May 1: When worlds collide in higher education

May 1 is one of the biggest days in college admissions. It is the traditional deadline by which students are asked to respond to offers of admission. College and university administrators know the composition of their incoming classes, and in many cases, know what still remains to be done in order to meet fall enrollment goals. This is the time when colleges and universities are making their closing arguments to students and families and earnestly reinforce their case to prevent incoming students from balking at the last minute.

May 1 also marks the beginning of commencement season on campuses. Students and families celebrate the major accomplishment of finishing a college degree, reflect positively on past experience, and contemplate future opportunities. One of the most prevalent future opportunities is employment: for some graduates, it is the start of a career and for others it may be a career change or further advancement. News is filled with stories about employment prospects and job placements of the new class of graduates.

This reminds me of Seinfeld character George Costanza’s worlds colliding problem.

On one hand, higher education institutions enroll new students with promises of life-changing experiences, including improved employment prospects. On the other hand, hundreds or thousands of new graduates attest to whether their expectations are met.

In George’s case, having worlds collide is bad. In the case of higher education, having worlds collide represents fulfilling an institution’s mission.

This is an important time of year for colleges and universities. When news media focuses on college cost, student loan debt, and job placements for college graduates, this is an important time to communicate to students, graduates, and their families about the value of a college degree and the particular advantages of our institutions. Be relentless!

When scandal strikes, be the hero not the villain

I suspect that few higher education marketing and communications professionals relish crisis communications, or public relations during times of scandal or tragedy. Except for public relations professionals who specialize in this area, many of us may be unfamiliar with crisis communications principles and may even unintentionally make poor decisions that hurt our organization’s reputation during times of crisis. In higher education, marketing and communications offices have an extensive variety of responsibilities, meaning that crisis communications may not be a priority until a crisis occurs.

How do you respond when crisis strikes? What does your board chair, president, vice president, or dean ask you to do? Hide? Say nothing? Deny, deflect, and defend?

Regardless whether you are planning ahead or are finding yourself in the middle of a scandal or tragedy, I highly recommend that you read Marilyn Cavicchia’s “Crisis communicator tells how to work with media, not be the villain” article at the American Bar Association, which includes advice from Bruce Hennes, a Cleveland-based crisis communications professional.

Mr. Hennes says, “Tell the truth, tell it first, and tell it all.”

If you discover that your college or university provided incorrect information to U.S. News or other rankings, for example, you might select one of the following courses of action:

  • Hide it hoping that no one notices. (What happens when someone does notice and news media calls for a comment?)
  • Announce your finding, what caused it, how you corrected it, and what you will do to prevent it from happening again.

How would your campus respond to this or other scandals or tragedies? Mr. Hennes’ advice will help you think through the implications of your response, and help you make the case for crisis communications with your organization’s leadership.

Cut the clutter in communicating cost

This is a time of year when many college-bound students and their families are having conversations and making decisions about where to attend college. Cost and financial aid are major factors in that decision. Inside Higher Ed and Gallop recently conducted a poll of parents of pre-college students that found a majority of those parents would restrict college options based upon published tuition. (Inside Higher Ed is hosting a webinar on this and other results of the survey on April 11, 2013.)

Marketers expect this. Price is one of the four Ps of the marketing mix, along with product, place, and promotion. For those that prefer the four Cs of the marketing mix, cost is included among customer, convenience, and communication. College administrators make strategic decisions about price that determine tuition, fees, and financial aid policy. Eventually, colleges communicate those decisions to students and families via websites, emails, publications, and eventually a financial aid offer.

In The New York Times today, Tanya Abrams wrote about interpreting financial aid offers and negotiating additional financial aid. In a blog post yesterday, Stephanie Geyer at Noel-Levitz advised college administrators about communicating college cost. Much has been written on this topic, and these two recent articles can help you stay current in the field.

My advice to colleges and universities is to cut the clutter in communicating cost. As Ms. Geyer notes, net cost calculators are frequently difficult to find or confusing to use. In an interview with Macalester College Director of Financial Aid Brian Lindeman, Ms. Abrams references the various forms of aid available and the questions that students and families should ask when comparing financial aid offers. These examples lead me to believe that the higher education industry does a poor job advising students and families about college expenses and how to pay them. (I am not familiar with Macalester College’s financial aid communications, which may be marvelous. However, comparing financial aid awards from multiple institutions can be very complicated.)

Step outside of higher education for a moment and consider what it is like to read medical insurance statements or sign papers to buy a house. These are the things that I imagine make sense to hospital administrators or bankers, but are daunting to anyone else. I imagine that students and families have similar impressions of higher education when they simply want to know what it costs and how to pay for it.

I’ve seen colleges communicate about financial aid with an abundance of legal information or disclaimers, or stuff packets with brochures and filers about every aspect of financial aid (plus a few unrelated programs). How does this help students and families understand college cost when they are sitting around the kitchen table making important decisions?

Cut the clutter. Ms. Geyer says, “keep the language…simple, direct, and engaging.” That is sound advice.

As you cut the clutter, you may find ways to segment your prospective student population and target messages at the right time using the right media. For example, prospective students might receive targeted communications depending on their affluence, academic preparation (and qualification for scholarships), and propensity to understand the value of a college degree. If they are used properly, online net cost calculators afford colleges the opportunity to provide very specific advice very fast. Of course, these messages should not wait until the financial aid offer. The process begins when students and families first see your published tuition.

Regardless of your approach, cut the clutter.