Thousands of college freshmen drop out ever year. So what!

Posted on July 23, 2018

I am so tired of hearing “…55 percent who started (college) were gone the following year.” The college referred to is Texas A&M-Texarkana but could be any one of the thousand of non-elite colleges and universities in America.  I am also sick of hearing about strong recruiting efforts but weak retention efforts. Recruiting, on one hand, generates revenue and it is apparently a bit easier than retention, which takes the kind of effort few institutions are willing – or able – to muster.

Since it’s not in cricket to complain absent a solution, I’m going to suggest a solution or two in honor of my cricket-playing buddy now traveling the world, Kurt the Canadian.

If one of the big worries in higher education is the loss of a large percentage of college freshmen before they start their second year, and it apparently is, I suggest everyone involved look at this for what it is. It’s a naturally recurring event, folks.  Lots of first-year students leave college after experiencing – and paying for – something that for whatever reason is not right for them.

When I come across situations like this I am reminded of the dilemma McDonald’s franchisees faced once they opened their new restaurants. These franchisees, most of whom were responsible businesspeople, were appalled at the turnover they experienced with their young help. They tried hiring smarter, whatever that means, but that didn’t solve the problem. Eventually, the headquarters field managers convinced the franchisees that turnover was always was going to be part of an operator’s challenge.  Accept that as a fact and deal with it, the managers said. The fact that lots of first-year college students do not become second-year college students is a fact of life; accept it and deal with it.

I know you’re thinking, Thanks, Joe, but my institution is not ready to accept that as we want students to continue with their education – that’s why we’re here at good old EDU.  Let me point out that Texas A&M-Texarkana’s 55 percent loss increased from 44 percent two years prior. The trend, I suspect, is real. Reject this reality at your peril, or maybe just stick your head in the sand.

But I think these dropouts, who collectively are an annual experience that will not go away, can be helped and at the same time be of help to the institution itself.  Here’s what I would do if all it took was a magic wand and the word Shazaam to make things better for everybody involved. I would create an environment that, first, acknowledged college isn’t for everyone, and second, that there are alternatives to a college degree. I would present those alternatives, including career-oriented certificate programs, in a non-judgmental manner.  In other words, allow that it is okay if you feel your choice to enroll in college might have been premature or even a mistake.  I would arrange articulation agreements with community colleges with career-oriented programs. I would invite outside career advisors to speak to the group who might be wavering in the commitment to a college degree. In doing so, I would expect two things to happen. One would be a great public relations coup, especially when testimonials come in from individuals helped by this unique approach. The second positive result, I would expect, would be some actual guidance and help for those students who will inevitably choose to drop out.

Of course, I do not expect even one college or university to adopt this approach.  I just hope that my somewhat unique observations and unusual suggestions will spark other, better ideas.  But whatever the reaction, I advise those of you in higher-ed decision-making positions to accept the reality of annual shrinkage between freshman and sophomore classes. It is inevitable.

How I would target working people who may want to go back to college

Posted on July 12, 2018

Let’s assume I am back at the helm of a small university (which I was from June 2005 to December 2010). Let’s also assume my institution is thinking about a marketing effort targeting working adults. Are you with me so far? Now let’s replace “me” with “you”; I’ll pretend I’m you and here are the steps I will take.

First thing is to look at the current list of enrollees and pick out those who are over 25 and taking courses part-time. Then I’d ask our admissions reps for some information about each of these adult students. I want to know why they enrolled and why they chose our college. What do they like about us? What would they change (ask them to pick one thing)? What was their biggest surprise – or shock – once they began the coursework? I want to “get inside their head,” and hopefully after five such conversations, I’ll identify our institution’s key selling points.

Once I have a good idea about our attributes – from the students’ perspective, not my marketing manager’s – I will meet with my internal marketing manager and discuss what I’ve learned. I will also ask her to take these selling points and wrap them around a few sentences/statements of no more than eight words each (seven is the optimal number). When we have these sentences/statements I may call back a few of the adult part-time students I spoke with earlier and ask them to react to the sentences. What I’m searching for are the right “messages,” i.e., the words that immediately connect with the hopes and concerns of other adults who may be considering a return to college.

This is, of course, guesswork at this point, but it’s a wise approach to take when starting the process of reaching prospective adult enrollees. As the messages are tested I will find which one(s) resonate with the people I’m targeting. I know there’s no better way to nail down the right message, so I follow through with this in preparation for the next step.

Now that I think I know what my institution’s messages are (for the working adult), I now must decide how to best reach this target market. The cost will be a concern as I am always sensitive to the fact I have a limited budget, especially for a new approach (think “test”) to a specific market segment. I have a few obvious choices relative to reaching this target market. To name a few, I will be considering: a PR/publicity campaign; print (postcards?) using mailing lists; online ads (probably Facebook); affinity groups (associations, unions, religious sects, etc.). I will look at the costs for each approach, and maybe consider using a combination approach. But whatever I choose I will limit the financial exposure by testing both the message and the media. And I will make sure my admissions people know what to expect…and how to handle the expected response.

I have the messages, I’ve selected the media, I’ve alerted each person in my organization who will be involved with this new campaign and instructed them how to respond if they are involved in the entire process. To be sure, all these decisions are not mine alone and, to get buy-in, I have involved many people – and their thoughts and opinions – in the decision-making process. Experience has taught me that business decisions are nothing more than guesses, hopefully, educated guesses, but that the decision may be wrong. No matter the response to the News campaign – the “test” – we will all learn something.

After a relatively short period – using online ads will tell me something quite quickly – I will meet with my people and critique what we’ve done and the response we’ve received. What have we learned, and what should we modify…or throw out? With modifications to messages or to the type of media, I will then go back and spend a little more to see if the modifications work. I will keep doing this until my team and I are satisfied that we are on the right track to recruiting students who are working adults. Lastly, I will adjust the budget to reflect our return on investment. And will keep reviewing performance on at least a weekly basis. That’s how I will bring in working adults, increase tuition revenue, and carve a niche for current and future programs that are ideal for this target market,