You Don’t Always Need a Tuxedo: How to communicate academic programs effectively.

I’m new to the higher education profession.

If you would have asked me a year ago what “summer melt” is, I would’ve assumed you were talking about the latest seasonal drink at Starbucks. If you asked me about “the funnel,” I would’ve told you it’s the thing my grandma uses to transfer bacon grease into the mason jar. And if you asked me if I knew the best way to deal with a “FAFSA,” I would’ve told you to consult your physician.

I’ve learned a lot since then. But there is a particular practice in higher ed that still seems strange to me.

My career began in sales. Specifically, retail sales. I’ve spent my fair share of sunny Saturdays and snowy holiday seasons stuck indoors, sharpening my selling skills under the din of florescent lights. My specialty was men’s clothing—I was selling suits to a variety of people with different tastes and levels of purchasing power. And while I’ve been able to shake off that feeling of angst I used to get waking up on the morning of Black Friday, I confess that I haven’t stopped viewing the world through the eyes of a salesperson.

As a result, I’m a little confused about the way institutions present their majors to prospective students.

Because I’m new to this world, I don’t have the advantage that most higher ed professionals have—a particularly crafted lens through which to view higher ed, a lens that has been spit-shined and polished by working at various positions within or surrounding various academic institutions over many years.

Yet experience isn’t always an advantage when it hinders the ability to remember how people outside the profession see things. With regard to presenting majors, experience in higher ed might even be a disadvantage.

In higher ed, we don’t put enough emphasis on making prospective students aware of all the options available to them at our institutions—particularly when we take it at face value that they know exactly which majors they are looking for. In the world of retail sales, that kind of narrow thinking would’ve left me out of a job.

In my days selling men’s clothing, if a man walked into my store to look for a suit, in order to get him into something that best suited him (forgive the pun), I needed to present him with options—options that were directly correlated with the outcome he hoped to achieve by purchasing that suit.

Occasionally, matching the right suit to the right outcome was a no-brainer; sometimes there was one suit for one occasion. For example, say my customer was a conservative guy looking for something to wear to a conservative office. Okay. He needed a dark navy suit with notched lapels. Maybe he was heading down to the Kentucky Derby and wanted to fit in with the crowd. No problem. A seersucker suit would do the trick.

Sometimes, the right suit wasn’t available, or wasn’t obviously identified. That’s when I needed to be able to show different options. One time, a customer said he needed something suave to wear to a formal event, so he was looking for a tuxedo, because that’s what he knew to look for. Well, I didn’t have a tuxedo in stock that fit him. But unless he was planning on playing baccarat in Monte Carlo, he didn’t actually need a tuxedo—I could put him in a fashionable black suit with peaked lapels, add a solid black neck tie, and I knew he’d still be the best-dressed guy at the party.

I realize that a college education and something as material as a suit aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons. But we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought we weren’t selling students on our academic programs and our institutions the way a salesperson would sell a suit and tie. Won’t the rules of selling still apply?

As with my suit shoppers, if I’m an institution who wants to match a prospective student with any of my academic offerings, I need to make the student aware of the options I offer that are in alignment with the outcome they want or the personal interests they have. If a student wants to be an accountant—great, that’s a vocation, so I know exactly how to advise them. Accounting is the right major for a student who wants to be an accountant, because it’s a clear choice for a specific outcome. Kind of like my conservative guy who ended up in the conservative navy suit.

But it’s not always so straightforward. What if I have a student who wants to be involved in medicine? She’s thinking, “pre-med,” because that’s the major she knows to look for, yet I don’t offer that at my institution. Well, hold on. Turns out, I actually have some other options that may be less obvious to her, but are equally able to lead her to her desired outcome: I have pharmacology, biomedical engineering, nutrition and more. Does she know I have these options for her?

I need to make sure I’m communicating to my students the breadth of options available to them at my institution.

One way RHB helps our clients solve this is with The Major Key—a proprietary CMS and database for academic course catalogs. Part of what makes The Major Key so effective is its centralization of academic offerings, related majors and relevant content, all of which are searchable and navigable from the same location. Institutions that use The Major Key enable their prospective students—their customers, their shoppers—to effectively “shop” their offerings, all in one place.

If a student types in an interest like “medicine,” The Major Key will show majors related to that interest, like pharmacology, biomedical engineering and nutrition (so long as those majors are offered at that institution). The student can read about those majors. They can see faculty and student profiles. They can see associated careers. Most importantly, they will get the information they need to make an informed decision about which major is most in line with their aspirations. So if you’re the institution who is offering them a major that fits their needs, and they can see that you’re providing them with a product that will give them the outcome they want—well, guess what? They’re going to go to your school.

This is critical. If you’re an enrollment professional or a marketer, you need to be able to communicate to your prospective students about the options available at your institution that will get them to the outcome they want. This is especially important when students come to you with one major in mind that isn’t necessarily tied to one specific outcome, or when they have one specific interest that isn’t exclusively correlated with one specific vocation.

Remember my formal-event customer? He thought he had to wear a tuxedo. He didn’t know that a dressy, black suit was not only appropriate, but also, more stylish. Likewise, the student who wants to be involved with medicine assumes she needs to study pre-medicine, because that’s the major she knows to look for. She isn’t aware that pharmacology, biomedical engineering and nutrition are not only great options, but quite possibly better options, depending on which aspects of medicine appeal to her.

And let’s be clear—she doesn’t know these options exist because it’s not really her job to know that. It’s your job to communicate that to her, just like it was my job to show the guy looking for a tuxedo that there was another way.

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Kirk Donlan

Kirk is a Writer at RHB and the Engagement Specialist for The Major Key.