21 October 2016

Why are colleges so bad at emailing current students?

The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an interesting piece about Michigan State's new agenda of sending fewer emails to current students.

Long story short: they don't want to send 400+ emails a year any more.

While the executives and IT professionals named in the piece deserve attention and praise, it's interesting and perhaps telling that not a single email marketer or content strategist or customer service analyst was quoted in the piece.

Because any marketer reading this piece will think: "Well, yeah. Duh. Stop doing that. We've been saying that for years."

Some nearly universal truths about the way colleges' email current students

Spend enough time at conferences with higher ed marketers, and you quickly learn that most institutions' email strategies for current students (and staff! and faculty!) are a hot mess. (On a synonymic side note, dumpster fire is now in the Oxford Dictionary.)
  1. Colleges send too much email.
  2. They don't have clear CTAs in their emails because ...
  3. They usually haven't identified measurable goals for their emails, which means ...
  4. They don't build tracking into their emails, so ...
  5. They can't learn lessons from their emails.
  6. They send bad emails: too long, not relevant, wrong tone, bad formatting, not related to overall goals (usually retention and graduation).
  7. They don't think about ADA or mobile responsiveness. (I'm looking at you, senior administrator who sends a camera phone JPG of a printed PDF as the entire body of the email. Please. Stop. Delete your Outlook.)
  8. They don't centralize distribution.
  9. Or reporting.
  10. They don't let students opt in.
  11. Or out.
  12. And then they say "students don't want to read email," which is untrue. Students just don't want to read the horribly unhelpful emails they get from the college.
So while it's common for faculty and administrators to mock the email prowess of students, that coin has two sides, and this is the other.

25 July 2016

Assessment puns, or why no one wants me on their committees anymore

Because enrollment life involves regular analysis and evaluation of business processes and communication success, it's relatively simple to transition to analysis of student learning outcomes.

But due to either poor reaction time or masochism, I've become involved with my division's assessment and strategic planning work. Fortunately for me, I get to partner with a group of smart and talented colleagues, and we proudly wear buttons that read "I <3 [picture of an ass]essment."

Assessment nerds: like other nerds, but a little less popular.

While compiling a list of common definitions to use as we talk about assessment, I took a moment to create some new terms, and here they are.

The idea was inspired by Ashley Finley, who recently spoke at NASPA about a culture of assessment and what such a culture actually means if we use "culture" as anything other than a buzzword.

During that talk she mentioned how some institutions have created an Assesstival (no info at the link) or an Assesstivus to celebrate assessment efforts.

The audience chuckled, and I realized that assessment needs more puns. Like, way more puns.

Assessment is surprisingly fun when done well, and oftentimes a thriving culture of assessment has less to do with the minutiae of what occurs than with the way that people feel about it. (Cough, sounds like branding or advertising.)

So without further ado, here's a list of assessment puns for all those poor and lucky souls who perform campus assessment. By happy, and assess well.

Key Assessment Terminology

  • Assesstival or Assesstivus, the annual celebration of assessment activities
  • Assessence, the heart or soul of assessment
  • Assessura, a pause in assessment
  • Assessin, someone who kills assessment efforts through maliciousness or ineptitude
  • Assessarean, a situation when (overdue?) assessment results are delivered only after being forcefully extracted from a unit
  • Assesspool or Assesspit, an institution or campus unit that does assessment poorly or not at all
  • Assesspot, someone who forces others to perform assessment
  • Assesspresso, a jolt of delicious assessment in the morning
  • Assesscrement, bad assessment
  • Embarassessment, what you experience upon realizing your assessment proves your hypothesis wrong
  • Disassesstrous, when a history of poor assessment practices result in accreditation concerns
  • Assesspian, someone who stands in front of others to talk about assessment
  • Assessquatch, the mythical and hairy half-ass, half-man mascot of assessment
  • Assessczar, the person who leads assessment
  • Assesstiny, the future of organizations based on their culture of assessment
  • Assesstapo, a secretive assessment committee that abuses its power and manipulates data to control campus partners and programs
  • Assesscapade, when assessment gets way more complex than it should be
  • Assessiah, the person who steps in to save your assessment efforts just before they go to hell
  • Ambassessadors, the people who champion assessment
  • Assesstants, the people who support assessment champions
  • Massessacre, when people mistakenly use assessment to punish units or employees
  • Carcassess, the remains of failed assessment projects
  • Harassessment, pestering people to complete their assessment before the deadline
  • Bypassessment, making decisions based on anecdote or gut feeling instead of well-performed assessment practices
  • Tassessiturnity, staying silent when you should instead ask how a program will be assessed
  • Assesshole, that one person on the assessment committee you just can’t stand, and if you're not sure who it is, it's probably ... well ... you.


18 July 2016

Rise of the mobile admissions application: it's not just about conversion and ROI

If you attend enough conferences and campus meetings, you'll hear many people (even ones who are clever and smart) say, "Students don't want to apply on a mobile phone/tablet."

It's safe to interpret such statements as, "I don't know anything about students' online behavior and preferences, but I probably need to have an opinion on this, so here's one I remembered from 1992."

What's particularly galling is that this viewpoint encourages a status quo that is, at its heart, biased against low-income and minority students.

Here's why.

Why mobile matters beyond conversion: smartphone dependency

For many families, their smart-phone phone is their primary internet connection. For some of the poorest, it's often their only internet connection.

Who is smartphone dependent?
  • 12% of African Americans
  • 13% of Latinos
  • Only 4% of whites
  • 13% of American families with income <$30,000
  • Just 1% of Americans families within income >$75,000
All said, "19% of Americans rely to some degree on a smartphone for accessing online services and information and for staying connected to the world around them — either because they lack broadband at home, or because they have few options for online access other than their cell phone." You can read the entire study from Pew.


So if our institutions aren't working to make websites and admissions systems mobile-friendly, and if we don't take a mobile-first approach to our digital solutions, we're actually disenfranchising students and families, especially those from minority and low-income backgrounds. They will try to apply to our institutions on a screen that's 12 square inches, and our poor excuse for an application will add extra stress and headache to the work they have to do.

At worst, it will stop them from applying.


How much impact might mobile-insensitive applications have on students?

To give you a sense of how much we disrespect students with our applications, imagine an institution that uses a desktop-only admissions application which adds just 10 minutes to every student's mobile-only experience. Imagine the institution receives 10,000 apps per year and about 20% are done via mobile phone or tablet.

That institution has essentially decided to waste 333 hours of human life--the equivalent of two entire weeks, or two months of work at your job.

Because of the way technology divides along race and class lines, that institution said it was especially okay to waste the time of lower-income and minority students.

Now multiply that out over the roughly four million students who enroll in higher education each year, many of them applying to multiple institutions (let's say three each).

Congratulations: we just wasted 2,740 years' worth of students' lives. Every year.

And people wonder why students are sometimes skeptical of institutions' stated goals of serving students. If we wanted to serve students, we'd start treating their time as if it were as valuable as our own.

It gets worse: it's not just applications

Need a few more examples of how we disrespect our most vulnerable students with our mobile insensitivity?

Fonts and buttons
Our small fonts and lack of buttons in emails forces mobile-only students to zoom in to click on anything, whether that's a link to schedule a visit or a link to apply for financial aid and scholarships. It will probably lead to lower email open rates and clickthrough rates, too.

Website speed and data usage
High load speeds and intense data usage on our websites and applications force students to pay more to access information. According to Pew, "nearly half (48%) of smartphone-dependent Americans have had to cancel or shut off their cell phone service for a period of time because the cost of maintaining that service was a financial hardship." (And really: some of us don't appear to try at all).

If this type of digital behavior describes your institution (or if you're a vendor that makes a product that's not mobile friendly), you should feel bad. It's not intentional (one would hope), but it is real, and it's not acceptable.

Even if you're locked into contracts with vendors or your IT and MarCom units, you need to let them know that their business practices aren't just hurting enrollment, but they're complicit in maintaining and growing inequality.

How many students actually want to apply via mobile phone?

A lot. Twenty percent is probably the low estimate.

In fact, here are the percentages of students completing key events/tasks via mobile for a thirty day period this summer. Fair warning: our admissions mobile traffic patterns are highly cyclical as key tasks change for our student population, and you shouldn't use a single case study to benchmark your own institution.
  • 33.9%: Overall mobile traffic to admissions web pages as a percentage of unique pageviews (fun fact: mobile rates for freshmen are 33% higher than rates for transfers)
  • 32.8%: Overall mobile traffic to CRM pages (as a percentage of unique pageviews)
  • 48.5%: Visit/Event sign up forms completed via mobile
  • 31.1%: Web inquiries completed via mobile
  • 18.3%: Applications created via mobile
  • 21.8%: High engagement via mobile (visiting at least 7 pages in a single session)
  • 8.0%: Super high engagement via mobile (visiting at least 13 pages in a single session)
If any of those numbers increase application or deposit volume by even a fraction of a percent, all the investment in mobile becomes instantly ROI positive, and you can feel ethically good and business good about helping your most vulnerable populations apply.

Of course, in the context of this blog post, the number that matters is the 18.3% of our students who want to apply from their phone or tablet. Why won't we let them?


Who has mobile-friendly applications?

An increasing number of vendors offer mobile higher ed admissions applications. Credit probably goes to DecisionDesk for being the first U.S. vendor to offer a truly mobile admissions application. DecisionDesk also offers one of the cleanest, most elegant admissions applications in the industry. (TargetX and Full Fabric also offer students great application experiences.)

Even the deservedly maligned Coalition has a mobile application, although this was never a talking point for the Coalition, which suggests mobile responsiveness was never a way to serve minority populations but was simply the product that CollegeNet delivered.

Still, skepticism aside, there are plenty of vendors making mobile applications a reality for students. Here are just a few examples.

CollegeNet: Coalition app
DecisionDesk: Columbia Chicago
Dream Apply: company website
Full Fabric: Lisbon MBA
Liaison: CAS products like NursingCAS
Royall: Champlain
Slate: Booth
TargetX: Saint Leo University or Seattle U

Some institutions even seem to have homegrown solutions: University of Arkansas.

If you care about your enrollment numbers, and if you care about the students who already face hurdles in their pursuit of higher education, you should care that you have a mobile application.

20 June 2016

How much differentiation is enough differentiation?

In the wake of two similar branding exercises at the University of Buffalo and the University of Sydney, higher ed has been awash in digital ink devoted to the woeful state of branding in the industry.

The trend is not new.

mStoner has a regular report on higher ed branding. Publications like University Business use branding ideas as SEO fodder. The lament for differentiation appears in general higher ed leadership discussions. Every few years, Gallup rewrites an article about terrible taglines and ho-hum branding in higher ed. (Here it is in 2007 and again in 2015.)

Practitioners tend to set up tents within one of several camps. One camp contains most of the vendors who generate income from your branding efforts, and they believe higher ed needs better and more adventurous branding. Michael Stoner suggests institutions "think outside your category and possibly stop doing what other institutions are doing." Andrew Careaga argues, "Maybe instead of looking at how other colleges and universities are approaching branding, we should look outside of our own niche and see what works best in other sectors." Kristen Creighton at SimpsonScarborough writes that we should start "developing language and taglines that describe their attributes and offerings in more compelling, authentic ways."

The other camp argues that differentiation is overrated. Alex Usher, for example, suggests we all just chill out: "So go ahead, use the same tag lines, visuals, and memes. It’s all good."

Alex Usher seems like a good guy to have a beer with.

There's an entire other camp that thinks branding in higher ed is foolish without wholesale programmatic development. See Richard A. Hesel: "When universities allow these things to be reduced to some stupid tag line, they deserve what they get. I think it’s idiocy. It’s really idiocy." There may even be a fourth camp, the "just be yourself" group that plays higher ed buzzword bingo, probably as a drinking game. One suspects they hang out with Alex Usher sometimes. There's also a fifth camp, but they're wandering around lost on campus and wondering what the hell branding is.

The truth, of course, is complicated and is probably somewhere in the middle: you need to be different, but you only need to different from your competitors.

In response to all the rhetoric and ballyhoo, part of me wants to build a new camp: the sardonic but practical camp, which thinks ,most higher ed brands are pretty terrible but that extreme differentiation is a problem for just a handful of institutions.

For example, AMA 2015 featured a keynote from University Arizona talking about their multi-million rebranding and campaign efforts with Ologie, whose work I tend to like.

Whether or not I like the work is inconsequential, however, because sitting through the keynote was a bit like sitting through a seminar on setting up international tax havens: it's a problem for rich people, and my institution is not one of them. (Relevant side notes: the executive behind the U of Arizona rebrand left the institution after a tenure of less than three years, and the U of Arizona president just took a position on the board of DeVry, which is being sued by the FTC for deceiving students. And somehow, the admissions office is still using a non-mobile-friendly website.)

The University of Arizona's one-time branding budget is several years' worth of marketing outreach at most institutions. Take the community college down the road. What good would a rebrand (without wholesale transformation of the institution) do for them? The truth of the matter is that those millions would be better spent helping single-parents and veterans and savvy-high school seniors get better educations and better jobs.

So the local community college doesn't need expensive branding and intense differentiation. And out out of the 4,000 or so institutions in the United States, how many truly need a unique brand that is distinct from anyone other than their five closest competitors?

These ones:
  1. Institutions that will fundamentally transform their institutional character. (This is the ideal scenario for a rebrand, but it's probably the least common.)
  2. Institutions whose goal is to become a massive diploma factory, e.g. SNHU, ASU, U of Phoenix, and the like. (Notice that I didn't say diploma mills. I'm not trying to be overly sensational here, although some diploma factories are indeed diploma mills.)
  3. Institutions that treat students as consumers first, which is pretty much anyone making profit on badges or credentials or MOOCs.
  4. Institutions that want to stake their financial futures on international students (e.g. the institutions on this list).
  5. Institutions that want to climb the rankings and are willing to spend money to do it. This is rare, but Northeastern is a good example.
  6. Institutions that want to add multiple zeroes to their endowment, which is a fair number of schools, but most of them are already wealthy by national standards.
By no stretch of imagination is this the entire industry, and it's probably less than a few hundred schools, if that.

Besides, branding is different in higher ed, which is something business leaders and pundits from other verticals fail to grasp. Too many people want to brand institutions like they're Fortune 500 companies when, in fact, most institutions are more like their local church or the HVAC guy who comes to your home.

Branding is fun and challenging, but it isn't going to change the enrollment problems and perception challenges that higher ed faces as an industry.

21 March 2016

Social media proliferation in higher ed: the Lord of the (Rings of) Social Media.


I'm gearing up for the next year's secret shopping campaign, and I may have finally snapped: higher ed institutions have too many social media accounts, and far too many of them are bad.

Higher ed social media accounts proliferate in two ways. One is horizontally across platforms. Hubspot wrote a bit about that in 2014, but you know it's happening when your institution uses more than a dozen official platforms. The other way is more insidious, and that's horizontally across internal campus units. This happens when on-campus units create their own social media accounts, like this terribly neglected MySpace account for the U of Michigan Health System.

MySpace aside, the problem is just as bad whether the platform is Twitter or YouTube or Snapchat or Peach.

Matt Hames spoke about the proliferation of institutional social media accounts in his 2015 HighEdWeb presentation. He also spoke about a not-so-deeply repressed desire to drastically cull the number of these social media accounts at his institution.

It warmed the cockles of my strategist's heart. After all, the only university units that merit separate social media accounts are units with unique brands, separate audiences, and dedicated social media strategy. Examples?

MIT
MIT Sloan
MIT Media Lab

Sure, they're all MIT, but they're all distinct brands with distinct audiences and social media teams.

Or how about these:

UNL
The Cornhuskers

Two brands, two entirely different audiences, two separate social media accounts.

Most institutions, including MIT and UNL, have social media account proliferation. Take UT Austin as an example. In addition to the actual brand accounts, there's UT Austin Financial AidUT Austin Registrar, UT Austin Dining, UT Austin Housing, UT Austin Parking, UTAustin Writing Center, UT Student Affairs, and so on. (And that's just a sampling of the dozens on Twitter.) Each has a small audience, each has just okayish content, and each is a drain on campus resources and the institutional brand.

These should probably be consolidated and integrated. But they probably won't be, and for all the usual reasons.
  1. The pervasive belief that activity equals achievement. People point to social media posts and followers as evidence that work is getting done, even if it's not clear how that "work" translates into student or institutional outcomes.
  2. HiPPOs. At some meeting, some campus or divisional leader who has a large salary but small social media experience (and no concept of how much time and training it takes to do social media well) thought it was a good idea for a unit to have a social media account.
  3. Politics and control. Like a logo or a website, a social media account indicates (however quietly, however minutely) that a unit has something resembling power, influence, or prestige on its campus.
  4. Poor centralization. Most institutions don't staff or structure communications or marketing in a way to manage and police the brand across multiple social media platforms. Lack of centralization also makes it hard to say "no" to units that go rogue on social media.
  5. Misuse of communication tools. Social media is often used in place of websites, digital newsletters, and email communications since many units don't have the tools, training, or access to market themselves across more useful or relevant digital channels.
  6. And the biggest reason: lack of goals. It's hard to put an end to work that wasn't begun with clear outcomes and clear success indicators. Why? Because it's impossible to know what failure looks like if there's no measure of success. (See #1 in this list.)
To be clear, it's neither totally fair nor tactically prudent to blame institutional staff for setting up social media accounts. They're not experts who should have known better, and they're usually just doing their best to help solve a perceived communications problem.

Nor is social media account proliferation a phenomenon unique to higher education. A 2012 report suggested the average corporation has 178 social media accounts, excluding personal accounts.

The cost of proliferation is high, though, and not just in terms of brand dilution: corporations that attempted to bring all these systems together spent an average of $272,000 in 2011, and that's probably underreporting time and staff costs.

There's also a significant difference between corporate and educational account proliferation. While many businesses have multiple social media accounts, they are often related to distinct brands. For example, Microsoft has 221 Twitter accounts, but this is a corporation with multiple global brands, each with millions of customers, and $94 billion in annual revenue.

That's even bigger than Harvard's endowment. (Which doesn't have any social media, by the way.)

MIT, arguably one of the biggest higher education brands in the world, has about 450-500 social media accounts.

Does a regional comprehensive university need that many? Or even half that many? Or even more than 50? Does MIT really need 450-500?

I like social media. I just think some of our institutional units need to stop creating and using so many social media accounts. Here's why.
  1. Most of sub-brand social media accounts don't have goals. Most units don't have a good business case for social media, and they don't measure success. Think back to all the higher ed conferences you've attended. How many presenters were talking about the analytics, retention impact, and ROI of the parking office's Facebook page? Yeah, that's what I thought. (But if you did measure it, what would you find, and is it worth the time and cost that goes into it?)
  2. Institutions unintentionally fragment their audiences and dilute messages when they use multiple, strategy-free accounts. Imagine the average student who's trying to determine what's important on their social media feed from 50 "official" university Twitter accounts. They're going to miss or ignore most posts, but when they see conflicting messages from various "official" channels, how will they know what's important? Couldn't some units get together, create a shared Twitter account, decide what's important for that week, and work together on that messaging?
  3. Social media strategy is usually only as good as overall web and content strategy. If a unit has a bad web and content strategy, it will be hard to succeed at social media. Even if it turns out that the unit is great at social media, they may have no place to send followers for conversions.
  4. Most higher ed accounts are recruiting temporary audiences. Some social media have evergreen audiences. For example, the athletics account recruits people who will follow the brand for life. But the admissions unit is only recruiting an audience who cares about admissions for, at most, 18 months.

Lord of the (Rings of) Social Media

So what is the preferred social media breakdown in higher ed? Like all hard questions, it depends, but here's my stab at it. I call it the Lord of the Rings of Social Media, which is a totally made up social strategy that has nothing to do with Hobbits or orcs (sorry J. R. R. Tolkein).

One social media account to bind them
This is the account that owns the overall brand. At many institutions, this account needs to provide more value for its future student, alumni, and community audiences. It should be available on all major social media platforms. It needs to be interactive and engaging. It probably needs more staffing unless you're at a place like Duke or CSU or NYU. Also, the people who run it are pretty much Sauron in the eyes of manty campus partners.
  • The University Account

Three social media accounts for the queens and kings
These accounts have unique stories and directly inform the overall brand of the institution. They're usually available on a fair number of social media platforms.
  • Athletics
  • Academics/Research
  • Student (daily) Life (that is, pretty much every account that doesn't have an evergreen audience)

Seven social media accounts for the ladies and lords
These are true brands with full marketing strategies that extend to off-campus audiences. They have evergreen audiences, and they primarily attract followers who aren't from the institution. They usually have a need for a few social media platforms. Small or regional institutions might not have many of these accounts--and that's okay.
  • Business schools
  • Research and policy centers
  • Extension and offsite campuses
  • Institutional publications with non-institutional audiences
  • Museums, theatres, and performing arts centers
  • Ensembles and performing groups with non-local audiences
  • Literary/arts/civil rights festivals. camps, and agencies that attract and serve non-institutional audiences

Nine for the mortal women and men
These aren't brands, per se, but they are functional units that usually have full media teams. I'm not convinced they need separate accounts (repeat: I don't think these accounts are necessary), but if they're investing in staff salaries and content production with clear goals and measurable outcomes and you can't get them to stop, then they probably deserve a social media platform or two. Most colleges don't need any social media accounts in this area.
  • Alumni (needs to be very active and/or very large)
  • Colleges and Departments (but only if they have full communications teams and work with primarily off-campus audiences)
  • Daily news publications that publish at least three articles daily
  • Restaurants that actively recruit diners who are non-students
  • Housing (only if housing is large and active, and probably no separate accounts for each dorm)
  • The student union building if it has shops or restaurants that the wider non-campus community uses (a.k.a. destinations)
  • Conference centers (a.k.a. destinations)
  • Unique facilities that also serve the public as a nontrivial percentage of their audience (e.g. skating rink, climbing wall, marinas, etc.)
  • Campus police, but probably only if they also police non-campus locations

So what's missing?
Accounts that serve small, temporary, or staffing-poor units should be excluded, as should units that only serve on-campus audiences (especially if they don't have frequently changing service catalogs).
  • Admissions
  • News
  • Advancement
  • Advising
  • Library
  • IT
  • Orientation
  • Colleges and departments that don't have full media teams
  • Individual student life units
  • Parking offices,  etc.
  • Student clubs and orgs (which will probably ignore any advice you give them, anyway)
And where does information for these units belong? It belongs in your other accounts. Because really, if your admissions, orientation, news, library, etc. are not part of your main brand, you're probably doing social media wrong.

Take Harvard Admissions. They get 30-40K applicants every year, but they only have 8K Facebook followers and 3K Twitter followers (plus that Twitter content is just copypasta from some RSS feed). Compare that to their evergreen brand accounts: their main institutional Facebook account has 4.5 million followers and the Twitter account has 595K followers.

If you want to welcome or attract new students to campus or showcase the unique elements of student life at Harvard, where would you put your message and your dollars? You'd put it in the same place Harvard puts its other important and interesting content: on the main accounts.

The takeaway

Social media in higher ed needs more consolidation, less proliferation, and great input from your institutional experts.

If a social media account owner can't tell you how they measure ROI and how the account metrics demonstrate positive impact on recruitment, retention, or revenue, they probably don't need social media accounts.

You probably need a person at your institution who has the skillset, official authority, and personal charm to close down dozens or hundreds of social media accounts.

22 February 2016

Enrollment marketing news with snark: Feb. 8-20



Despite popular lore, fewer people are meeting their future spouses in college. Via the BBC. It's sort of amazing to realize your marriage (and everything that happens because of it) are usually the result of an era's technology, social values, and economic policies. I feel like whacking Fate's shins with a baseball bat and taunting, "Take that, Fate."

In some non-higher ed news, here's a way to transfer the facial expressions of one person to another person in real time. Via YouTube. That'll never be used for nefarious ends.


Digital Content and Strategy

Instagram added account switching. Via Instagram. Finally.

"Dear Snapchat, we need to talk." Via Social CSU. Pretty sure they go by #TeamSocial, but I really want to call them Social Ram. It makes me think of a ram at a party, holding a red solo cup in one hand, and in the other--since it's Colorado--a joint.

Snapchat dos and dont's. Via Social CSU. And for the record, there's no consensus on how to pluralize "dos and dont's," although I went with Chicago Manual of Style's recommendation.

Some potential shifts in social media platform engagement. Via Quartz.

Social media and undergraduate markets. Via Eduventures. Use Facebook, G+, Twitter, You Tube and Instagram, deployed in that order. This is a useful article, by the way, although be cautious about "having an account" as the benchmark for determining social media resource allocation.

Micro-content for social media. Via mStoner.

9 Reasons for retargeting. Via Statmats.

Placement versus other ad targeting. Via Geoff Campbell.

Nine ways to market to today's "typical" student. Via HEM.

How students want to be communicated with. Via Royall & Company.

Inexpensive equipment for social media, photo, and video. Via Duke Social Media.

How video chat is changing the admissions process. Via NPR.

What you missed at the Higher Ed Analytics Conference. Via Higher Ed Analytics.

Bob Johnson's higher ed newsletter is out. Via Bob Johnson.

Can text messaging service Up Next simplify the admissions process? Via TargetX. Maybe. And here's a quick public service announcement before you start your own text marketing campaign: you have to have the student's consent in writing before you can send them texts. Check out the rules at the FCC.

Business school content strategy a la Tiffany's. Via Enrollment Strategies.

Ten best capital campaign websites. Via OHO.

Xavier made search the most prominent feature on its homepage. Via Bob Johnson. Xavier also does a lot of other things on its homepage (placement rate, starting salary, New Relic analytics, etc.) that most institutions don't do.


Branding, Image, and PR

New media companies are challenging traditional campus newspapers. Via Huffington Post. The content is probably going to give PR managers heartburn. For example, see all those university names next to the student names? Nice.



U of Arizona students are harassing Muslims and vandalizing a mosque near the campus. Via NY Times.

White students at Texas A&M harassed black prospective students. Via The Guardian. The university initially said students were just expressing their first amendment rights.

It's not even summer yet, and Mount St. Mary's is trying hard to win the PR-disaster of the year award in the wake of the president's "drown the bunnies" comment, his dismissive tone after the incident, and his proposed survey "on which freshmen would be told there were no wrong answers" but which would actively be used to encourage certain students to drop out so they wouldn't count against the institution's retention numbers. So, yeah: there were definitely going to be wrong answers. Via Inside Higher EdInside Higher Ed again, and some very in-depth coverage at The Chronicle. The university also fired the adviser of the newspaper that broke the story about the president's comments, allegedly in retaliation. Via NY Times. In more allegations, the president of the Catholic institution allegedly said, "Catholic doesn't sell ... [and] Newman is said as well to have complained about the presence of "too many bleeding crucifixes" in an employee's office and also to have referred to some students as "Catholic jihadis."" Via Life Site. A board member who seemed to endorse the view that Jews and Muslims have no faith has resigned. Via Inside Higher Ed. The board also apologized for other behavior, too. Via The Ticker. But some students apparently support the president. Via The Ticker.

Baylor's president's letter (released on Super Bowl Sunday), which was largely an attempt to assuage critics of the institution's handling of sexual assault cases, didn't win any accolades and may have made things worse. Via The Dallas Morning News.

Suffolk University ended its controversial relationship with Regan Communications, and the breakup got messy. Via The Boston Globe. Regan is the sixth largest PR firm in the country.

Major changes afoot at Berkeley? Looks like program cuts, especially in liberal arts and humanities. Via Bryan Alexander. Normally this goes under enrollment news, but the Berkeley brand is too big for that. If a major brand starts cutting these programs, it will be much easier for smaller institutions to rationalize the decision.

The governor of Louisiana said LSU would have to cut college football if the state legislature doesn't pass a budget. Via FOX Sports. Yeah, sure.

Michigan spent more than $10,000 per day on jet travel for football recruiting. Via Inside Higher Ed.

The University of Iowa lost and found William the Goat. Via The Ticker.


Data and Analytics

Geography, race, and student loan delinquency. Via Mapping Student Debt.

Graduation rates are as much an input as an output. Via Higher Ed Data Stories. Tell that to state legislators.

More on graduate rates here. Via Higher Ed Data Stories. "We can see that a single factor, such as percentage of students in the freshman class with Pell, or the mean SAT score, can predict with some precision the graduation rate of a college or university."

Babson is ending its report on online education. The 13th annual report was just released. Via Inside Higher Ed.

If rankings fall, institutions are likely to raise tuition. Via Inside Higher Ed.


Economics and cost of college

The Ed. Department will create a new office to protect federal student loan borrowers. Via WGBH.

U of Wisconsin's decision to offer more merit aid is a bad thing. Via The Hechinger Report and EdCentral.

Have Canadian universities been subject to austerity? Via HESA. In the words of Alex Usher (who is not Usher's cousin), "Please."

Federal aid to bootcamps is still a bad idea. Via EdCentral.

A new bill would allow students with drug offences to receive financial aid. Via High Times. That's the first time I've referenced High Times.

IBR is really, really generous to graduate schools. Via EdCentral.

Raise and its microscholarship program are gaining traction. Via NY Times. Or at least press.


Enrollment management and strategy

Why elite-college admissions needs an overhaul. Via The Atlantic. TL;DR: elite colleges are only breeding skepticism and creativity out of students.

A possible alternative to the queen sacrifice. Via Bryan Alexander.

Online education isn't all that appealing to high school students. Via Inside Higher Ed.

Online enrollment is rising, but chief academic officers are slightly less excited. Via The Hechinger Report.

Online learning in 2015. Via The Ticker. Hack Education has a good assortment of other resources.

10 ways to fail when creating an online program. Via Inside Higher Ed.

Students are more supportive of online learning. Professors, not so much. Via Quartz.

New programs at institutions. Via Inside Higher Ed. None are liberal arts.


For-profits, a.k.a. the Donald Trumps of education

For-profits are getting off easy because the government thinks they're  "too big to fail". Via Huffington Post.

U of Phoenix has a new ad campaign in an effort to distance itself from, well, itself. Via Advertising Age. See also the launch video. Via YouTube. This commentary is probably relevant: "But hard as it tries to shed the school's baggage, the ad falls into the trap of seeming a little too anxious to gloss past reality. If its defensive stance is understandable, the concluding lyric, "A degree is a degree/You're going to want someone like me/But only if you have a brain," simply rings appalling." Via AdWeek.

The biggest investor in Apollo Education plans to vote against the recent proposed $1.1. billion takeover by a private equity firm. Via Bloomberg.


Not strictly relevant

Don't do this. Ever. Via Jezebel.

Ranking countries by the worst students. Via The Hechinger Report.

Sometimes you don't actually need a strategic plan. Via Stamats.

What's missing in ed tech? Character. Via EdSurge. Some might say ethics or a focus on students, but that's a bit cynical, isn't it?

The benefits of managing your digital reputation. Via Joe Sabado.

Carnegie Mellon will get $250 million of a $750 million settlement from the Marvell Technology Group. Via The Ticker. This is why institutions care so much about patent rights and intellectual property.

Yelp for teaching tools at UNC. Via The Chronicle.

Fewer colleges are using standardized tests to measure educational quality. Via The Ticker.

Education may cut dementia risk. Via NY Times. Working in education probably raises it.

Federal earmarks for universities in Alabama are under election-season scrutiny because buildings were named after the Senator who got the pork funded. Via AL.com.

Republicans are upset that some institutions have large endowments. Via Inside Higher Ed. You'd think they'd be upset that their leading presidential candidate is a demagogue who appeals to racism and sexism to turn one group of people against other groups, but that's why I'm not in control of a political party.

Social media skill as a job requirement. Via Eric Stoller.

Cable boxes are the worst, and the FCC agrees. Via Nerdist. People still use cable boxes?

It's a video game with 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets. Via The Atlantic.

The top 25 universities over 400 years old. Via THE.

13 things to know about the alpha generation. Via Advertising Age.



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09 February 2016

Enrollment marketing news with snark: Feb. 1-7

I somehow managed to write eight pages on Canadian provincial energy portfolios in less than two days this weekend despite my upcoming presentation at the very full Higher Ed Analytics Conference. Let this be a lesson: never agree to participate in an academic research project about which you know absolutely nothing.

Also, I didn't watch the Super Bowl, which was apparently a snooze fest. But I did learn about Canada's ranking as a net electricity exporter (#1).

Finally, I ended my Google Alert for the College of DuPage now that the board has stopped boycotting its own meetings. Congrats to COD on its victory as PR disaster of the year for 2015.

Digital Content and Strategy

Facebook lead generation campaigns for in-Facebook forms. Via Geofli.

Using infographics to tell your story. Via Pickle Jar Communications.

Week 1 of a Duke course on managing a social media presence. Via Duke Social Media.

Paid digital advertising for higher ed: where to start. Via Geoff Campbell.

Between a quarter and a third of low-income families say they most often use smartphones and tablets to access the Internet. Via The Hechinger Report. Pew published some similar data a few months ago. Why aren't all institutions mobile-first at this point?

Location-based website personalizations. Via Geofli. Works best for key landing pages. Note: Geofli is promoting the service they sell.

Six video platforms for improving content marketing. Via HEM.

Chrome extensions for UX testing. Via OHO. Sort of surprised there weren't more.

How a single broken link can cost a college $100,000. Via Mark Greenfield. Fun fact from my own secret-shopping research: there's about a 2-3% chance something is broken in your homepage-to-apply or homepage-to-inquiry funnel.

Branding, Image, and PR

The 27 worst things about going to stock college photo university. Via BuzzFeed. It's all about stock photos. And universities. (Don't use stock photos.)

Oral Roberts University won't track students' sex. Via Motherboard. I can't decide if ORU is evil or genius, or perhaps evil genius.

Laycia Hawkins (the professor who wore a hijab in support of Muslim students) and Wheaton are parting ways. Via NY Times. Someone got a lot of money, and it wasn't a Muslim student.

Some commentary on college ads during the Super Bowl. Via Inside Higher Ed.

Brand buys versus commodity programs. Via Stamats. This conversation would be brutal on most campuses: "No, sir or madam. Your program doesn't add much brand value to the institution. It's is just a commodity, like June pork."

The president of Mount St. Mary's is blaming bad communication for the university's recent PR disaster. Via The Chronicle of Higher Education. "Saying stupid, insensitive, and thoughtless things about your students and the people who work for you" = bad communication.

N.C. State sued a small liberal arts college because they have the same mascot name, "The Wolfpack." Via The Ticker.

Data and Analytics

Geography is still critical to where students go to college. Via ACE. About 13 percent of the total student population attends college in education deserts, which are defined as places with "either no colleges or universities located nearby or with one community college as the only local public broad-access institution."

This data was sort of mentioned in the story about smart phones and tablet use among low-income families, but if you want broader commentary on the Opportunity for All: Technology and Learning in Lower-income Families report, EdCentral has it. Via EdCentral.

Degrees awarded by discipline, ethnicity and gender, 2011 to 2013. Via Higher Ed Data Stories. Some of the really standout information is among females: Hispanic females pursue liberal arts degrees at much higher rates than other ethnicity/gender combinations, white females pursue education degrees, and Asian females pursue science and math. Among males, degrees are much more consistently distributed, except among Asian males who are more likely to study science and math as well as engineering.

Jeffrey Selingo says US News rankings are dying. US News disagrees. Via Washington Post. Jeffrey Selingo's gauntlet is thrown.

The Ed Department quietly added 700 missing colleges--mostly community colleges--to the College Scorecard. Vie eLiterate. I didn't see this anywhere else this week, so it's probably important.

In-state enrollment and Pell. Via Higher Ed Data Stories.

Economics and cost of college

Why tuition fees are good. Sort of. Via HESA.

The economics of interdisciplinary programs at small universities. Via HESA. For those of you paying attention, the situation for small colleges in Canada is much the same as the situation for small colleges in the United States.

Illinois is totally Illinois. Via The Ticker. The Higher Learning Commission asked institutions in the state to outline plans on how it will help students transfer to other colleges.

Enrollment management and strategy

The MIT dean of graduate education is starting a new university. Via The Chronicle of Higher Education. Cough, Minerva.

Is Turning the Tide real change or disingenuous? Via Jon Boeckenstedt's Admissions Weblog.

Princeton is admitting transfers again. Via Inside Higher Ed. The cynic in me thinks this is primarily a way to increase diversity without having to assume enrollment risks (e.g. retention rates) or recruitment costs (e.g. name buys) with freshman students.

Should students get admissions preference for community service? Via Kelchen on Education. Probably not, at least if students from poor families don't get preference for military service, earning income for their family, and other activities.

Gouchers says students who were admitted by video are performing better academically than students not admitted by video. Via Inside Higher Ed. It's important to point out there's not enough statistical evidence for that conclusion.

How a private high school re-engineered its admissions process to help applicants. Via CASE.

English universities are going after EU students now that quotas have been scrapped. Via THE.

Cambridge wants to keep out the working class riffraff with new entrance tests. Via The Guardian.

The Utah College of Applied Technology reported that hair stylists who earned job training were Utah post-secondary graduates. People are upset. Via Salt Lake Tribune. Wild prediction: no one gets fired.

People really, really resent the admissions process. Via The New Yorker.


For-profits, who wanted Jar Jar Binks back in Star Wars VII

Military branded websites are preying on vets and sending them to shady for-profit institutions. Via Huffington Post. This story has the power to make you exceptionally angry.

Apollo laid off 70 employees. Via AZ Central.

Apollo also got sold to Vistria for $1.1 billion. Via Inside Higher Ed and The Ticker. Vistria has one of the least helpful corporate websites ever. Welcome to private equity. (Also, welcome to Chicago, home of institutions that are repeatedly shooting themselves in the face.)

The Department of Education suspended aid eligibility for 26 programs at two for-profit college chains. Via The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Not strictly relevant

Profiles of new student activists. Via NY Times. The poses the students took or were encouraged to take and their facial expressions are comment worthy, if only because they all seem so serious, except for the the white male. Chance or editorial intention?

The Kentucky governor is really upset about French literature degrees. Via The Chronicle of Higher Education. It's not like Kentucky has a deep and profoundly symbolic connection to French language or culture, cough, Louisville.

The new Peoplesoft SIS at community colleges in Washington state is apparently terrible. Via The News Tribune.

Charitable giving in higher education is broken. Via Bryan Alexander. The general argument is that higher education is increasingly "an investment vehicle for the wealthy."

K-12 giving (which is a thing, but mostly for charter schools) is up as well and is also probably broken. Via Inside Philanthropy. It, too, is mostly an investment vehicle for the wealthy.

The Gates Foundation wants to take an axe to current higher education and reporting. Via The Hechinger Report. If you're scoring at home, this is also about using charitable giving for political ends.

The chocolate milk scandal has laid low the University of Maryland. Via The Ticker. In case you missed it, the university promoted research that suggested a very specific brand of chocolate milk could help high school athletes who had suffered concussions. Naturally, the research was paid for by the exact brand of chocolate milk that was studied. It's a "post-workout" chocolate milk. Seriously. That's a thing now, too. (Whole milk is the only correct type of milk, by the way. All other milk is just chalk water.)

Can higher ed move from hierarchical to networked? Via Andrew Careaga. Maybe, although the section about committees, which are forced networks, is telling: "Too often, people are appointed to serve on these groups who have no expertise or any desire to be involved. They serve to represent some constituency within the organization." In support of this statement, I am totally waving that big foam finger I found at the football game a few years ago.

George Washington U. lost cadavers, or at least the identity of the cadavers. Via The Ticker.

The first human fatality due to a meteorite? Via Ars Technica.

Nuclear fission! Here we come! Via CBC News. Several bunches of highly interconnected neurons used ape bodies to make plasma out of hydrogen for the first time in a new device. Evolution is cool.

Error 53 is sweeping the world. Via The Guardian. This is what happens why you trust a corporation.

Emerson is thinking about disciplining a student who rented out his dorm room on Airbnb. Via Boston.com. I ain't even mad, bro.

Pirate Bay now allows streaming directly from the site. Via The Verge. This was totally a random article find and has nothing to do with my media habits. At all.

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02 February 2016

Enrollment marketing news with snark: Jan. 25-31


One of my almae matres cut a bevy of language majors on Friday. I wrote about it on this blog, but I tend to be long-winded, so if you're pressed for time you can just head to Bryan Alexander's shorter version. It was pretty depressing to realize they may have been able to save the programs if they'd had the vision to make changes several years ago. That's the case for most queen sacrifices, of course: if you prepare for enrollment changes, you don't have to react to them.

Digital Content and Strategy

How to boost online inquiries from parents. Via HEM. Calling all private schools: go read this. (And publics, too, but especially privates.)

How to increase quality organic search traffic. Via Geoff Campbell.

Six website tips for your, well, for your website. Via mStoner. If this was a magazine, it would also include 20 tips to drive him/her wild. And a new ab workout.

The difficulty of managing a brand on Instagram. Via High Ed Web Tech. TL;DR: it's hard.

How to create an engaging Snapchat story. Via Pickle Jar Communications.

A content strategy reading list. Via OHO.

7 tips for getting better user generated content. Via Stamats.

Mozilla's co-founder released a new web browser, Brave, which blocks ads by default. Via Ars Technica. I kind of like it. It won't even allow you to click on Google search ads. (Better check your SEO.)

How to leverage Slack. Via Higher Ed Marketing Journal.

Branding, Image, and PR

The College of DuPage just keeps on giving: the IRS audited the college and found that 44% of the campus meals purchased by the college at its on-campus, high-end restaurant (it's a long story) didn't have a business purpose or correct documentation and were pretty much just kickbacks to executives and board members. Also, the college decided to sue three of its law firms. The board's boycott of its own meetings continues, although they keep proposing meetings.

Not to be outdone, Chicago State University's fired president was found to have violated ethics rules. Via Chicago Tribune. Let's just move Chicago to Florida and be done with it.

Florida State settled a lawsuit that they concealed obstructed a rape investigation so their quarterback could continue to play football. FSU says it was just a financial decision and didn't admit to any wrongdoing. Via WTSP. Nothing says "we didn't do anything wrong" like the largest Title IX settlement in history.

Augusta University is changing its name again. Via WJBF. This level of indecision is how most people behave while choosing a Netflix movie, not the name of an institution. Last time around, the name change cost $3.8 million.

How to write a better RFP from a marketing agency viewpoint. Via Bob Johnson.

Rivier University, a New Hampshire Catholic college, is offering an employment guarantee. Via ABC News.

The Bar Association is investigating a complaint that BYU discriminates against homosexuals. Via The Ticker. Um, duh. They discriminate. It is literally part of the religion (said comment is written by the son of a pastor). But the Bar probably won't do anything about it because of, well, money.

Amherst is getting rid of its racist mascot. Via NY Times.

Oxford is keeping Cecil Rhodes statues, however, because a history of genocide is okay if your donors want to keep the statues. Via NY Times.

Data and Analytics

Predictive analytics. Via Eduventures. They're big on PAR, the new Hobsons acquisition.

Economics and cost of college

How colleges' net prices fluctuate over time. Via Kelchen on Education.

The education spending gap between college haves and have-nots grew bigger. Via The Hechinger Report.

The rich got richer in higher ed last year. Via The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Everyone got richer at a much slower rate, though, since endowment returns were so low. Via The Ticker. In other news, my personal portfolio beat endowment returns, which is positive, I guess. Please hire me to run your endowment.

State spending on higher ed is slightly up. Via The Chronicle of Higher Education.

States' spending on higher ed varies vastly. Via Quartz.

Enrollment management and strategy

Denying tenure in an era of declining enrollment: is it a strategy to avoid future cuts or is it a strategy to make future cuts easier? Via Bryan Alexander. Whatever it is, it's kind of evil.

The ACLU is investigating 17 institutions that ask students about criminal history. Via NY Times.

More state tests are more accurate about college readiness. Via The Hechinger Report. Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia are probably lying misreporting the quality of their school systems.

How labor market conditions affect higher ed. Part 1 at HESA argues that automation changes tasks, not jobs. Indeed. Part 2 at HESA argues that future entry-level employees (a.k.a. college grads) are up a creek without a paddle, and colleges need to change curricula. (You should probably be changing and updating your curricula.)

Some tips for allocating recruiting and marketing budgets. Via Hobsons. Oddly, "spend more money with Hobsons" wasn't one of the tips.

HSIs are everywhere: there are now 435. Via Inside Higher Ed.

Why the University of Oregon is raiding neighboring states for students. Via The Washington Post. TL;DR: money. Outside the article, I suspect Portland State's success, U of Oregon's non-Portland location, and the university's lack of academic prestige has hurt the flagship in comparison to other large west-coast institutions.

Cornell alumni, faculty, and students are upset about a new business school. Via The Cornell Daily Sun.

For-profits, which ruined the per-student college loan debt average

DeVry is getting sued for lying misreporting employment outcomes. Via The Ticker. (This is the point where we all pretend to be shocked.)

Westwood College is closing. Via Inside Higher Ed. Candidly, one of the primary reasons I enjoy for-profit closures is that I really dislike their radio and television ads.

A bunch of senior executives at two for-profit institutions were sentenced for the visa and financial aid fraud they committed. Via Inside Higher Ed. Note to all get-rich-quick types: stick to mortgage fraud that causes a global economic collapse. You don't go to jail for that.

The Pearson CEO got upset at Pearson's critics. Via Stephen Downes. Just chill out, Mr. CEO, and start making useful products.

Not strictly relevant

How Amazon could destroy college as we know it. Via Vox. Drones?

Some college students spent as much as 20% of class time on their digital devices. Via Phys.org. Apple is ruining your retention rate.

The secret world of membership libraries. Via Quartz. I have library envy.

Japan has a negative interest rate. Via LA Times. Whoa.

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31 January 2016

When your alma mater cuts your program: a profligate's analysis of a queen sacrifice

On Friday one of my five almae matres--and the only one to which I've donated--eliminated one of my majors. It also cut eight other majors and a concentration. Most programs were liberal arts programs, primarily in the languages.

I feel a bit like Bruce Wayne watching his parents die in the alley, except I don't have extravagant wealth, a protective butler, or a burning desire to purge Gotham City of scum and villainy.

Sans the dead parents and with 20/20 hindsight about dark alley murders, here's the central argument of this blog:
  1. Concordia's leadership could have better interpreted enrollment trends.
  2. The losses could have been prevented if action had been taken earlier.
  3. Instead leadership made half measures and reacted late.
  4. They're reacting the only way they can at this point.
  5. It's a really tough spot to be in, and many colleges are in that same spot.

The overview and background

Cuts to language programs are a national trend, and if national higher ed news outlets pick up the story, Concordia College will feature as just another private college in trouble. After all, it's not the first to cut its language programs, and it won't be the last.

The local newspaper will probably spin a version of the story it told in October, which includes the following chart of enrollment at the area's four-year universities, all of which lost enrollment this year. (The chart also illustrates the difference between North Dakota's oil boom and Minnesota's non-boom.)


Bryan Alexander will rightly call it a queen sacrifice, which is exactly what it is, although only 38 students had declared majors in the cut programs. (A good question: why did the institution let enrollment fall so precipitously in these programs to begin with?)

Someone will undoubtedly notice that MSUM, the regional public that's just a few blocks away, is also under stress, and they'll see that pretty much every Minnesota college is financially stretched. So it's not just a story about one college or a small geographic region.

The college dropped the news via an unadorned email from the president (see below) and in a rather short web FAQ. The news was also released Friday afternoon, probably with the hope that few people would notice. (You can't blame them for trying.) Nothing appeared in social media or on the main institutional landing pages, and it was the first time the president had communicated directly with alumni. Surprise!




Many of my good friends and acquaintances--also alumni--were surprised by the cuts, although the college has been heading down this path for several years through a combination of poor enrollment, poor planning, and poor communication. I parsed some of my friends' social media comments, and they attributed Concordia College's cuts to various and wide-ranging factors:
  1. Years of bad decisions
  2. NDSU's football success and competition for students (the Flutie effect)
  3. The new business college
  4. Contemporary financial pressures in higher ed
  5. Trends in language education
  6. Local demand
  7. Bad enrollment strategy
  8. Bad use of pre-college recruiting tools (e.g. Concordia's relatively popular language village)
  9. Partial cost-cutting that didn't offer a long-term solutions several years ago
  10. Reliance on a rural population
  11. Location
  12. The music ensembles' facilities
  13. Inability to compete with peer rankings
  14. Shortsightedness
  15. Faceless pragmatists and/or evil administrators
  16. Ignorance of the college's mission
Some of those sound accurate and some don't, and I'd probably add a few (sometimes contradictory) items to list:
  1. The computerization of translation
  2. The offshoring of translation work
  3. Foreign language teacher shortages in American schools
  4. The globalization of English in foreign elementary/middle/high schools
  5. A rise in bilingual speakers in other countries
  6. A rise of online language training and computerized language training
  7. The rise of language immersion programs (which are usually attended by the types of students whose families can afford private colleges)
  8. The digitization of translation sources (dictionaries, grammars, etc.)
  9. Increases in academic requirements in other disciplines (it's pretty hard to study a foreign language if your other major doesn't give you time)
  10. Stagnant wages and income inequality that makes a language program seem like a risky employment path
I've already been (jokingly) called an apologist for the college, but I'm probably not the college's primary audience nor its staunchest or most likely defender. In fact, I'm not very well connected to day-to-day life on campus, and I think the college made plenty of mistakes. I donate irregularly and in very small amounts. I typically don't respond to surveys. I rarely reply to emails from my old departments. I don't wear the Cobber ring, which many alumni do. (I don't even own one.) I don't attend corn feeds, I don't host students when the music ensembles tour the region, and I don't go back for homecoming. In fact, I mostly chose the college because my high school girlfriend attended it. (Not a recommended strategy, by the way.)

I'm a pretty poor excuse of an alumnus, actually. and I don't know much about the state of affairs on campus right now.

But I am an enrollment professional, and I do care a lot about Concordia despite my general lack of engagement, and here's what I see from the outside.

Demographics are headwinds.

For whatever reasons, institutions tend to ignore or downplay demographics in their enrollment and strategic planning. For example, if you're in a market that features declining populations, planning for stable or increased enrollment without also budgeting for significant capital outlay or reduced academic quality is foolish. Example: Concordia's strategic plan doesn't even allude to the fact that Minnesota institutions have 20% fewer students now than in 2004.

Concordia is a Lutheran college in Fargo-Moorhead (F-M). Its closest Lutheran competitors include Gustavus Adolphus, Luther, Augustana, and St. Olaf colleges, all of which are just a few hours away, but it also competes with several regional publics, some of the area's other privates, and increasingly with institutions in the Twin Cities, which is about a four-hour drive from F-M. Together, nearly all of these institutions face the same enrollment challenges: fewer high school graduates, changing student ethnicity profiles, less emphasis on religion among students, and regional incomes below state averages.

Of the five Lutheran colleges in the previous paragraph, only Augustana has managed to avoid enrollment declines since 2010, and that has more do do with their location in Sioux Falls, SD, than anything else: Sioux Falls' population has grown 37% since 2000. But in Minnesota, and especially in rural Minnesota, the graduating classes have been declining since 2010 or so and will keep declining through 2017. Some might point to population growth in Fargo--the market closest to Concordia--of 27% since 2000 and wonder why the college hasn't grown apace (NDSU and UND have grown rapidly), but much of that growth was driven by the oil/gas boom of the last half decade. The oil boom is now bust, and the types of people who came to ND for the boom weren't the types of people who wanted to pay for tuition at a private Lutheran college.

It's not entirely clear the college understands what's happening, either. In this article, they blame the recession and demographics. In this article, they partially attribute declines to for-profit institutions, which is some pretty desperate scapegoating. In one story, President Craft says, "Who saw this coming?" In none of the articles I've read is there any recognition that the college's past behavior and inability to prepare brought them to this point.

Because really: the college had over a decade to prepare for declining demographics, and pretty much every institution in Minnesota has been affected. It's not like birth rates, high school enrollment, college-going rates, and national language enrollment rates were a secret. 

The college has had lackluster digital and print enrollment communications. 

Some of the injuries are self-inflicted. I secret shop hundreds of institutions each year. None of them are perfect, but some recruit better than others.

Response times can be slow at Concordia, print communications can look dated, and the college doesn't appear to use automated email communications, at least not for inquiries. The college has recently merged marketing and enrollment, hired a CMO, and hired a branding firm, so hopefully the communication situation improves.

As a small example of an area that is slightly misfiring, head to the institution's application for admission, which is provided via Royall. Notice that it's impossible to tell which questions are required. For fun, don't fill out anything and instead scroll down and hit the "Save and Continue" button. No error message pops up. The application also lacks a simple sign-up area that would grab and save a student's basic contact information (name, email, and phone) before completing the application.

As another example, if you request information, you don't receive a confirmation email.

Nor can you request info, take a tour, or apply from the homepage. Compare that to Augustana, which recently redesigned its homepage to feature future student tasks and priorities.

Concordia relaunched its website a few years ago, which has likely helped mitigate some UX problems, especially in the mobile world. Of course, if you view the website in a mobile format, the most important calls-to-action are buried. Instead of admissions, visit info, and prospective student info, you get news and spotlights.

These are small things, assuredly, but small things add up.

The endowment isn't big enough.

The college has raised a lot of cash in the last few years, but it started in a poor position, and it can't grow fast enough. In fact, it has the smallest endowment among the private schools we've mentioned.

*Augustana (SD): $56 million
Concordia: $102 million
Gustavus: $110 million
*Augustana (IL): $115 million
Luther: $131 million
St. Olaf: $445 million

*Edit: 2/2/2016 Thanks to Doug Anderson for pointing out that I'd included the Augustana in IL, not the one in SD.

That's more money than many institutions have, but it's not enough to give the college flexibility, especially since most alumni allocate dollars to specific causes or budget lines.

Maybe if more alumni gave money on a regular basis, or perhaps if more alumni were wealthy, or perhaps if fewer alumni were teachers, or perhaps if more of them lived and worked in markets where salaries are higher ... but changing your alumni base and donation rates takes time.

Also, having alumni like me doesn't really help, nor does a sudden email announcing cuts to programs that have historically defined the college.

The college is trying to realign itself.

The college is realigning programs into higher demand areas in an attempt to recover and reposition itself. Chinese, neurobiology and business programs are just a few of the examples of new programs that were created as a response to market pressures.

The institution is also trying to recruit more international students.

And recognizing some of its diversity issues, it's trying to recruit more minority students, which is the only growing population in Minnesota. Still, it's an uphill battle: the region is about 87-90% white.

None of this will solve enrollment woes overnight. This is a multi-year process that should have begun a decade ago.

The brand is too common.

As an alumnus who lives outside Minnesota, I typically tell people "I attended the Concordia that's not associated with the 17 other Concordias." That's not exactly a differentiated brand message.

My fallback is to tell people my college mascot was a giant corn cob. That actually seems to work better.

I also go with "It's in Fargo" and hope people have seen the movie or the television show, although the movie is technically in Brainerd, MN, and technically, the college is in Moorhead, MN, but telling people about film plots, state borders, and the Red River just takes too long.

The brand's major assets are the corn cob mascot (seriously: it's one-of-a-kind and creepy-cute, especially Niblet, the baby version), its choir and music ensembles (which all those other Lutheran colleges also have), the popular pre-college language villages, its study abroad programs, and its status as one of the few private colleges in the F-M region. Most everything else is common to its competitors, including programmatic array, emphasis on the "whole" person, and co-curricular opportunities.

Recent brand updates help, of course, but brand changes take huge tracts of time unless you have huge tracts of money.

The college seems to have misread foreign language demographics.

This is my biggest criticism.

The college has strong language programs and strong study abroad programs, but it's not clear the college was adequately supporting and promoting those programs in recent years. Faculty retired and weren't replaced. Cohorts weren't filled. The programs weren't heavily promoted in enrollment communications, nor is it clear how the institution was tapping the pipeline of students and adults who attend the language village.

Perhaps most interestingly, cutting language programs seems to directly conflict with many elements of the institution's strategic plan, which includes an emphasis on language learning and study abroad, and a language village that has more alumni than the actual college.

Plus, the emphasis on language is at odds with national trends showing declining foreign language participation rates.

Either the strategic plan was wrong or it wasn't supported, neither of which is good and both of which probably contributed to the institution's problems.

Edit 1/31/2016: Concordia had plenty of models to draw from. Valparaiso, for example, is another Lutheran college with just a handful of language programs, but instead of cutting them, it worked them into new degree types like the Enhanced International Business in German program, or it combined language minors with other non-language majors. Middlebury is another small, private institution with language programs, and it made them a foundation of its curriculum. The time for Concordia to have adopted these models was years ago, however.

So what's next?

The college understands it needs to change its strategies. Unfortunately, it reached that decision in 2014, at least five years later than it should have. Major changes to marketing and enrollment units only happened last year, for example, and the recent program changes should have occurred in 2010. (It's not alone. Most colleges should have changed course during the period.)

Concordia has chosen to cut its way out of the deficit it created, but it very easily could have chosen to increase demand for its language programs had it started years ago. Manufacturing demand and establishing a position as a market leader is not cheap, but neither is holding onto failing programs and bad strategies for five years (or more) and then incurring the wrath of alumni when you make large cuts under duress and claim there's nothing you could have done.

The larger (perhaps the largest) question is whether the institution is viable with the changes. Because if enrollment declines are strictly the result of demographics and bad strategy, the institution can stabilize and eventually recover. But if declines are part of failing brand value, the declines won't stop. They'll just continue, and eventually the college will collapse under the stress.

Of course, on a long-enough time scale, it's always been this way, and we just tend not to remember. Program share is always changing, and colleges always come and go. It will continue to be this way, too. Computerization is going to change things dramatically in the next 20 years. The degrees students are getting today aren't going to be degrees they need in 20 years, and this applies to business, health, computer science and many other areas that are currently "hot."

Concordia will likely stick around, but to expect institutions to remain static is both unrealistic and terrible management strategy. And right now is the time for Concordia to be deciding which programs to cut and add in 2020, not in 2016.


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* 1/31/2016 This blog's introduction has been updated to more clearly state my position on the administration's actions. Thanks, liberal arts majors, for repeatedly mentioning that I didn't have a clear thesis.


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