As I listened to the opening keynote at the College Board Western Forum in Las Vegas recently, I was struck by the message coming down from the stage.
Terrell Strayhorn, the author and former Ohio State University professor who is a regular on the conference speaking circuit, was delivering an impassioned plea for those in the audience to do what they can to create a more student-centric culture on college campuses. Students, Strayhorn said, are being victimized by an outdated model of higher education, one that isn’t adequately preparing them to be successful in today’s global economy. At the same time, they are desperately searching for a place where they feel like they belong. And that sense of belonging is as paramount to survival, particularly during a student’s first years on campus, as any on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
It’s moments like these that pave the road to my salvation. For while some may say I sold my soul three years ago when I left my position as Director of Recruitment and Communications at the University of Iowa to move to the vendor side of the desk, my heart still is very much behind the efforts that support student access and success. And the work we’re doing at Carnegie Dartlet gets straight to the heart of this issue.
Let’s take a minute and state the obvious. Why is it important for students to feel like they belong on a college campus? Two words: retention and graduation. When students make connections on campus and feel like they belong, they are happier and healthier, they get more involved in extracurricular activities, and they perform better in the classroom. They also stay enrolled and graduate at higher rates. This is big, important stuff. It’s why you do what you do. It’s the ultimate end game for those working in higher education who want to serve students and see them succeed. It’s the foundation on which all of your institutions were founded.
And let’s not kid ourselves: increased retention and graduation rates are good for the bottom line.
It starts with good marketing
So, where does it begin? How and when does a student first start to make that connection and feel like they belong at a college or university? It’s not the first day of class, and it’s not at orientation. It’s not even when they make their first campus visit. No, a student’s sense of belonging—or not belonging—starts when they begin experiencing your story, absorbing it through various channels and processing it through their lens.
The problem, of course, is that most colleges and universities do a lousy job of telling their stories. It’s not necessarily the delivery, but rather the substance that’s lacking. The messaging that’s out there would lead you to believe that most colleges are very much the same, but you’re not. You all are living, breathing organisms with traits and personalities as unique as an orchid’s bloom, but you’ve fallen into the trap of defining your story by mundane facts and statistics that would be just as true if you swapped out the logos on the front of your brochure. There is no personality, no compelling narrative, no way for a student to feel what it will really be like to be a student on your campus.
As a result, prospective students are left to guess or make assumptions or, worse yet, are sold on a story that isn’t authentically yours. And that can be really dangerous—for the institution and for the students. Because if enrolling students expect one thing and find another when they get to campus, they’re going to struggle. That’s why good marketing is so important and why having a brand strategy that is authentic is critical to big-picture success in higher education.
Revolutionizing the industry
Carnegie Dartlet’s approach to building brand strategy is revolutionizing higher education and transforming cultures on our partners’ campuses. Grounded in human psychology, our method personifies your institution and creates a messaging platform centered on the school’s defining personality traits. This ensures the messages you’re sending are consistent with who and what you are.
We’ve taken it a step further with Audience Personas, which model audiences for custom segmentation, fusing demographics (macro social statistics data) with psychographics (beliefs, attitudes, and personality traits) to reveal which of a school’s messages are most likely to resonate with different student populations. The result is segmented marketing that delivers authentic messaging, emphasizing the personality traits of the institution.
It’s incredibly powerful when what’s real about an institution aligns with what’s most important to prospective students. That’s when they start to feel like they belong, and that sense of belonging gets stronger the more you tell your story and is then confirmed—not contradicted—when they get to campus. They are happier and healthier and much more likely to thrive.
As a result, you move the needle on things like admit-to-enrolled yield, retention, graduation rates, and, eventually, alumni engagement and giving.
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