Those attending this presentation will learn about design, implementation, and evaluation of the “Welcome Kit” initiative. The presentation should be applicable to any conference attendees working in a higher education settings.