It’s not the data, it’s what you do with it that counts

As an avid fan of The West Wing, I can often relate quotes from the show to real situations. Reading Paul Fain’s “Elusive Data on Education and Workforce” on Inside Higher Ed reminds me of the episode “Two Cathedrals.” In it, Mrs. Landingham says to the President, “You don’t know how to use the intercom.” The President responds, “It’s not that I don’t know how to use it. It’s just that I haven’t learned yet.”

Fain’s summary of a U.S. Government Accountability Office report concludes that data systems fall far short of linking education and workforce after eight years of work and $640 million in spending. Federal grant programs have attempted to establish longitudinal data systems linking K-12, higher education, and employment. It turns out that the shortcomings are not technical—we have adequate database systems. Instead, we need to address public policy around student unit records.

Controversy is rooted in tracking individual students through the education system to employment. Using Social Security numbers as a unique identifier would be more reliable than matching on names and dates of birth, for example. However, the approach raises student privacy concerns and wide opposition by higher education lobbying organizations.

As an academic leader and practitioner, I can attest to the need for higher quality data to inform decisions in the education field. But while student unit records would provide better data, a new system could be subject to misuse and abuse in determining the value of higher education institutions. The conversation should be broadened to a variety of other concerns, particularly for academic leaders engaged in continuous quality improvement.

At the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education, our highly acclaimed internship program, NEOintern, connects businesses and college students. One of the best indicators of success is internship and co-op placements. But this statistic remains elusive (except for internships for college credit). And this is challenging for other organizations, including colleges and universities, with internship programs. How can we improve the quality of services we provide if we are unable to track such a basic metric? How do we determine the quality of internships if we don’t know about placements? How do we track the long-term impact of internships on career advancement?

NOCHE protects student privacy, and we would take every measure to continue that practice in a student unit record system. More importantly, we would gain access to data that we could use to improve our programs, which ultimately would lead to more college students landing better jobs.

This is only one example that illustrates the potential benefit of unit records. Even absent a unit record system, I am working with my colleagues at NOCHE and our colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio to improve our internship placement tracking. It’s not that it can’t be done. It just that we haven’t figured it out yet. Let me know how this is true for you.

Raising college completion with online, high tech approaches

I delivered the following remarks at Drexel University’s National Distance Learning Week celebration on November 11, 2014. Dr. Susan Aldridge, senior vice president for online learning and president of Drexel University Online, hosted the event for faculty, staff, and students in the university’s online programs.

Thank you President Aldridge and Interim Provost Herbert. And thank you all for sharing your special occasion with me.

As you can imagine from my introduction, I might spew academic research and data on education today. But I promise not to do that. Instead, I want to talk about my personal story relating to online learning.

I have both a personal and a professional connection with online learning.

My personal connection is the master’s degree I earned through Drexel University.

As an undergraduate student, I attended Hiram College, a private liberal arts college with small classes and a lot of personal attention. I thought I needed that type of face-to-face interaction to be successful in college.

After a few years working in higher education, I knew that it would be my life’s work. I knew I would need a master’s degree to remain in the field.

Then I started two other campus-based master’s programs, but I was not successful until I found Drexel University.

Drexel University offered me three things I needed at the graduate level. One, a university with a name I could trust. Two, an academic program that fit my professional aspirations. Three, the convenience earning a degree while working full time.

I think we all can agree that Drexel University is a name you can trust. In fact, when I first told people that I was earning a degree at Drexel, they immediately recognized the high quality of the university. It’s a great university with a global vision and tremendous economic impact here in Philadelphia.

I won’t get into too much detail about the academic fit. Suffice it to say that in my field of higher education, I would find many programs focused on student affairs. I wanted a program, like Drexel’s, focusing on strategic and operational management. This is what I needed to get ahead in my career.

And my third reason—convenience—made it possible for me to earn my degree. Distance learning, online learning, and technology-enhanced learning, in all of its forms, makes a big difference for a lot of adult learners or nontraditional learners who work full time, raise families, or have other demands on their time.

As much as we are here today to celebrate online learning and Drexel University’s incredible tradition of innovation in this space, I would say that if there is a secret sauce, it is a combination of the three elements that I described. Online learning cannot exist by itself without a great university and a rigorous academic curriculum.

These three elements—a name you can trust, an academic program you need, and the convenience you want—make higher education work today.

I mentioned that I also have a professional connection with online learning.

At one point earlier in my career, I was assistant dean of Hiram College’s Weekend College program. It is a program offered at my alma mater and for almost 40 years has provided an avenue for adult learners to complete a bachelor’s degree.

While online learning was not the focus of the Weekend College for the first 30 years, and it only started while I was assistant dean, I still learned a lot from working with nontraditional learners.

This was an eye-opening experience for me. I mentioned earlier that I found myself as one of these adult/nontraditional learners looking for a specific academic fit and convenience.

But I quickly learned that I had it easy. I had it very easy.

I was already working full time in my chosen profession. I wanted to move “up” but not “out.” I wasn’t switching careers.

And let me be more honest. Yes, I was working a demanding job, but I didn’t have other significant demands on my time. No family demands, for example. I was working and going to school.

Then I worked with hundreds of students who worked two jobs, worked jobs they disliked, or perhaps were in periods of having no job at all. I worked with students who had families and kids, some as single parents. I worked with students who had been to college before but felt like failures—even if they weren’t.

I worked with students who had paid thousands of dollars on proprietary schools only to find their course credits wouldn’t transfer to most bachelor’s degree programs. That was not true for every proprietary school, and I am glad to say that we accepted credits with a placement exam.

As much as it was important for me to find that secret sauce to earn a master’s degree, I found that those three elements I described were even more important for the students I served.

They needed a name they could trust. A college that when they said the name to an employer or a coworker or a family member, it would be recognized for high quality. A college that would offer credits that could transfer to another school—although we committed to helping students finish their degrees.

They needed an academic program that prepared them for career advancement. Its not “I just need the piece of paper” or “a diploma I can hang on my wall.” They needed experiences that would prepare them for promotion or for a new career all together.

And they needed the convenience of being able to earn a degree while balancing so many other life priorities. Most of the students I served had many more demands on their time that I did.

My professional experience confirmed my personal experience: that the difference for many college degree seekers is through a combination of a name you can trust, a high-quality academic program, and the convenience of being able to learn anytime, anywhere.

In the future, more students will look a lot like today’s adult, nontraditional, or graduate student. We are already seeing that transformation today.

This is why your work is so important.

Let me end with my perspective as leader in higher education.

I am chief operating officer of the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education. It is an organization working toward significantly increasing educational attainment in 23 counties surrounding Cleveland, Ohio. We are working across all levels of education with the ultimate aim of increasing the number of people with postsecondary credentials.

It has never been more important to focus on distance, online, and technology-enhanced learning. We have an urgent need in the United States to increase educational attainment, especially at the college level.

Many regions are Northeast Ohio with lagging college attainment rates. We have 32% of our adults with a two-year or four-year degree. The problem is that by 2020, about 64% of all jobs in Ohio will require some college education. Nationwide, 35% of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree, and 30% will require some college or an associates degree.

That does not fare well for our region’s economy or its citizens.

It gets harder when you look at the demographics in our part of the country. In the Midwest—similar to the east coast—the population shifts are showing a stagnating number of high school graduates in the pipeline. We’ve hit a plateau.

This means we cannot increase our college completion rates enough by sending more high school students to college.

Don’t get me wrong. That is certainly a crucial part of what we need to do in Ohio and across the country. But in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, it is not enough.

If we are to meet our college attainment needs, then we need to focus on adults, some of whom went to college but stopped out before earning a degree. That means doing more of what you excel doing. It means developing a secret sauce combining a name you can trust, academic programs in need, and convenience including online programs.

We are doing this in Northeast Ohio. And you are doing it here. Through the Talent Dividend Network I met Hadass Sheffer, president of Graduate Philadelphia and the Graduate Network. It is an incredible resource that provides one-on-one advising to adults who are going back to college.

I really admire Hadass for what she has accomplished here, and I will be working with her to do something similar in Ohio.

But we shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking in terms of online programs.

My organization also focuses on the transformative power of adaptive learning technology. We think that personalized blended learning will change the way the world learns, making a high quality education available to more people than ever before.

I really admire what you have done here at Drexel University. I admire it so much that I have volunteered my time to give back to the university. For several years I have been mentoring and advising students in the Master of Science in Higher Education program.

Earlier this year I was elected to the Alumni Association board of governors. I am a raving fan of this university. I really appreciate being able to give back and participate in programs like this.

And guess what? This is my third time visiting campus! I came to campus as part of the master’s program orientation. And I came back the second time when I was elected to the Alumni Association board.

Tonight I stand here as a reminder that what you do will reach much further than the walls of this room, the buildings of this campus, and the limits of this city.

Your reach is everywhere.

I feel extraordinarily well prepared for my future thanks in part to Drexel University’s online Master of Science in Higher Education program. It prepared me well for further study at the doctoral level.

And the program continues to serve me well for what I learned about strategic planning and higher education. Thank you Drexel!

Congratulations to all of you for the great work you are doing. We need you. Higher education is changing rapidly and no one knows what the future holds. But you are at the forefront. Your work is very important for the future of Drexel and the future of education. You are changing the way the world learns. I hope you are as excited as I am to be part of it.

Organizing for enrollment management and the rise of consultants

One of the central themes of my doctoral thesis on marketing at Notre Dame College is that organizations adapt to their environments and there is no single best way to organize. In fact, I found that the organizational structure changed several times during Notre Dame’s transformation. As external and internal circumstances change, organizations adapt in response.

My study examined the total adaptation and organization of a higher education institution, but the same conclusions apply to enrollment management approaches. In “Enrollment Management Grows Up,” Kurz and Scannell said there is no ideal organizational structure for enrollment management, and with 40 years of direct experience, Peter Bryant said, “adaptation is not an option in enrollment management.”

In my review of literature and numerous college and university websites, I have observed that most enrollment management divisions include student recruitment, admissions, and financial aid. Other common functions include registration and records, institutional research and planning, marketing and communications, student orientation, and advising. Enrollment management divisions may also include career services, student affairs, and other student development functions.

Where Does Marketing Go?

Leaders at every higher education institution will determine their optimal organization, and they will decide where marketing and communications fits in relation to enrollment management. I have seen a variety of successful models for where marketing sits in the organization: some report to institutional advancement, some report to enrollment management, and others report to the president or a cabinet member not directly responsible for either admissions or development. In enrollment management, the day-to-day personal selling occurs in admissions, which is supported by robust communications plans. Those communication plans and the related online and print materials can be developed in collaboration with the marketing and communications department.

If marketing is included with enrollment management, it suggests a deeper integration where marketing may take additional responsibility for student search or other aspects of recruitment that do not involve one-on-one interaction with students and families. However, marketing’s importance to other campus stakeholders should not be lost in this type of arrangement. What type of arrangement works best in your setting?

Make Room for Consultants

One of the newest developments in organizing for enrollment management is the increasing use of consultants. In “Enrollment Management, Inc.: External Influences on Our Practices,” Schulz and Lucido surveyed 50 enrollment managers and found that nearly all of them have experience working with consultants. Enrollment managers are motivated for a variety of reasons: acquiring expertise unavailable on campus, influencing presidents and board members, and monitoring competitors. In my campus experience, consultants provide expert advice and technical tools otherwise unavailable quickly or economically. (Disclaimer: I am an associate consultant at Noel-Levitz.)

As I noted in my doctoral thesis, part of Notre Dame’s turnaround included working with consultants to increase the number of applicants and develop new online programs. My thesis did not explore the reasons for using consultants, but generally consultants provide  expertise that might be lacking on a college campus or keep college staff focused on areas more central to the institution’s mission. Colleges and universities are increasingly including consulting as part of their operations.

Schulz and Lucido suggest that the use of consultants is leading enrollment managers astray from their institutions’ missions with a focus on commercial practices and tuition revenue. I argue that consultants provide a critical link to the external environment and help institutions fulfill their missions. What do you think?

Student search: bridging the gap from sophomore to senior

When I started in admissions in 1999-2000, student search was targeted toward high school seniors. Relationships with incoming freshmen started when students were concluding their junior year or beginning their senior year of high school. The industry had fewer secret shoppers and email and websites were emerging as valuable communications media for student recruitment. Online social media networks did not exist.

Student search has changed. Online communications with students and families are crucial, and the search process begins much sooner. Colleges and universities are identifying candidates for admission as early as their freshman year of high school. Some of the highest response rates on student search campaigns I have seen occur among high school sophomores. High school seniors are a good target audience for generating admission applications, but colleges may search fewer names and see lower response rates.

This creates a new challenge for college admissions, marketing, and communications professionals: how to build relationships with high school students for two or three years before they become candidates for admission. Admissions offices are ultimately responsible for cultivating the incoming class with the current year’s high school seniors. Marketing and communications offices are responsible for a myriad of programs and services that may include public relations and institutional development in addition to admissions. Given all of the internal pressures and the changes in the external environment, how does an institution adapt to this shift in student search? Here are several suggestions:

  • Designate one admissions staff member to be responsible for developing and executing communications plans for pre-senior high school students. If your territory management system allows you to pay equal attention to high school sophomores and seniors, then you may not need to do this. However, if your counselors are focused on the next incoming class, then someone needs to pay attention to students who will be in the pipeline for a few years. This person needs the tools and support for the task, such as access to robust constituent relationship management (“CRM”) software. This person will likely have a reduced recruitment territory to focus attention on his or her new assignment.
  • Allocate marketing and communications resources for developing materials specifically targeted to pre-senior high school students and families. You want these students and families to be with you for the long haul, so you will need to do better than emails and brochures promoting your top academic programs or next campus visit event. Identify marketing materials that will promote your institution’s programs and satisfy current needs of the target audience. For example, if your institution emphasizes internships and co-ops, then produce a guide to high school students about finding job shadowing or internships before starting college. You could promote academic programs by offering advice to high school students about how to prepare for careers in the field. Most families would appreciate advice on how to pay for college. The goal is for your institution to be perceived as a valuable resource to prospective students and families now, so that your relationship will lead to an application and enrollment later.
  • Identify opportunities to create summer camps or special programs to engage high school students with particular programmatic affinities. For example, many colleges host sports camps or leadership camps on their campuses during the summer. In many ways, it is better than an admissions campus visit day—students come to campus, engage with faculty and staff, and make new friends while gaining experiences in an area important to them. When they leave, they have  a feel for your campus and the confidence that you can teach them the skills they need.

As you consider these suggestions and develop your own ideas, please keep three things in mind. First, your high school student prospects and inquiries from freshman through juniors are as least as important as your senior inquiries. Second, your marketing and communications plans should be mindful of what these high school students need and want in the short term. It is probably not your application for admission, but you probably have an abundance of programs or materials that they would find valuable. Third, make sure that your communications and programs for these students are relevant and that your call to action is clear. Telling these students why your college is great will not engage them for very long. Helping these students achieve their goals will develop relationships that may last a lifetime.

What USA TODAY doesn’t say about student loan default rates

USA TODAY published data from Education Sector on 514 colleges and universities in the U.S. that have higher student loan default rates than college graduation rates, which are named “Red Flag” schools. The newspaper reported on a subset of 265 schools where at least 30% of the students borrow. I want to provide two notes of caution on USA TODAY’s report.

First, the report indicates that one third of all of the “Red Flag” schools are community colleges. The data and report do not take into account that some students at community colleges may not attend classes in order to earn a degree. Some community college students attend classes for gaining or improving skills in the short term. As a result, the community college graduation rate may be lower than the graduation rate at other types of schools. This is not an excuse for a high student loan default rate, but a criticism of using graduation rate as a comparison.

Federal methodology for calculating graduation rates is flawed in another important way: it only counts new full-time students. Students who have completed prior coursework and transferred from one college to another are not counted in the graduation rate. This is true for all types of colleges and universities.

Second, the report does not comment on the amount of debt that students have upon exiting college. A comparison of the total cost of attendance and the total student indebtedness may reveal additional patterns with different implications. If students borrow more than the total cost of attendance and then default on the loans, that suggests that students need more intensive financial counseling during enrollment periods.

The full report at Education Sector’s website has additional details that are important for anyone seriously considering this topic.

The implications for higher education marketing and communications professionals are clear. We should price our college degrees while keeping in mind students’ capacities for not only obtaining loans but also paying them back. We should also communicate not only the value of a college education but also students’ financial responsibilities for paying tuition and student loans.