Aligning Position, Product, Delivery, and Message: Are You Student-Ready?
In a recent post, Principal Rick Bailey wrote about the necessity of “rolling out the welcome mat” to newly admitted students in the form of gracious, respectful, and thoroughly welcoming communications (i.e. calls to family, exciting admittance packets, and consistent contact with students that ensures them that they are truly welcome). While these forms of hospitality are absolutely essential to a fruitful admissions process, they should also challenge all of us in higher ed to consider how we may (or may not) be creating and fostering institutional environments that are genuinely welcoming. In this piece, I will expand on Rick’s ideas in order to address the issue of “student-readiness” on college campuses. It has become commonplace to discuss whether prospective students are “college-ready,” especially in terms of academic preparation. But, are American colleges today “student-ready,” that is, prepared to meet the academic and social needs of rapidly changing demographics? How are colleges themselves helping (or not) all admitted students meet key learning outcomes, excel academically and socially, and feel—truly—like they belong?
Our core philosophy at RHB is Coherence: aligning what you deliver with what you say you deliver. In a rapidly changing campus climate, necessarily affected by transformations in student populations and preparedness, enrollment management processes, and federal regulations, it is more important than ever to achieve coherence in all of your efforts. As Rick writes in his book on the subject, colleges and universities “need to take an unflinching look at [their] product as an absolute prerequisite to a coherent exchange [between student and institution]” and “be willing to question [their] own presuppositions and dearly held beliefs about [their] product.” Furthermore, it is essential for institutions think more broadly about how you reach your would-be market, not with your message, but with your actual product. Some obvious “delivery” considerations—should you offer evening courses, or an online degree program?—may come to mind. But delve a little more deeply into the issue of how an even wider segment of students could have access to your programs, and you may start thinking along even more profound lines. Do you need a different mix of majors? Are you serving the needs of Latino students? Is your mission too exclusive?
For coherence to truly happen, colleges must focus their efforts on their primary audience: students. And, while it has been common to point to students’ under-preparedness as an obstacle to inclusivity, the continued success of many institutions will be contingent upon whether their product (that is, a comprehensive education that prepares students for full—and meaningful—lives) not only meets students’ needs, but exceeds them.
A recent book published by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success, considers how institutions can deepen their value and facilitate student success by “redesigning practices and policies” to ensure that they are sufficiently ready to welcome all incoming students. I had the pleasure of attending a presentation given by Dr. Tia Brown McNair, AACU’s Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Student Success and co-author of the aforementioned book, at the most recent IUPUI Assessment Institute. In probably the best conference presentation I have seen in my 8+ years of conference-going, Dr. Brown McNair outlined the urgent need to reconsider what exactly we are doing in higher ed to coherently align delivery, outcomes, and messaging. She stressed the need to “accelerate broad-scale systemic innovation to advance educational goals” and “engage the whole community in the effort to become student-ready.” What is more, she urged those of us in the audience to ask difficult questions about learning outcomes, high-impact practices, and quality measures like, “what do culturally inclusive high-impact practices actually look like?” and “how do we help students develop as intentional learners?” Ultimately, her questions centered on telling the truth about student-learning and the need to revise policies, practices, and messages if that truth does not align with the needs and perceptions of students.
It’s surely a great thing if you can say that your institution is comprised of students from every state in the US and from 45 countries worldwide. Our consumers expect data like this when they are searching for colleges. What is more, prospective students and parents expect to see institutions promoting their “academic excellence.” But what, exactly, does this mean? Statistics and terms like these, while they look good on paper, are empty of content. That is, they fail to fully articulate a differentiated market position (and they do little to address the specifics of student-learning). “Academic excellence” doesn’t say anything distinctive about your institution and, quite possibly, signals the need for a deeper look at your programs and offerings. You need to know if what you offer is, indeed, academically excellent: are all of your students meeting (or, better yet, exceeding) your institution’s learning outcomes? If so, how are you leveraging this specificity in your communications to external audiences, and, especially, to prospective students? A clear understanding of your market position is facilitated by, and further facilitates, a strong knowledge of who your best-fit students are and what they need to meet key learning outcomes. If you struggle to conclusively answer the above questions, it may be time to evaluate if you are telling the truth about your institution.
The point, here, is that if you are not listening to (co-hearing with) your primary audiences (first, students; then, other internal audiences like faculty and staff), if you are not thinking deeply about the way you deliver your product, or if you simply don’t know what makes your institution distinctive and valuable—why students would choose you over your competitors—then you are not ready for your students.
At RHB, our expert processes—such as our signature Circles of Influence methodology—can help your institution discover points of contention between product and message and work towards becoming truly coherent and student-ready. Visit rhb.com/services to learn more.