After upwards of fifty school visits in 2017 and countless student engagement-related phone calls, I’ve learned a lot. I get really excited to fly out of Terminal D in the Philadelphia airport because I know there’s a Jamba Juice there, and parking on a new campus is by far the hardest part of a school visit.
Aside from learning more about airport snacks nationwide, I’ve been discovering what makes colleges and universities tick. Here are my six takeaways from a jet-setting 2017:
- Social Media is Pivotal to Student Engagement
I like to start my meetings with a discussion about student communication trends. I’ll apologize here to any of our university partners who see my questions as more of an “interrogation”, but asking universities about their existing climates, strategic initiatives, and pain points always leads to the most fruitful discussions. During most conversations, both administrators and students reiterate how important social media is for student engagement. Popular student groups on campus may have thousands of Instagram followers, and hashtags are only becoming more useful as Instagram has recently added the ability to follow hashtags as well as handles. I’ve received an increasing number of requests to increase visibility for social posts and use OrcaTV to engage students through social media. Universities are investing in social analytics and management services such as Hootsuite to help manage disparate accounts. Snapchat Geofilters and Instagram stories are labor-intensive but essential to engaging students where they are: on social.
My student ambassadors have been invaluable for keeping me up-to-date on the latest trends and most effective uses for social in student engagement. At this year’s Apogee Customer Technology Seminar, I was psyched to feature two of our ambassadors in a panel entitled “The Student’s Perspective – How Social Media Drives Our Behavior.” After hearing feedback that the insight from Rahul and Rachel was enlightening to housing officers seeking to keep students engaged with Residential Life campaigns, I’m planning to continue distributing student ambassador-generated feedback to administrative partners, and to use their feedback to create innovations for the OrcaTV platform itself.
- Analytics Drive Decisions
College campuses are tracking everything. Event attendance, student satisfaction, tutoring center visits, social media conversations, dining habits, and bookstore trends just scratch the surface of the mammoth amounts of data that abound in higher education. Budgets are tight, and schools need to prove that they’re generating returns on their investments. As the Internet of Things proliferates and colleges become more interested in connecting internet-driven data to student success and retention, I’m determining strategies for using analytics to drive informed conversations around student success.
During many of my conversations with schools I’ve received questions about the analytics we can provide. Our analytics around social media in particular are becoming more powerful. They can demonstrate timed trends in social conversations, demographic information about users, total Snapchat Geofilter views, aggregated common words and phrases – but there’s still more on the horizon. Combining social with conversations around how technology drives student success can lead to a more individualized college experience – one that that can proactively identify at-risk students and address problems to improve persistence and retention. For OrcaTV, I have a plethora of anecdotal evidence about trends I’ve seen in the higher education space. However, my dream for OrcaTV is to aggregate the data we’re collecting through content submissions and social to identify nationwide trends in content creation and student engagement conversations – with the goal of using this data provide prescriptive advice, compare individual schools to national trends, and help university partners achieve strategic initiatives.
- Universities are Increasingly Siloed
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started discussing digital signage with a school to find that the English department has a Visix solution, the chemistry department uses Four Winds, dining uses a flash drive to add daily menus to signs, and students have no ability to utilize digital signage whatsoever. Universities are siloed. In many cases, until a university is ready to discuss OrcaTV’s solution to student engagement and brings multiple parties into the room, disparate departments don’t know what their counterparts in the building next door are up to. Of course, this makes sense due to separate funding models, geographically dispersed campuses, and the traditional university structure in which academic colleges are divided by major. But, this siloed approach can sacrifice student success efforts and precious tuition dollars. I’ve found that a more collaborative approach to communication, and to shared resources that can affect different facets of campus, drives a more engaged student population while creating cost efficiencies.
- Students are the Best Consultants
When a marketing or student affairs administrator relates her challenges for engaging students on campus – or notes that she can’t get students to read emails – my first reaction is to ask “well, have you asked the students what they think?”
While we all have the best intentions for driving student success, sometimes the day-to-day tedium of hitting deadlines, quotas, or budgets can come at the detriment of the students themselves. Every campus has engaged, high-achieving students who will revel in the opportunity to lead a student marketing group or to manage the university’s Snapchat account. Even the less engaged students may benefit more from a peer’s suggestion “hey, let’s check out this campus activities board event tonight!” than the administrator-generated email blast advertising all the events on campus. My team of student ambassadors has been invaluable to teaching me everything from the continuing importance of Snapchat Geofilters to showcasing sexual assault awareness advocates through student profiles. When managed well, students can remove the onus from administrative teams while creating student-driven communication and providing students with valuable professional development opportunities.
- Administrators Care – A Lot
While this should come as a no-brainer, I’m always touched to meet with administrators who go the extra mile to help students. I was recently impressed by a conversation with a CIO in the Midwest. As we discussed OrcaTV and its potential uses on campus, I mentioned how unique his school is because it’s not facing the same retention or persistence issues of peer institutions. Based on my research and conversations with friends in Philadelphia, I’d concluded that students generally love attending this school and, consequently, there’s a highly engaged alumni base. He stopped me after I mentioned the incredible school spirit and said “well, that may be true of our more traditional students, but we need to figure out how to make the non-traditional students feel included too.” I was astonished by the fact that the CIO – whose job description does not typically include student engagement or inclusion efforts – was taking this bird’s eye view of the campus to promote success for all students. Our subsequent conversations around diversity and inclusion were that much more meaningful once I’d determined that everyone on campus, from the CIO to the student affairs staff, truly wanted to drive student success.
- Universities are Unique
Despite all the similarities I’ve explored above, my favorite part of visiting individual colleges and universities is discovering the quirks that make them unique. Generation Z may be skeptical of the traditional college experience, but the creative avenues, community building, and extracurriculars fostered by the traditional experience are irreplaceable. I was just telling our University of Mary Washington student ambassador, Nancy, how excited I was for the spring semester because Devil Goat Day would be scheduled in April. UMW students are designated either “devils” or “goats” depending on their class year. On Devil Goat Day, Class Council hosts a day of activities and competitions to determine the winner. We’ve run hashtag campaigns and Snapchat Geofilters for Devil Goat Day, and I always adore being involved in the conversations.
Another new one this year was Central College’s Lemming Race. At Central, a small school in Iowa, a distinguished student is given the distinct honor of being chosen as the “head lemming.” That student then runs into a small pond on campus followed by hordes of peers. Naturally the students dress up in wild costumes, and the Lemming Race videos I’ve seen through our OrcaTV portal are seriously hilarious. Check out this video with footage from the 2017 race – can you tell why I love my job?