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Higher education institutions roll with the changes

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From left, Millersville University students Logan Ressler, Adam Soregal and Zac Terrazas work at a studio soundboard. They are all studying music business technology.
From left, Millersville University students Logan Ressler, Adam Soregal and Zac Terrazas work at a studio soundboard. They are all studying music business technology. - (Photo / )

Students seeking higher education still want convenience, a good program and a financial aid package. But these days, they also want a relationship with their school and assurance of a return on their investment of time and money.

All that is changing how colleges and universities market themselves, how they connect with prospective students, and what they need to provide on campus – both in terms of real-world experience and student support.

Competing for students

As the numbers of students graduating high school has declined – and is expected to continue to decline in coming years – colleges and universities are competing for students like never before. The emergence of new for-profit institutions has also taken away a piece of the pie.

On the other hand, more non-traditional students – older students with jobs and families – are coming back to complete their degrees or for additional coursework and degrees to advance in their careers or change fields.

That is the case at Harrisburg Area Community College, where the average age of its 19,000 students is 27. Some come to the regional two-year community college to complete their general education credits more affordably before transferring to a four-year institution, while others are looking to improve their skills or pursue a new career.

HACC President John Sygielski said his institution, like many others, offers traditional, in-person classes, completely online classes, and other courses that are a blend of the two to provide the flexibility today’s students are looking for.

He said the school’s 18 online-only associate degree programs are growing because of the number of students who are pursuing higher education while working and/or raising a family.

Because online coursework is now the norm at many institutions, faculty must be experts not only in their subject matter, but also in the latest technology to deliver it. And the courses may change as often as the semesters.

“The business model of higher education is changing,” Sygielski said. “We need to be much more agile and receptive to what industries need from the graduating students. We really are not the institution of your mother or grandmother.”

Real-world experience, results

Gale Martin, executive director of university marketing and communications at Millersville University, said it’s not just adult students going back to school who are driving these changes. She has found the traditionally college-age students of Generation Z to be very practical, transactional and results-driven.

“They want to know they are investing in something that will give them a career and a leg up on life,” she said. “From a marketing perspective, we really have to trumpet how they can improve their quality of life and find a job with a degree from our university.”

To address that, schools are moving away from the traditional lecture format toward more hands-on learning. They are incorporating internships, externships, co-ops and experiential learning to help students land jobs or get into graduate school.

Jim Paskill, president of Paskill Stapleton & Lord, a higher education enrollment marketing firm outside of Philadelphia, said both the small private schools and large public universities it works with are becoming more career focused. Some even have business incubators on campus to help students with an entrepreneurial bent start their own companies while they complete their coursework.

Customizing majors and coursework is another way schools can help students tailor their education for the career they want. In 2014, Millersville began offering multidisciplinary studies programs that allow students to take courses from more than one program.

The university also offers a variety of both short- and long-term study abroad options to fit student needs.

“If you take time to listen to your current students, talk with your prospects and work to give them the opportunities they are seeking to the best of your ability and resources, they will have a meaningful experience,” Martin said.

Sensitive to students

Paying attention to what students want and need goes beyond just academics, though.

Sygielski said more students are showing up on campus without the skills they need to succeed in college, so the school has to meet them where they are, whether that means offering developmental coursework or partnering with community resources to get them the help they need.

He said HACC is seeing an increase in students coming to school with social burdens like never before. Some are struggling with food security or stable housing while others are dealing with mental health issues.

Sygielski said he doesn’t know why that is, but he encourages schools to be aware of the changing dynamics and demographics of an increasingly diverse college population. “We need to be knowledgeable and understanding and sensitive,” he said.

Marketing and recruiting

Decades ago, colleges fed information to prospective students that those students and their parents can now find online in a matter of minutes. These days, it’s important not only to have a great Web site, but also to have a presence on the social media outlets where prospective students and their families spend time.

“Digital marketing is playing a much larger role than it was even five years ago,” said Paskill. “You need to make sure you are intersecting with people at certain points so your message is in front of them when and where they are looking.”

Martin said prospective students and their families are expecting to find useful content on outlets such as Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

“They will look at you many times over before first reach out or fill out an inquiry form,” she said. “They get the nuts and bolts from your Web site, but then they use social media to see your personality and what you are about, so you can’t afford not to keep that current.”

She has also found that students seem to prefer to get email about information they need to know – an upcoming open house or an approaching deposit deadline – but use text messages and social media more conversationally.

All of that doesn’t mean that schools can take their print marketing budget and invest it online. “As old-fashioned as it seems, view books and publications are still very important,” Paskill said. “Those are the things that prospective students and their families share over the dining room table.”

Martin agrees. “You can’t cut the cord and just use digital tools because a college or university education is usually a family decision and parents expect printed material to come to the house,” she said. “You have to straddle both worlds.”

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