Recruiting and Retaining Graduate Students in Kinesiology at a Hispanic-Serving Institution

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  • 1 Department of Health and Human Performance, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, USA
  • | 2 School of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY, USA

Over the past decade, there has been a notable increase in interest in master’s education in the United States. However, not much attention has been paid to recruiting and retaining master’s students in the field of kinesiology. This article describes recruitment and retention strategies that have been successfully implemented in a kinesiology graduate program at a Hispanic-serving institution. Recruiting from undergraduate programs, removing use of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in graduate admissions, awarding graduate teaching assistantships, creating new programs that flow with the evolving workforce, actively promoting the program at other universities and conferences, and building partnership with other universities are described for recruiting quality master’s students. Establishing a peer/faculty mentorship program and building a strong student network/organization have been shown to have a positive impact on retention. Readers may pick and choose the strategies that work best with the student population, faculty, and other resources available in the program.

Master’s education continues to be the large majority of the U.S. graduate education enterprise both in terms of the number of students enrolled and degrees awarded. Master’s student enrollment applications in the last decade have risen by 2.7% (Council of Graduate Schools [CGS], 2021), indicating increased student interest in graduate education. Out of the total applications submitted, 43.6% were accepted for graduate programs in health sciences (e.g., kinesiology, exercise science, physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc.). This indicates significant demand for kinesiology-related degrees (CGS, 2021).

With the growing enrollment interest in master’s education, it is crucial to understand degree graduation and attrition rates. Graduation rate refers to students who complete their program within 150% of the allotted time, whereas attrition rate refers to the percentage of students who drop out within a given year. There are various external factors related to student dropout, including, but not limited to, financial, academic, and professional setbacks (Urwin et al., 2010). Because students are more likely to drop out during their first year due to lack of engagement while transitioning into a new program (Barron & D’Annunzio-Green, 2009), it is important to understand the consequences of attrition and explore strategies to improve retention. Tinto and Pusser (2006) stated that the attrition rate is more likely to decrease as the relationship between the student and institution is strengthened. High attrition is costly for both institutions and students. The financial and reputational damages to institutions from high attrition highlight the need for universities to expend significant time and resources to improve student retention (Crosling et al., 2009). Within a small kinesiology master’s program, high student attrition can potentially be costly or harmful to the department and program. It can mean the loss of resources or faculty or the elimination of the program. Moreover, the implications of a student not finishing a degree can be financially and personally devastating. Many students, especially students from low-income families of underrepresented background, depend upon some type of financial aid or loan. Failing to complete the degree leaves a student with debt that can be very difficult to repay with available job options.

Compared with undergraduate and doctoral students, little is known about attrition rates at the master’s level (Sowell et al., 2010) because there is no national database containing this information (Lovitts & Nelson, 2000; Proctor & Truscott, 2012). To combat this lack of data, the CGS launched the Master’s Completion Project in 2009 to gather information regarding attrition and completion rates for students enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) master’s programs from five nationally recognized universities. Despite the incongruent measurements between 6- and 4-year completion rates and dual degree completion, the results provided helpful insights. By the end of 4 years, 66% of STEM master’s students completed their program. Interference from employment was identified as the most powerful factor influencing attrition, whereas motivation and nonfinancial family support were the two most prominent factors to promote degree completion. Many students pursued a graduate degree to grow their skills and knowledge within a given field (Lovitts, 2002). This can benefit retention and career placement. For example, kinesiology students studying athletic training (AT) at a graduate level have greater retention rates (88.70%) and career placement (88.50%) when compared with undergraduate students majoring in AT (retention: 80.98% and career placement: 71.32%; Bowman et al., 2015).

Importantly, lack of diversity by race and ethnicity is evident in the number of the master’s degrees awarded (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). In 2018–2019, there were 833,706 master’s degrees conferred by all public and private institutions in which White students accounted for nearly half the degrees earned (49.9%), Hispanic students accounted for 8.8% of degrees earned, and Black students 10.3% of degrees earned.

It has also been reported that diverse students are at high risk of attrition after the first year of starting a program. Seymour and Hewitt (1997) described four broad areas contributing to attrition: “differences in ethnic, cultural values and socialization; internalization of stereotypes; ethnic isolation and perceptions of racism; and inadequate program support” (p. 329). These experiences and perceptions are heightened when minority students enter a predominantly White institution.

In addition, lack of faculty diversity within higher education may limit students’ ability to relate and integrate into master’s programs. It is reported that non-White students accounted for 46% of total master’s degrees conferred in the 2018–2019 academic year, whereas only 22.5% of faculty in higher education were non-White (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019b, 2020). Because students’ relationship with their faculty advisor contributes to student success, having a diverse faculty can play a role in determining whether students continue or withdraw from their studies (Lovitts, 2002). If universities are not adequately equipped to welcome diverse students, then attrition rates are likely to be high.

Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) are designed to meet the needs of Hispanic students pursuing higher education. There were 569 HSIs in the United States and Puerto Rico in 2019–2020. This includes 2-year public and private and 4-year institutions (Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, 2021). Concentrating efforts on increasing the mobility and education of diverse students makes good economic sense. That is, educating young diverse adults helps increase the education level of a community and makes for a more robust and diversified workforce. Moreover, a student with a master’s degree increases earnings beyond that of nondegreed students or students with an associates or bachelor’s degree, thus providing increased lifetime earnings (Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], 2015). Diversity within the kinesiology workforce provides numerous societal benefits and offers increased job stability and opportunities for promotions within the discipline of kinesiology. Many fields, such as physical therapy and occupational therapy, benefit from hiring a diverse workforce that resembles the population being served. Specifically, hiring ethnically and culturally diverse students can provide improved services and erase cultural barriers for many patients seeking services.

Kinesiology master’s students compose only 0.3% of the nation’s master’s student population (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019a) and are typically lumped into multiple subcategories such as health professions, education, or human sciences. Because data regarding graduate student attrition rates are limited in general, there is a gap in knowledge about kinesiology degree completion. Understanding attrition rates in kinesiology is extremely important in light of the enrollment demand for kinesiology programs and need to meet the workforce and service needs of a diverse society. This article describes recruitment and retention strategies that have been successfully implemented in an established HSI (Carnegie R2). Investing in graduate recruitment and retention strategies with a diverse student population will help kinesiology departments build stronger academic programs, support student learning, and better prepare students for the evolving diverse workforce.

Master’s Degree Enrollment at Texas State University—An HSI

Texas State University (TXST) is an HSI with an increasingly diverse campus community wherein ethnic minorities make up 57% of the student body, and many are first-generation college students from some of the poorest regions in the state of Texas. TXST is located in Central Texas between San Antonio and Austin. The university, first established in 1899 by the Texas legislature, opened its doors in 1903. In 1923, it was known as Southwest Texas State Teachers College, focusing on the education of teachers. Today, TXST is a major multipurpose university operating within nine colleges and 200 undergraduate and graduate programs. TXST became an HSI in 2010. In addition, TXST was classified as a Doctoral Research Institution (Carnegie R2) with higher research activity reflecting its commitment to increased research (Texas State University, n.d.) in 2016.

From 2016 to 2020, the Fall total enrollment in master’s degree programs at TXST has remained relatively flat. There was a slight decrease during the 5-year period, from 3,460 master’s students enrolled in Fall 2016 to 3,309 in Fall 2020. As an HSI whose mission is to deliberately recruit and support the Hispanic population, the number of Hispanic students enrolled in master’s programs has been steadily increasing (22%–27%) over the past 5 years. A slight increase (7%–8%) was found in the number of Black, non-Hispanic students enrolled in master’s programs with the White, non-Hispanic students showing a decline (55%–51%) over the same time frame. Enrollment data and a demographic breakdown of students in master’s programs at TXST are exhibited in Table 1.

Table 1

Enrollment of Master’s Students at Texas State University

EthnicityFall 2016Fall 2017Fall 2018Fall 2019Fall 2020
Black7% (245)8% (292)9% (307)8% (289)8% (274)
Hispanic22% (769)24% (858)25% (864)27% (924)27% (883)
White55% (1,905)53% (1,869)53% (1,814)52% (1,782)51% (1,695)
Other16% (541)14% (496)13% (461)13% (450)14% (457)
Total100% (3,460)100% (3,515)100% (3,446)100% (3,445)100% (3,309)

In the Exercise Science program, master’s degree student enrollment has significantly increased over the same 5-year period. In 2016, a total of 49 students seeking a master’s degree were enrolled in the Exercise Science program, and the number went up to 92 in 2020. This represents a 93% increase in the number of students enrolled during this 5-year period. With some variability over the 5-year span, the relative proportion of Hispanic students and White, non-Hispanic students enrolled in the Exercise Science master’s program has remained consistent. A slight proportional decline in the number of Black, non-Hispanic students enrolled in the program is observed and a slight proportional increase in students of other ethnicities. The enrollment data for 2016−2020 and the demographic breakdown of students in the Exercise Science graduate program are presented in Table 2. The following sections overview strategies for increasing enrollment and retention, respectively, that were used by the TXST Exercise Science graduate program.

Table 2

Enrollment of Master’s Students in Exercise Science at Texas State University

EthnicityFall 2016Fall 2017Fall 2018Fall 2019Fall 2020
Black16% (8)11% (5)11% (7)13% (10)12% (11)
Hispanic27% (13)28% (13)34% (21)33% (25)27% (25)
White47% (23)48% (22)44% (27)41% (31)48% (44)
Other10% (5)13% (6)11% (7)13% (10)13% (12)
Total100% (49)100% (46)100% (62)100% (76)100% (92)

Enrollment Strategies

Recruitment strategies, when implemented appropriately, can and will increase overall enrollment numbers. The strategies proposed in this section are cost effective and can be implemented to recruit graduate students in different kinesiology disciplines. The student enrollment of the Exercise Science graduate program at TXST has nearly doubled since several of the proposed recruitment strategies were implemented in 2016. Two overarching themes characterize the strategies that were implemented: internal approaches and external collaborations. Example strategies within these themes that can contribute to enrollment success are presented next.

Internal Approach: Recruit From Undergraduate Programs

The Department of Health and Human Performance at TXST offers undergraduate degrees in AT, exercise and sports science, public health, recreation administration, and physical fitness and wellness. These undergraduate programs are closely aligned with the Exercise Science graduate program, which enables students to obtain more in-depth knowledge and skills if they choose to further their education and extend their career options. In addition to closely aligning the undergraduate and graduate programs, placing faculty members at on-campus graduate fairs allows undergraduate students from various disciplines to learn more about the field of exercise science and how it may meaningfully combine with their background or offer a way to increase their market value. In this case, recruiting from undergraduate programs on campus serves as an internal pipeline that sends students to the Exercise Science graduate program.

Internal Approach: Remove GRE as Graduate Admissions Requirement

According to the 5-year data from 2012 to 2017, no correlation was found between graduate students’ graduate grade point average (GPA) and their GRE scores. Informed by these data, graduate faculty in the Exercise Science program decided to remove the GRE requirement from the graduate admissions process effective in 2018. Upon removing the GRE requirement, we received more applications (from 74 to 105) to apply to our Exercise Science graduate program, enabling us to increase enrollment.

Internal Approach: Offer Graduate Assistantships

Offering financial support also contributes to graduate program enrollment. Graduate assistants in the Department of Health and Human Performance at TXST work 20 hr per week during the fall and spring terms. The usual semester-hour teaching load during the fall or spring term is six semester hours or two classes. The usual semester-hour teaching load during a 6- or 8-week summer session is one course (up to 4 hr). Graduate assistants receive a stipend and out-of-state tuition waiver for graduate study. This is a particularly attractive option for out-of-state and international students. Other financial aid opportunities to attract graduate students include graduate assistantships from the Athletics Department, department student scholarships, and student-worker positions. It is important to offer a diverse span of funding opportunities as some sources are irregularly available and not fully controlled by the department.

Internal Approach: Create New Graduate Academic Programs

The cost of a teaching degree is prohibitive for many students because tuition costs have outpaced teaching salaries for new teachers. Aligned with this reality, the number of students enrolled in the Master of Education program in Physical Education at TXST has decreased over the past 3 years. On average, five or fewer students have been enrolled in the Master of Education program. Yet, BLS data show that the demand for students seeking careers in postsecondary teaching is projected to grow 13% from now through 2024 (BLS, 2021a). This suggests that more robust enrollment in this field of study is possible with redesign of programs. The Physical Activity Literacy concentration was created at TXST to replace the Master of Education program in 2018 with a focus on addressing needs for students in this evolving workforce. Physical Activity Literacy is designed for those graduate students who seek to pursue careers promoting physical activity in community and sport settings.

In addition, an increasing number of students, both domestic and international, have been seeking advanced training and professional credentials to improve their academic profile for admission to allied health professional degrees (e.g., DPT, OTD, PA, RD, and speech pathology). Also, some licensed AT students have been seeking experience with National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I athletics. The BLS data estimated that the demand for rehabilitation/allied health professionals is projected to grow 21%–34% from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations (BLS, 2021b). Therefore, the interdisciplinary Health and Rehabilitation Sciences concentration was created to better serve those students who seek to expand their professional skills or prepare for a career in higher education.

Furthermore, we receive regular inquiries about graduate studies encompassing sports coaching from students at TXST and others within and outside of Texas. Approximately half of the current students have expressed interests in sports coaching or strength and conditioning as future career goals. BLS data indicate that the demand for qualified high school and collegiate coaches is projected to grow 15% from now through 2022, particularly at smaller colleges (i.e., Divisions II and III) and in women’s sports (BLS, 2021c). The Strength & Conditioning and Sport Coaching concentration was created for graduate students pursuing careers in diverse sport and athletic settings. Altogether, a key internal strategy we used to support enrollment was to align our programming with the current and anticipated labor market, which often maps to student interests.

External Collaboration: Program Presentations at Other Universities

It is beneficial to have collegial relationships with faculty members at other institutions and recruit their undergraduate students. Such relationships can enrich educational experiences, enable collaborative scholarly activities, and amplify the impact of services in the community. Through these collegial relationships, opportunities have arisen for faculty in the Department of Health and Human Performance at TXST to give presentations about our graduate program to undergraduate students majoring in kinesiology or related fields at other universities. In supporting graduate enrollment, this type of presentation is most effective when given to senior-level classes wherein students are more likely to plan their future career goals.

External Collaboration: Program Promotion at Local, National, and International Conferences

Off-campus graduate fairs, such as those hosted at professional conventions, give faculty members the opportunity to speak with students in kinesiology subdisciplines and recruit students who share similar research interests and career goals. To recruit quality graduate students, faculty members must have sufficient knowledge about the required and elective courses within each concentration as well as the required documents for the application and the procedure for admission. They also must have an understanding of the unique needs of underrepresented students and the supports in place at an HSI like TXST to promote student success.

External Collaboration: Build Partnership With HBCUs in Texas

Though designed to emphasize the specific needs of Hispanic students pursuing higher education, recruiting students from other underrepresented groups to HSIs aligns with the promotion of inclusive excellence and support of student success. In an effort to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive graduate program, we have recently developed relationships with HBCUs that have undergraduate kinesiology programs but no graduate programs in Texas (e.g., Houston Tillotson University). Key contacts at each institution have been identified, and articulation agreements between TXST and those HBCUs have been developed in 2021. Our hope is that these external collaborations will increase our enrollment of Black students, create long-standing new partnerships with kinesiology programs in the state, and enrich the educational experience presently afforded by our master’s program.

Retention at TXST and in the Exercise Science Graduate Program

Efforts to increase enrollment must be matched with efforts to retain those students. Overall retention of full-time, first-time, first-year master’s students at TXST is measured using a cohort approach of the one-year percentage of students who are still enrolled at the end of one year from the time at which they entered the university or program. During the most recent 5-year period of available data, 1-year retention rates for TXST master’s students have been strong, exceeding 80% in recent years and showing improvement for students of Black ethnicity (Table 3). Retention rates have also been strong in the Exercise Science graduate program at TXST, with 100% student retention in the two most recent cohorts (Table 4). We attribute this recent success to deliberate strategies we have employed to support students in our graduate program.

Table 3

One-Year Retention Rates for Full-Time, First-Year, First-Time Texas State Master’s Students

EthnicityFall 2016Fall 2017Fall 2018Fall 2019Fall 2020
Black68% (58)67% (62)74% (59)80% (57)83% (87)
Hispanic80% (180)87% (198)87% (233)83% (199)85% (224)
White87% (377)85% (356))85% (379)85% (384)84% (471)
Table 4

One-Year Retention Rates for Full-Time, First-Year, First-Time Master’s Students in the Exercise Science Program at Texas State University

EthnicityFall 2016Fall 2017Fall 2018Fall 2019Fall 2020
BlackNo data50% (2)40% (2)100% (2)100% (3)
Hispanic67% (4)100% (6)100% (8)100% (6)100% (5)
White89% (8)100% (11)78% (7)100% (12)100% (18)

Retention Strategies in the TXST Exercise Science Graduate Program

Similar to the recruitment strategies, when retention strategies are implemented well, the student retention rate can and will increase. The strategies provided in the following section can be applied to a variety of kinesiology or related fields. Within our Exercise Science program, support systems are provided through academic and social programming to retain current graduate students in an environment that is safe and inclusive. Two of these important supports are emphasized here. The power of these supports is in their focus on building relationships among students, which can be especially critical in the retention of underrepresented students (Cuyjet, 2006; Dancy, 2010; Haizlip, 2012; Johnson, 2009; Schwartz, 2012).

Graduate Student Organization

A graduate student organization was established in 2019 to provide opportunities for students with different backgrounds to embrace and celebrate the rich dimensions of diversity, to bond and work together, and to attend professional conferences and social activities. New graduate students have the opportunity to connect with other students to give them support and knowledge on how to prosper in the program. This graduate student organization is led by the graduate students with two faculty advisors. The officers include a president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer. Membership in the organization is open to graduate students currently enrolled in the Exercise Science program. The organization encourages broad participation by graduate students—there is no membership fee and the graduate students meet at least once a month. Former students have shared that by joining the graduate student organization, they received advice not only on school matters but also on life matters. The organization enabled them to share their concerns with other students, which supported their persistence in the program.

Peer Mentoring Program

Peer mentoring describes a relationship wherein a more experienced student helps a less experienced student improve their overall graduate experience and academic performance and provides advice, support, and knowledge to the mentee (Colvin & Ashman, 2010). Peer mentoring is effective in supporting students through enhancing a sense of belonging and improving student satisfaction, engagement, and academic success. At the graduate level, peer mentoring has been shown to increase retention among first-year students and graduation rates (Lee & Bush, 2003). Research has also revealed the benefits of peer mentoring for the mentors, mentees, and instructors. Mentors experience an advancement in interpersonal skills like patience and compassion as well as communication skills. These skills, in turn, benefit the professional growth and maturation of the mentors and heighten mentors’ self-confidence (McLean, 2004).

Peer mentoring can guide the mentees by influencing and broadening their career choices. They become more integrated in the program community, increasing their probability of persisting with the program and achieving academic success (Brown et al., 1999). These outcomes stem from improved confidence and motivation to learn. Improved contact with other students and peers promotes retention rates and communication skills (Levenhagen et al., 2011). Peer mentoring also can help students become aware of formal and informal program and faculty expectations (Levenhagen et al., 2011). Insightful discussions among peer mentors and mentees can foster increased interaction and improved performance in class. Peer mentors also can help mentees form productive relationships with faculty, encouraging their mentees to visit faculty, accompanying them to their first meeting or making introductions, and coaching them on how to have productive exchanges with faculty.

We started a peer mentoring program in the Exercise Science program in spring 2021. It is a voluntary program with students interested in becoming a peer mentor completing a formal training. This training ensures that peer mentors are properly informed on the expectations, protocols, and purpose of being a peer mentor. Failure to complete the training would result in the inability to volunteer as a peer mentor. For academic purposes, peer mentors may serve as resources for specific classes they have taken in which they have excelled. A peer mentoring handbook as well as mid- and end-of-semester satisfaction surveys are developed to ensure consistency and quality of mentoring. The mentor/mentee survey of our first 15 pairs (30 students) suggested that graduate students in the program viewed the peer mentoring program to positively influence the way they approach learning, be a positive learning experience in itself, and provide an improved sense of relatedness and belonging. We endeavor to continue this program and assess its impact on retention. We believe this program is particularly important in supporting the needs of our underrepresented students and aligns strongly with the mission of an HSI like TXST.

Summary

Innovative strategies and best practices to combat declining enrollment and retention of students are necessary for most universities and even more so for HSIs. Having a comprehensive plan to address student needs has become essential to enroll and keep students engaged and finish their graduate degrees. Implementing these strategies can meaningfully contribute to overall graduate program growth and student success. Accordingly, we encourage kinesiology programs to deliberately address enrollment and retention in the interest of their students as well as the health of our unified field of study.

Several broad-based strategies that address program infrastructure have been considered in this article to address recruitment and retention. Effective recruitment strategies that are internally focused include recruiting undergraduate students from within the university, removing the GRE from the graduate admissions process, and offering graduate assistantships and financial support. It is also important to create new graduate academic programs that are responsive to market demands and trends as well as restructure existing curricula to ensure that the content is contemporary and relevant to student needs. In addition, externally focused strategies are important for attracting students. Building external collaborative networks allows a program to promote its offerings at other universities and conferences as well as build partnerships with minority-serving institutions. This can demystify the process of applying to graduate school in kinesiology and help prospective students understand the ways your graduate program can meet their personal and academic needs.

With successful recruitment to a program comes the responsibility of helping ensure that students succeed. Student retention is essential to this success, and we presented two peer-driven strategies that can help support student persistence. These strategies include developing a graduate student organization and a peer mentoring program. These strategies meaningfully engage students in the academic and social life of the program, which helps create a sense of belonging to a graduate program and institution. Creating formalized opportunities such as mentoring can increase student success through socializing students into the expectations of academia, which is especially important for first-generation students. Providing students with informal opportunities, such as sporting and recreational social activities, can help students network with peers as well as get to know faculty members. Building support systems that attract and engage students is a cornerstone of a successful academic graduate program that increases enrollment, retains its students, and exemplifies inclusive excellence.

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  • Urwin, S., Stanley, R., Jones, M., Gallagher, A., Wainwright, P., & Perkins, A. (2010). Understanding student nurse attrition: Learning from the literature. Nurse Education Today, 30(2), 202207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2009.07.014

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