When we think of outcomes, we often think of factors like graduation rates, student job placement, and graduate school selection. The problem isn’t so much that we overlook these outcomes; it’s that we don’t typically convey the information in a compelling way that isn’t in the abstract. That said, I believe that for many institutions, the narrative around colleges and universities’ societal and economic return on investment often gets overlooked, certainly in the popular media’s narrative around cost and affordability. This is especially true for public institutions.
The public sees billions of dollars invested in colleges and universities by taxpayers, and tens of thousands spent on tuition by families. But other than the aforementioned impact by and on individuals, we don’t do a good job of holistically promoting ourselves as economic engines and job creators, as providers of community service on a massive scale that affects lives on an everyday basis, and as sources of countless innovations that have been making everyday life better for generations. Collectively, these things contribute to a state or region’s economic and social fabric.
Is there any low-hanging fruit you recommend looking for—data that a college or university is probably already collecting and would help it show stakeholders the positive impact it’s having?
Virtually all institutions track student retention and graduation rates for reporting and rankings-compilation purposes. Most track job placement of students within the first six to 12 months of graduation through alumni or career services offices. These are easy, outcomes-based data sets to pull together to identify trends and areas of noteworthy progress.
Many institutions also regularly quantify their economic impact with the assistance of outside consultants, who can be invaluable, especially colleges and universities with limited institutional research offices. Such reports generally are easily found on an institution’s website and provide a variety of outcomes-based measures that can be woven into news stories about groundbreaking research, community involvement, and new opportunities available to students.
What’s the most effective outcomes-driven campaign you’ve seen? What made it so effective?
Success is measured differently from institution to institution. Obviously, the most effective campaigns will be the ones geared toward a specific audience, rather than the public at large. No campaign can be all things to all people at all times; those that try to be invariably fail.
To cite a few examples, Northwestern University (IL) has done a great job capturing and using student outcomes data in all of its recruitment materials and brand campaigns. Recently, The Pennsylvania State University developed an entire campaign around high job placement rankings during the economic downturn to attract a larger national pool of students who were wary of the job market. That made perfect sense at the time to address a specific goal.
To my earlier point, the University of Connecticut (UConn) has focused a regional campaign around its total economic impact of $3.4 billion on the state’s economy, the 25,000 jobs in Connecticut influenced by the university and its activities, and the direct rate of return of nearly $12 for every dollar received in state appropriations. That obviously holds far greater importance to stakeholders and opinion leaders within a state’s borders than it would for recruiting students, so again, it is an audience-specific campaign that is a piece of a broader national branding effort.
Different constituencies often tend to prioritize different outcomes. While situations clearly vary across regions and institutions, what would you say the top outcome concern tends to be for each of the following groups, and what’s the most effective way of demonstrating outcomes in those areas?
State legislators: Legislators routinely hear from constituents about the cost of higher education and the amount of state dollars that are directed to public and private universities alike, so return on that investment from a fiscal perspective is of paramount concern. Stories of students who graduate in four years and then stay in the state to put their education to work are the best way to convey the message of higher education as a public good rather than an individual privilege.
Personalized communication with legislators seems to be the best approach, even if it’s not the easiest. Sharing stories of students and graduates who hail from and work in individual legislators’ own districts can be a useful tactic, as is grassroots advocacy by constituents and through social media—much more so than mainstream marketing, which can have the adverse effect of being viewed as spending money to talk about money saved.
Trustees: Trustees have accountability to multiple audiences—students, faculty, alumni, donors, legislators, etc. As such, most institutions do well to keep them apprised of positive outcomes in the areas of student retention and graduation rates—areas showing that the faculty and administrators in their charge are carrying out their fundamental duty of attracting, retaining, and preparing students for their chosen career paths.
Trustees tend to be a more captive audience for institutional messages, and most institutions
presumably keep their respective boards apprised through regular meeting updates. Others might do well to develop a tailored, periodic email blast of news clips that can include occasional internal informational reports on various progress points and outcomes.
Parents/prospective students: Parents and prospective students are more volatile in terms of which messages best resonate. They all want to hear that students will receive a high-quality education in four years at a place with dynamic campus life. It can be important for an institution that produces high levels of community service to convey that it helps mold well-rounded contributors to society. But the top outcome concern probably comes back to the issue of ROI: How likely is a student to land a good job after graduation? College debt alone has made this the primary concern of most parents and prospective students.
Admissions viewbooks are still a critical element of any branding toolbox, but increasingly, developing tailored pieces for students and parents at every point in the admissions process (from applicants to admits to accepts) is critical. The storytelling we do in viewbooks can also be shared through social media and integrated into broader mass media advertising, which helps instill a continuity of message across audiences.
Obviously each institution is different, but what’s an effective way for an institution to create its own outcomes narrative?
I think the key is finding a niche, or at least an area of strength that is untold, and make that a fundamental part of your messaging strategy. For instance, UConn has emerged as a research powerhouse over the last couple decades. Research innovation that spawns industry partnerships and leads to commercialization is a big focus, so the outcomes in this arena are a major priority for various stakeholders here. We had to ask ourselves if we were fully embracing the story of research in terms of translating it both for lay audiences as well as high-end science media—and if we had the capacity to do so. Science and research writing is, at many institutions, done by generalist public information officers and staff who are spread too thin to focus on the complexities of research and technology transfer. If research is a strength and a priority to grow, there needs to be a strategy for talking about that. The research enterprise should not be placed into the “other duties as assigned” for communications staff.
Simply put, communications units can’t stay mired in antiquated public relations models for mining and delivering stories. They need to adapt to a changing marketplace and media environment. They need to be informative, intriguing, and inspiring in crafting content and delivering that content through targeted pitches, social media, videos, and other channels. It’s not always a matter of needing more communicators; it’s a matter of needing the right kinds of storytellers.
What about less-selective or open-access institutions: What kind of student and nonstudent outcomes should those campuses be talking about?
While I don’t have any direct experience in this realm, I think the message is probably very similar. Less-selective institutions probably want to focus heavily on data showing that college graduates on average earn a million dollars more over the course of their lifetimes than those possessing only a high school degree. While more selective colleges and universities are trying to sell themselves over other institutions, those that are more open-access often are trying to sell going to college at all as a concept. That’s where messaging around job placement can be so important to a successful campaign geared toward conveying the value of higher education to students who are more on the fence in considering it.