Knowledge is power, but power can be knowledge, too

Why do high school students go to college? Or, more specifically, why do students want to attend your institution?

In our work with clients in higher ed, these two questions are often met with silence, confusion, and, occasionally, misinformation. This is unfortunate, since institutions that cannot answer these questions— the very prompts that probe their relationship to their primary audience—are necessarily hindered in their ability to create marketing materials and strategies that authentically and coherently engage prospects. And, while there are institutions that understand the importance of leveraging market position and distinctiveness, those institutions still struggle to effectively communicate that distinctiveness to students and families. In other words, you may think that you are offering something important and dynamic, but are you? Or, you may know that your institution provides something that no one else does, something from which students can benefit, but how do you make that palatable—nay, compelling—to prospective students?

Traditionally, colleges and universities have communicated with prospects from that precise foundation: we offer something powerful that can quite literally change the course of your life. And that “something” is knowledge, expertise and the ability to apply those elements to careers, graduate study or to life more generally. Put differently, colleges and universities often (rightly) believe that they empower students to think, create or act in ways that they may have never imagined. But what happens if students are already empowered? What is more, institutions often use messaging that emphasizes their ability to change or transform a student, sometimes in radical ways. But students don’t necessarily want to be changed. How does this alter the way that colleges and universities market themselves?

Just recently, a number of institutions, including MIT, Smith and Tulane, issued both formal and informal statements assuring prospective students that admissions decisions would not be affected if they were suspended, or otherwise reprimanded, for peacefully protesting. Many students worried that protest-related infractions might have a negative impact on their ability to attend college. These statements, then, were reactions to concerns expressed by high school students who have taken to the streets, city squares and social media platforms of America to protest what they see as a lack of action on the part of legislators to curb gun violence in schools. To make themselves heard, many circulated their concerns on social media and, in some cases, successfully derailed officials’ attempts to counter their protests. Some staged physical protests outside of schools that, apart from the appearance of smartphones, looked remarkably similar to the walk outs of the Vietnam era.

Yet, the empowered students of today’s protests are not their parents or their grandparents. As The New York Times recently reported, “this is a generation with diminished expectations” and “with little faith in large organizations,” including colleges and universities. Indeed, their lives thus far have been irrevocably marked by “a series of moments when big institutions failed to provide basic security, competence and accountability.” As a result, the prospective students of the current generation are inherently wary of higher ed’s frequent, pervasive and often generic promises of affordability, accountability and accessibility. What is more, prospects are becoming much more aware of their options and, subsequently, much savvier in their ability to see through (and beyond) the form and content of recruitment campaigns.

Higher ed is experiencing a sea change in enrollment management and marketing as a result and, while it it may feel daunting, there is reason to hope. Although colleges and universities have consistently embraced the idea that “knowledge is power,” recent assertions of power by students can furnish us with extensive knowledge about who emerging prospective students are and how we should market to them. On the one hand, this approach entails closing the gap between student and institution through integrative marketing, as my colleague Sam Waterson discussed in a previous post. On the other hand, as I have advocated, it involves thinking deeply about your institution’s student-readiness and, often, rethinking your curricular offerings—and the way you represent them in marketing materials—in order to more fully address the needs and concerns of prospects.

Both of these tactics acknowledge that, although colleges and universities certainly have something to teach students (that’s their mission, after all), students also bring knowledge, skills and power to their college experiences. That is, institutions have much to learn from the “funds of knowledge” that current and prospective students already possess. Indeed, as student demographics continue to change over the next ten years, it will become more important than ever to understand, assess and utilize students’ existing perspectives in order to fully engage the missional aspirations of higher ed.

At RHB, we have seen the results of these strategies first hand in our work with the University of San Francisco. USF engaged us in an effort to create a more efficient and effective Search campaign. Using our expertise in integrative marketing, we helped USF to automate key enrollment marketing efforts through CRM integration and created a streamlined process that guided students through a series of emails to a landing page that utilized USF’s existing (and effective) campaign theme, “Change the World from Here.” Rather than telling students that USF would change them, the landing page prompted students to tell USF how they will change the world via an open statement form: “I will change the world by…” By acknowledging the ways in which students already feel empowered, USF’s Search campaign enabled them to significantly exceed their enrollment goals. 

There is great power in knowing and so much knowledge to be gained from understanding power. It’s time to start learning.

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Amy Mallory-Kani

Amy is a Writer at RHB.