Is Now the Right Time to Add a Student Membership Category?

Getting students involved as members can leave a lasting impression after they graduate. But some association membership pros say it’s important to ask a few questions before launching or reconfiguring your student membership category.

With the school year now in full swing, I wanted to turn some attention to a subset of membership that associations probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about—student members.

If you have student members, maybe you overlook their needs simply because there aren’t a lot of them, or they don’t pay much—or anything—in dues.

Maybe you don’t offer student membership at all. In that case, you might want to consider adding it. This was a recent topic in the membership section of ASAE’s Collaborate community [member login required].

What we know is that young people are likely eager to join but probably need some special attention when it comes to recruitment and engagement.

“Students have different needs than professionals,” says Dan Ratner, membership and business development strategist at the Next Steps LLC. “Usually, associations start a student membership category without thinking about the resources or benefits that are most relevant.”

Ratner began his association career working as a student program manager for the National Association for Music Education. He was responsible for running a national honor society for student musicians.

“I think you really do have to speak to students,” he says. “Students are interested in a lot of what associations have to offer, but associations often miss opportunities to reach them.”

Whether you have a student membership category or are considering adding one, answering a few basic questions can help you decide how much time, attention, and resources to devote to students.

Where Is the Opportunity?

The Massachusetts Society of CPAs recently asked this question before it launched a free student membership category tailored to rising high school juniors and seniors considering careers in the accounting profession.

MSCPA already had a traditional college-level student membership. Staff saw an opportunity to bring in even younger members based on experience with a few programs that were engaging high schoolers.

“We hosted high school days as previews into the profession,” says Erica DeBiase, MSCPA’s academic and career development specialist. “We already engaged with high school students in a number of face-to-face ways, so we figured why not get them on our radar as members.”

One year in, MSCPA has about 65 high school student members—a small fraction of the 750 college members and more than 11,000 professional members. But Barbara Iannoni, MSCPA’s academic and career development director, says the upfront investment is worth it.

“For tracking purposes, it’s easier for us to know who is entering into college as a potential accounting major,” Iannoni says. “We can now track students from their high school years, all the way through graduation, and into the profession.”

Another important consideration is whether your association has access to student networks. MSCPA leveraged its existing event series, a dedicated social media presence for students, and connections with teachers who could promote the benefits of membership.

What Should You Offer Student Members?

Once you have identified your student member prospects, you have to start thinking about their unique needs and how they differ from professional members.

“If you’re going to start a student member category, you better know their niche,” Ratner says. “Students want access to career opportunities, and they understand the value of networking online.”

MSCPA found early success with a dedicated student newsletter focusing on career development and networking. And the MSCPA Foundation offers scholarships to college and graduate students who demonstrate strong academic performance and financial need.

What Should You Charge?

What students pay for membership varies by association. Regardless of whether you charge a discounted rate or offer free membership, you probably won’t see an immediate return on investment. And that’s OK, Ratner says.

“The ROI on student membership is always a long-term investment,” he says. “If the student graduates and stays on a membership track, you could potentially see a lifetime of value.”

MSCPA decided to keep membership to high schoolers open and free as an incentive to get students in the door and moving along an engagement path that transitions easily into a professional membership and certification.

Ratner recommends that associations narrowly define their student membership categories and from time to time verify student members’ status, especially if the membership comes at a discount. To thwart the few professionals who, inevitably, will try to sneak in using a student category, require that students register with their .edu email account or request a teacher or professor contact on the membership application. Then be vigilant about member data, Ratner advises, so you know when a student graduates.

How do you recruit and engage student members? Do you offer them discounted or free rates for membership? Leave your comments in the thread below.

(seb_ra/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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