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January 15, 2009

Grad school seeks to increase recruitment of underrepresented students with improvements to National Name Exchange

The UW Graduate School has won a grant that will enable it to make improvements to an important recruiting tool called the National Name Exchange. The exchange is a consortium of 53 doctorate-granting institutions that is designed to increase the number of qualified underrepresented minorities accepted into graduate school.

For 20 years, the UW has provided institutional coordination for the exchange — collecting, organizing and disseminating information to the participating institutions. “The problem for us is that we didn’t have the time and resources to do it justice,” said John Drew, director of computing and information resources for the Graduate School. “Although the other institutions pay a fee to the UW, it doesn’t provide enough resources for us to really advance the program.”

A $50,000 grant from the Intel Foundation will make the improvements possible. Intel, Drew said, is interested in diversifying its workforce and so shares the goal of getting students from underrepresented groups into the pipeline.

The National Name Exchange works like this. Each member institution invites its top juniors and seniors from underrepresented groups to register for the exchange. The students fill out a Web-based consent form that lists their contact information, their major, grade point average and career interests. The UW collects this information and creates a database that is made available to participating institutions. The institutions can then send recruiting materials to students they are interested in. Last year, nearly 6,000 students participated.

How successful is the exchange? Anecdotal evidence says it works well, but it’s hard to track, partly because the students in the pool are outstanding enough that they may receive recruiting materials through other sources besides the exchange. And there hasn’t been an easy way to learn if any given student invited to join actually followed through.

That’s why one of the improvements to the system will make tracking easier to do. Andrew Gorohoff, a Graduate School Web specialist who will be working with Drew to overhaul the system, says the change will be “similar to a lot of Web sites where you click on a link in an e-mail to complete the Web sign-up process. Once a student clicks on the link in that e-mail, the institution that invited the student to participate will know the student has started the process.”

Also in the works are new Web portals — pages accessed only with a login and password — for both students and institutions.

Currently, the student portal doesn’t contain much more than a little background information and the consent form to be filled out. Grad school staffers would like to add more information about opportunities for the students.

As for the institutional portal, the emphasis will be on making it as easy as possible for institutions to participate. “As it exists now, some institutions don’t know how to use the name exchange, so it causes them to either not participate or not fully utilize the benefits of participation,” said Sophia Agtarap, an administrative counselor for the Graduate School’s GO-MAP (Graduate Opportunity and Achievement) Program, where the exchange is housed. “So we want to provide a recruitment toolkit that would include anything from sample letters you can share with other departments to show what the name exchange can do, to e-mail templates they can use to send out to students…putting whatever they need in their hands to make it as easy as possible for them to use the exchange to its fullest,”

The institutional portal will be designed not just for central administrators like those in the Graduate School, but for individual academic programs as well. “We already have a portal for our own academic programs,” Drew said, “but we’re going to extend that across the country so that thousands of programs can log in.”

He hopes that will overcome a problem they’ve had in that they’ve typically worked with one or two people at an institution, so if those people left, it was hard to maintain contact with that institution.

The improvements to the system will also allow for the inclusion of sophomores. That’s important because it is usually between the sophomore and junior years that students are first invited to attend summer research programs hosted by universities and by employers — programs that have been proven to orient students toward graduate study, Drew said. Information about summer research programs is one of the things to be added to the student portal of the Web site.

One improvement to the system has already been made. Previously there were two name exchanges — a national exchange and a western exchange — operating independently but both coordinated by the UW. The two have now been merged into one, and with the new funding, it’s hoped that more institutions can be included.

“We’ve never really gone out and marketed the exchange,” said GO-MAP Manager Cynthia Morales. “We haven’t had the resources to do that.”

She explained that there is an application to become a member in the consortium that is voted upon by the membership. Member institutions must have a doctoral program and the dean of their graduate school must be committed to active participation. “We want this to be a true exchange,” Morales said. “Schools have to put in names as well as take them out. They have to help grow the pool.”

In addition to recruiting new members for the exchange, Drew and his colleagues will be talking to programs here at the UW about it — making sure that they are able to use it to its fullest.

Because students are asked to join the exchange in the spring, the improvements will not be fully implemented until spring of 2010. After that, two survey instruments will be used to assess outcomes — one directed at students and the other at participating institutions.

Drew is enthusiastic about the National Name Exchange project. “The consortium does more than the exchange of names,” he said. “It connects these people who are working toward a common goal of more diversity among graduate students. So they seed each other with their best practices and ideas.”