Can higher education branding deliver value for students?

The closer my son gets to college age (t-minus three years) the more I ask myself: “Does the work I do listening for and giving voice to higher education brands actually help prospects and parents make sound choices?”

In an essay published last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, James M. Lang, associate professor of English and director of the college honors program at Assumption College, an Elliance client, brings the question home.

Lang recounts how seven or eight campus tours left both he and his daughter wanting more.  In particular, Lang  craved “dialogue — from tour guides, admissions representatives, or promotional literature — about what most people see as the main functions of college: teaching and learning.”

Lang offers a “modest proposal” — work with student guides to translate moments of classroom engagement and transformation (value) into succinct stories worth telling on a campus tour. As someone charged with soliciting such “aha” teaching and learning moments from faculty and students, I can say that it’s no easy act of discovery or translation.

Lang’s essay inspires me to offer a few tips for how writers, brand strategists, and enrollment marketing teams might work smarter to realize the promise of a higher education brand and, at the same time, help prospects and families decide whether a particular college offers a right fit and lasting value:

1. Value interview “bang” over “bulk”

Most brand discovery agendas favor large focus groups over one-on-one interviews. Colleges have a tough time justifying the time/costs required to unearth a brand and its supporting stories. Too often, the investment gets rationalized by this equation: Total Project Costs divided by Total Faculty/Student/Staff interviewed equals “nobody gets blamed” if this goes terribly wrong. As if interviewing batches of faculty and students somehow justifies or amortizes the expense, or ensures good results.

While small groups can yield a particular kind of energy, it’s also true that people respond differently in groups. Quieter students and faculty find it easy to hold back. Alphas, almost reflexively, preen and perform. Others become overly self-conscious, filtering/censoring their comments and checking to be on their best behavior. The exercise can easily fall short of ideal — instead of spontaneity, sudden insight and diverse points of view we walk away with the stuff of parody (cue Monster University reel).

Far better, I believe, to spend extra time pre-screening and hand selecting faculty and students, and to balance groups with plenty of well-chosen, one-on-one interviews.

In a one-on-one interview, the goal and opportunity is not for the interviewer to learn something new, but for the student or faculty member to overhear themselves saying something that they haven’t heard themselves say before. That’s real insight.

2. Go Beyond Admissions Workers

Everyone is busy, especially understaffed college enrollment marketing teams. Often, we default to the obvious — and rely on a short list of willing/able students and faculty to present a complete picture of a campus. Admissions student workers and volunteers offer an easy “yes” — but may come pre-programmed to give pat answers.

The best student faculty interactions often lie out of view. Ask willing faculty to introduce you to their more reluctant colleagues. Scan the cafeteria for the off-beat or quieter student and strike up a relationship. Attend a class every week — or at least once a month. Drop in on labs. Cultivate a habit of listening to hallway conversations for hidden gems. Give everyone on the enrollment team academic beats to follow. Blanket events such as honors day, annual undergraduate research presentations and other occasions where academic collaboration gets highlighted.

3. Know the Core

Given only one fragment of knowledge with which to weave a solid brand position for a private liberal arts college, I would ask for transcripts of any faculty discussion regarding the core curriculum. In my experience, schools that have refined their core more readily connect what Lang calls “the power of the college classroom” with a student’s eventual sense of knowing themselves and the world they will enter.

Our success with St. Edward’s University hinged, in many ways, on a decade-long investment and effort the school made toward revamping and refining their core curriculum. Armed with a better understanding of the core, we can all connect the dots more clearly between the student’s investment and eventual outcomes.

4. Pair up freshman and seniors

First-year students and seniors offer very different takes of what makes your school distinct. One approach to mining the “teaching and learning” gold would be to facilitate a candid conversation between rising sophomores and seniors. What expectations did they bring about college-level teaching and learning? Where and how did the hard lessons and best surprises come? How has the relationship between teacher and student changed over time?

Grounding this format with details related to freshman seminar and senior capstone courses might yield insights for prospects (and parents) about the progression students make from knowledge seekers to critical thinkers in four years.

5. Leverage NSSE Survey Data

In 20-plus years of higher education branding work, I count  one time that a school volunteered their National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) survey data as an essential tool for understanding the “teaching and learning” dynamic that Lang champions.

Connecting the branding effort to any and all data available from your Institutional Research team can help sharpen questions and clarify answers. While branding efforts often default to expansive and expensive quantitative studies of alumni and other stakeholders, the most revealing data may well be sitting in your school’s knowledge bank.