Building the case for college student satisfaction assessment


How satisfied are your students? You won’t know if you don’t ask. And if you don’t ask, you won’t have the data to build your case for student success initiatives.

Based on the results of our 2015 Student Retention and College Completion Practices Benchmark Report for Two-Year and Four-Year Institutions, student satisfaction assessments are cited by the majority as an effective method for making changes to minimize attrition.

Given that our current higher education environment is placing increasing expectations on performance-based funding and on student success measures, what will it take to get your campus to make student satisfaction assessment a priority?

Maybe it’s one of the several recent studies that link student satisfaction with student retention or higher institutional graduation rates. Or that we know that paying attention to the satisfaction levels of your currently enrolled students has a positive long-term effect on enrollment, student success, and future alumni engagement. And beyond retention efforts, for the 700 institutions we work with on an annual basis, they report using their satisfaction assessment data for strategic planning and accreditation.

Read the rest of Building the case for college student satisfaction assessment »

Reflections on a college student’s sophomore year


You may have been following along on my daughter Kylie’s college journey. I have written blogs over the past few years as Kylie went through her college selection process, visited campuses, experienced orientation, and reflected on her freshman year. Kylie returned to campus this month to start her junior year (time flies!) but over the summer, we talked a lot about the influential experiences of her sophomore year.

In addition over the summer, my colleague Mari Normyle and I presented a session, “Our Sophomores Need Our Attention, Too!” at the National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing, and Retention, highlighting data and observations from the Second-Year Student Assessment and the Student Satisfaction Inventory. That presentation and my conversations with Kylie provided insights into the sophomore year that I thought I would share. I have framed them in terms of areas discussed in the Second-Year Assessment and Student Satisfaction Inventory.

Explore advantages and disadvantages of my career choice. 

Kylie is an International Studies and Spanish double major. During one International Studies seminar, her professor said, “You are probably in this major because you love to travel, but that won’t pay the bills, so let’s find something that will earn you money and still allow you to work in an area that you care about.” The projects included an online discussion forum and research on self-identified topics that the students were passionate about. The professor brought in guest speakers, including alumni working in a variety of international fields, and the students were able to ask questions about the speakers’ career paths. A follow up assignment had the students reflect on the conversations and whether they could see themselves in a similar career. This class helped open Kylie’s eyes to potential careers following graduation and gave her a better idea on what she would like to do.

Do you have similar seminars as part of your requirements that explore future opportunities for your students?

Find ways to balance the demands of school and work.

Kylie worked as a writing tutor during the school year and she appreciated the opportunity to refine her own writing skills through her interactions with the students she was tutoring. She was also able to build relationships with more faculty members on campus by being visible in the writing center. Kylie did feel the pressure of demands on her time with her tutoring hours and course load, but she was able to meet the demands through time management and the will power to stay focused.

Are you providing support and direction to your work study students to help them make the most of their experience?

Identify work experiences or internships related to my major. 

Kylie had two part-time internships in Chicago this past summer. The first was at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, researching a variety of topics and speakers for the programs that the council offers on a regular basis. Through this experience, Kylie was able to broaden her global perspective, build her teamwork skills, and find excellent opportunities for networking. The second internship was with CARE USA, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty and promoting women’s empowerment. With this organization, she worked on the proposal, stewardship, and information team, analyzing reports and writing summaries which highlighted the impact that the projects had. Both internships allowed her to see career opportunities in areas that she is excited about and gave her a taste of the professional world.

Are you promoting internship opportunities to students during their second year?

Make tuition feel like a worthwhile investment. 

On the Student Satisfaction Inventory, we see high levels of dissatisfaction with the item “Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment” at four-year institutions. In response, I have recommended that institutions highlight what graduates of the institution are successfully doing and emphasize all that students have access to while enrolled at the institution. But an observation that Kylie made this year reminded me that the little things matter as well when it comes to student perceptions. She said, “We pay a lot of money in tuition every year, and the WiFi doesn’t even work everywhere on campus.” We know how dependent we all are on Internet access and this probably compounded ten-fold for college-age individuals! This is an example of how a simple, somewhat minor grievance is connected in students’ minds to the tuition they are paying and the expectations they have for the quality of service they are expecting in return.

Are you paying attention to the “little things” that contribute to how students think of your institution overall?

Ensure that faculty provide timely feedback about student progress in a course. 

Kylie’s experiences with her faculty have been generally positive, but she had one professor second semester who was not good about providing timely feedback. She had weekly exercises that were meant to prepare her for take-home exams, but the exercises were not returned prior to the exams being due, so she never knew how she was doing with the material. The professor was teaching only one class with 20 students, but would take more than four weeks to grade the exams. Kylie didn’t know until the final grade was posted how she had done in that class, which was very frustrating. She provided feedback on the course evaluation and she hopes that the administration will take note. However, she is skeptical because the professor has been on campus for a while and Kylie has heard negative comments about the professor from other students.

Are you responsive to the comments you receive on course evaluations and do you follow up as appropriate with your faculty members?

Faculty are fair and unbiased in their treatment of individual students. 

Kylie had an interesting take on this item: she noted that if you meet with faculty during office hours, regularly attend class and actively participate, show interest in the course material, and help your professors understand your own strengths and weaknesses within the course, then the faculty will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. These may be pretty obvious observations, but it reminded me that while faculty generally are going to be fair, they are likely to react more positively toward a student putting in the extra effort.

Are you reinforcing these expectations with your sophomores and providing opportunities for them to build relationships with faculty, especially in the students’ area of interest? 

One more note about Kylie’s sophomore year: she had the opportunity to spend three weeks in South Africa, studying the culture and history of the country. Kylie shared that studying abroad was a great experience and what she learned from the South African people could never have been gained from a textbook. This experience, combined with the English as a Second Language tutoring she is doing as a member of the Spanish Club in a nearby community with a large immigration population, have contributed to her experiential learning experiences, and these are the ones that are making lasting impressions. Now she has embarked on an exciting junior year, with an upcoming second semester studying abroad in Valparaíso, Chile!

Student assessment is a key part of improving the student experience

Kylie’s observations, while generally positive, reveal areas for improvement. They are also the kinds of observations campuses can obtain from student satisfaction assessment. I will be hosting a free webinar, Building a Case for Student Satisfaction Assessment, on October 6. I invite you to join me and learn about the advantages of satisfaction assessment and how it can strengthen campus planning, benchmarking, and the student experience.

As always, please feel free to email me with your questions or comments about student assessment strategies or Kylie’s experiences.

Strategic enrollment planning for higher education—learn why it’s important and how it works


In recent years, the enrollment environment for higher education has been changing, and that means higher education must change with it. Dr. Lew Sanborne of Ruffalo Noel Levitz discusses why and how institutions are responding to the latest enrollment trends and projections in this one-hour recorded video focused on the fundamentals of strategic enrollment planning:

Fundamentals of strategic enrollment planning


This video is a recording of a webinar presented in April 2015 as part of Bay Path University’s Hot Topics Lecture Series.

Topics covered in this video:

  • What five major trends are influencing today’s student enrollments across higher education?
  • How can institutions of higher education use the full capabilities of their executive leadership, across divisional lines, to accomplish the institution’s mission and ensure long-term enrollment success and fiscal health?
  • What is strategic enrollment planning and how is it defined by colleges and universities?
  • How are campus executive teams responding to the latest enrollment trends and projections?
  • How can campus executive teams take a data-informed, analytical approach to align their institutions with the changing academic marketplace?

Strategic Enrollment Planning Executive Forum:
December 10-11, 2015 in Las Vegas

Interested in learning more about strategic enrollment planning? Join Ruffalo Noel Levitz for a dynamic discussion in Las Vegas.
Learn more about the forum and register.

Questions about strategic enrollment planning?

If you are interested in how you can begin to build a strategic enrollment plan, please email us and we will have one of our enrollment consultants get in touch with you.


The new “prior-prior year” policy and its impact on college student recruitment and awarding


Allowing college students to use financial data from two years before has significant implications for college admissions and financial aid awarding.

The federal government has ruled that, starting in fall 2016, students may apply for federal student aid based on their family’s income from two years earlier rather than the previous year—often referred to as the “prior-prior year.” This new policy will impact students seeking financial aid for the 2017-18 academic year.

Under this approach, students would not have to wait until January 1 of their senior year to complete the FAFSA. Instead, students could apply in the fall of their senior year when they apply for admission using income information from their most-recently completed tax return. This would mean a student applying for admission for fall 2017 would be using parental income data from 2015.

The benefit to families is obvious: receiving their awards earlier in their senior year would provide admitted students with more transparency about cost and also allow them more time to make tuition payment arrangements. Given the momentum this approach has gathered, colleges and universities would be wise to begin to consider how it will affect them. Here are some initial considerations:

  • Budget planning: For many private universities, tuition is finalized in the spring for the coming fall. In order to award students in the fall for the following fall, the budget planning process may have to be moved up to allow time to update cost information in marketing materials, the website, and award packages.
  • Affordability messaging: If admissions and financial aid calendars were more aligned as a result of this change, colleges would have less time in the senior year to market their value proposition with strong ROI and brand messaging. If the financial aid package is presented without those complementary messages, families may be quick to cross your institution off their list. That means that value messages must be communicated earlier in the process, when students are sophomores or juniors in high school.
  • Recruitment planning: Historically, the heaviest travel takes place in the fall with counselors hitting the road for their annual circuits of college fairs and high school visits. If financial aid awarding occurs earlier, critical recruitment processes may have to be adjusted as well. For example, fall campus visit events may need to include time for financial aid counseling and using spring travel to communicate the value proposition may become more important.
  • Processing of aid applications: The opportunity for families to submit FAFSAs earlier means aid offices will have to be prepared to award aid earlier in order to remain competitive. This may also require more early estimates of state and federal aid awards than institutions are used to.
  • Appeals: With more time between receiving an aid award and the deadline for enrollment decisions, will more families appeal their students’ awards? Maybe, but it is possible the number of appeals will just be spread out across more time. In any event, be prepared for an earlier start on appeal season. More aid offices will be receiving appeals before they have a clear idea of how the entering class is shaping up. This argues strongly for having in place a set of awarding policies designed to support institutional enrollment goals so that you can make your first offer your best offer. It may also be important to clearly establish a timeline for responding to appeals that will enable you to hold off on responding to early appeals, until you’re in a better position to see what the enrollment and revenue picture is going to look like.

The prior-prior year option certainly has the possibility of benefiting families as they search for the right college. It also provides some significant advantages to institutions. For example, fewer families will likely require verification because they will be applying for aid using completed tax returns, rather than estimates. And aid offices will have longer to complete verification on those students who are required to provide additional materials. However, it is also important that college leadership begin to think about how this transition will impact recruitment and budget cycles as well as other operations.

What can you do to prepare for this change and award aid more strategically?

I am happy to discuss what you can do to address this development and also to assess your awarding process. Email me with your questions or if you would like to discuss your awarding strategy.

I also encourage you to attend an upcoming webinar on September 21, Linking Your Financial Aid and Marketing Strategy. The prior-prior policy will make it easier for colleges to have the cost conversation with prospective students, but as I mentioned above, that affordability messaging needs to be incorporated strategically into your marketing communications. I also recommend reading the 2015 Rising Seniors’ Perceptions of Financial Aid Report to see how college-bound seniors and their families view key issues in financing their educations.

Student success essentials – building capacity to serve first-generation students


Are you seeing an increase in first-generation students at your college or university? Or are you developing programs that focus on first-generation students?

Many campuses have begun targeting first-generation students in their student success initiatives. The reasons for this vary from an increase in enrollment of first-generation students to an enhanced awareness of first-generation students as an at-risk population. Regardless of the reasons why, it is helpful to examine the differing needs of this population of students in order to understand and shape strategies to help more of these students succeed.

What the research shows

The 2015 National Freshman Attitudes Report from Ruffalo Noel Levitz includes responses from 24,409 first-generation students as they began classes in fall 2014 at four-year private, four-year public, and two-year institutions across the country. In examining the first-generation students’ responses, some interesting patterns emerge. Compared with students of college-educated parents, first-gens are:

  • More committed to earning a college degree;
  • More comfortable with people who have different opinions on social and/or political issues;
  • More inclined to have a career direction;
  • More receptive to academic assistance and career counseling;
  • More interested in receiving financial guidance.

So, first-gen students bring some clear strengths with them as they enter college; however, they do report challenges as well. Compared again with students of college-educated parents, the first-gen data from this study reveal:

  • Fewer report “I have the financial resources I need to finish college” (37 percent for first-gen vs. 51 percent for non-first-gen);
  • More intend to work more than 20 hours/week (29 percent vs. 16 percent);
  • More report challenges in succeeding in math (47 percent vs. 41 percent);
  • Fewer have degree aspirations beyond the bachelor’s degree (45 percent vs. 58 percent);
  • More report planning to transfer to another institution to earn their degree (14 percent vs. 12 percent).

10 priorities for serving first-generation students

As campus leaders marshall their resources to address the needs of first-generation students in order to increase their success rates, here are 10 priorities to guide your efforts:

  1. Institutionalize a strong commitment to serving first-generation students;
  2. Gather data on your first-generation students (noncognitive/motivational data such as the findings above, as well as the usual admissions/financial aid data) in order to understand your students individually and as a group;
  3. Identify and track the persistence, progression, and performance of first-generation students;
  4. Provide early arrival and integration programs;
  5. Focus on what’s distinctive about your first-generation students—some of their needs will be unique though many of their needs will be in common with other students;
  6. Utilize upper-level first-generation students and first-generation faculty/staff as mentors;
  7. Involve their families in programming and ongoing communications;
  8. Address financial pressures through financial literacy programs and support in securing additional scholarship funds;
  9. Build a sense of pride in being a first-generation student and a community of first-generation students, faculty, and staff;
  10. Plan for first-gen support beyond the first year, since research shows that substantial attrition continues to plague many students and campuses during year two.

Explore 85 attitudes held by first-generation freshmen

To learn more about first-generation students, download the 2015 National Freshman Attitudes Report and read more blogs, listed below. For information on gathering noncognitive data to better understand your own first-generation students, or to discuss effective student success strategies for this population, please contact me by email.

Engaging and retaining college students through technology

Using technology to improve college student retention.

Technology can help campuses retain more college students, but it requires a commitment to training and implementation to have the greatest impact on student retention.

In the last several months, I have had the opportunity to attend several national and state private post-secondary school conferences. The participating schools were looking for ways to improve enrolling, retaining, and preparing students for their chosen careers in light of the new Gainful Employment rules, which took effect on July 1.The use of technology and the processes that enhance the nature of the technology were a focus of many of the conference sessions.

Technology supporting retention management is often handled in-house through institution-developed dashboards and a combination of platforms that support a proactive approach to identifying student retention issues. This approach enables school personnel to work with the needs of individual students.

However, in many instances higher education institutions grow far faster than one student information system can handle. In their quest to solve student retention management issues, institutions have built their own platforms, or purchased software that does not properly integrate with their needs and ultimately does not give them the information to work strategically in their approach to student and graduate success. To successfully develop student success platforms, it is important to understand the staff and student interactions with the technology.

The importance of staffing when using college student retention technologies

In conversations with many of the schools that have developed their own student retention management platforms, they identify the importance of staffing and processes to support the technology.

One important question comes to mind as we look at the software supporting retention management tools: who is developing the software? Although it is important to have a technology background, accessing the correct information and how it interfaces with the staff are also important elements of the development.

I have discovered that many of the individuals championing the charge for retention management software development have a student advising or student development background with some interest or background in technology. In my observation, the most common trait among these individuals is their passion for student success, and again it is clear the use of technology is a tool to leverage student success and graduate outcomes.

Identifying college student success data

One of the main suggestions in developing software to address student retention is to understand your institution’s definition of student success:

  1. What data are associated with college student success?
  1. What systems are involved in student success?
  1. How much work will be required to integrate the various student success systems?
  1. How can we align resources to support student success?

Many times the data associated with student success are stored in multiple areas and not accessible to the members of the institution who can impact student success and graduate outcomes. Taking a holistic approach involves the inclusion of various team members, students, and technology, and the interactions between these components needs to be seamless in order to be successful.

It is important in the development of student retention software to understand the gaps and the best ways to provide the users the access and resources they need in order to be successful. Access to student retention data is critical to making strategic retention planning decisions, student interventions, and connecting students to individual resources they need for success. That’s something that retention systems such as the Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) and College Student Inventory (CSI) do. They not only help institutions capture the information they need in order to improve student retention and graduation rates, but make that data accessible and actionable. Having the proper surveys and student success tools can lead to valuable initiatives in developing a student success course and understanding the barriers associated with under-employed graduates.

Make sure your staff, systems, and strategies produce a holistic approach to student retention

Among the sessions I attended this summer, one discussed a fragmented approach versus a holistic approach to supporting student success. Taking a holistic approach to student retention management has many nuances and it is important that the executive leadership of your institution supports the leveraging of technology to improve student success. Additionally you need to identify the selection and development of a team, resources, and data points in order to represent all student needs. Remember, data does nothing unless it is used, and it cannot be used if it cannot be accessed.

You can also find useful benchmarks for retention practices in our 2015 report. It provides a great starting point for seeing what campuses are doing in terms of student retention technology and data.

Do you have any questions or ideas about using technology to support retention? Email me and let me know, or leave a comment below.

The student retention champion’s checklist: 7 strategies for increasing college student success


Co-written with Kathy Kurz

The checklist below will provide some food for thought about not only what you should be doing to increase persistence, but about the responsibilities of your college student retention champion.

Kathy Kurz served as vice president of Scannell & Kurz before her retirement. She has extensive experience in retention programs and strategic financial aid, and served at the University of Rochester and Earlham College.

Although you are at the very beginning of a new school year, we suspect many of you are already thinking about retention, especially if fewer students returned than anticipated. But for many campuses, it’s not clear who should be the one leading that thinking.

Time and again during the course of retention best practice reviews, we find that the institution has not appointed a retention “champion.” Numerous individuals from enrollment, student affairs, and academic leadership may be working on various aspects of retention, and there may even be a retention committee or task force, but there is no clear, integrated vision for retention strategies informed by data. In this scenario, because retention is everyone’s responsibility, in effect it becomes no one’s responsibility.

A concerted effort from all parts of the institution is needed for a successful retention program, but because we all know what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, assigning a retention champion is critical to keeping the community focused on the most impactful retention efforts. Typically this champion would also have supervisory responsibility for those areas that are most critical to retention outcomes at the institution. For example, at many institutions, academic success is critical to persistence. Consequently, the retention champion should have supervisory responsibility for all academic support services.

It is also critical that the champion be able to command the respect of both student life professionals and faculty while working toward greater collaboration between these two areas. Often the retention champion reports directly to the president or jointly to the president and provost as a clear signal of the centrality and cross-divisional nature of this work. The champion need not be responsible only for retention (depending on the size of the institution), but if also overseeing other initiatives, must be able to ensure a balanced effort.

Finally, the retention champion must not only provide organizational leadership, but should also be responsible for ensuring retention initiatives are founded in data analysis. Ideally, institutional data—grades, advising, housing, exit interviews, etc.—are combined with external data—National Student Clearinghouse, for example—to “triangulate” solutions. Even when institutions do conduct robust analyses on retention data, this work is episodic rather than sustained, making it difficult to identify trends. And if institutions take the next step to act on the findings, many do not rigorously analyze the impact that these programs have had on persistence to determine whether the investments represent the most effective use of institutional resources. Assigning clear responsibility increases the likelihood that these activities will occur.

The seven-point checklist for a college retention champion

Once your campus has that champion, how can you support him or her? These seven strategies have worked for many campuses, and hopefully will provide some food for thought and discussion about not only what you should be doing to increase persistence, but about the responsibilities of your retention champion.

  1. Implement EARLY warning systems—and by early we mean in the first two weeks of the term.  Remember that the system needs to not only identify at-risk students, but also include a follow-up plan to be implemented for each student identified. Student motivational assessments allow you to be even more proactive in identifying at-risk students, so you can act before students have difficulty. You also should be requiring support services from the get-go.
  2. Offer programs or social activities to link students to faculty in their intended major. In most cases, freshmen are taking general education core courses during their first semester, not courses related to their major. Also, at many institutions, first-year advisors are not faculty in the major. So without planning special welcome activities, students could go through their entire first semester, or even their first year, with no contact with faculty or upperclassmen in their major.
  3. Communicate with parents. Just as it is important to include a parent communication track when recruiting students, it is helpful to keep parents in the loop about campus resources available for students. They can help encourage students to take advantage of those resources.
  4. Ensure that your services are easy to navigate. Minimize overlaps and gaps, particularly in academic support services, and make sure that such services are well advertised. Regarding administrative services, best practice today is to have a “virtual” one-stop-shop through online portals that provide a full array of self-service options. However, not all questions can be addressed through self-service, so ensure that key administrative service offices like registrar, financial aid, student accounts, and academic advising are well integrated and cross trained.
  5. Provide ways for students to connect to other students. This can be especially challenging for institutions with large commuter populations. Using peer advisors in a freshman course that is required of all students (e.g., a freshman writing seminar or “University 101” course) is one option. In addition, encouraging or requiring group work in freshman level classes can also help commuters feel more connected.
  6. Use data to target efforts and evaluate programs. Often institutions invest resources to improve retention based on anecdotes rather than data. For example, some institutions offer additional gift aid to students with high levels of borrowing based on the assumption that they would otherwise lose those students. However, our retention research often finds that the most effective form of financial aid for retention purposes is campus employment, and that creating more student jobs would be a better investment of institutional resources than offering more grant aid. Consequently, we would encourage you to examine retention rates by subpopulation—or even better use predictive modeling—to understand the student characteristics correlated to retention or attrition. Then your retention efforts can be focused more efficiently. Similarly, data can be used to identify courses with high failure rates so that supplemental instruction can be provided for those courses.
  7. Don’t forget about second-year students and beyond. Many institutions have extensive services and programs targeted at incoming students, but almost nothing for students entering their second year at the institution. Sophomores face different challenges than freshmen. They may be facing the need to change a major, having realized they will not be successful in their initial choice. Or they may be having difficulty choosing a major, having entered as undecided. Again, analyzing the factors that impact retention from first-to-second year can help ensure that your intervention efforts are well targeted. (For more on the changing attitudes of second-year students, see Attitudes of Second-Year College Students That Influence Completion.)

How can you create a champion retention program?

While these are strategies that have worked well for campuses, finding your champion and implementing strategies like these can be difficult. If you wonder how you can unify your campus toward purposeful change for student success, email me and I would be happy to set up a time to discuss retention strategies.  I can help you figure out how to transform retention from something many people talk about into a strategic process that guides more of your hard-earned students to graduation.

Information architecture for college websites: Getting student web visitors on the path to enrollment


If you have worked in higher education for any amount of time, you’re familiar with the difficulty of navigating campus—whether it be due to poor wayfinding or less than ideal processes that send students from office to office to complete a simple task like getting registered—what is referred to as “campus runaround”

There’s another common occurrence of runaround that can turn off prospective students from enrolling: campus website runaround, where students zip from page to page trying to find the information they need as they consider your school.

This online runaround is often the result of poor information architecture.  Information architecture is one of the most foundational and many times overlooked tools to steer prospects to your desired end locations. Information architecture may seem tedious and repetitive (especially in higher education were campus sites can be very large), but it plays a crucial role in the perception of a campus website. And for many students and parents, their perception of your website can affect their perception of your institution.

Those perceptions, plus knowing that information architecture is a stepping stone to a multitude of desired outcomes on your website, should highlight its importance.

Look familiar? Sure it does

73% of sites surveyed use some variation on the term ‘Academic’ as the gateway to program information. 68% of sites provide access to admission related information through a navigational item with the word ‘Admission’ in it. Source: 2013 eduStyle Navigation Trends in Higher Ed Report

Moving beyond navigation to strategic information architecture for enrollment

For starters, let’s arrive at an understanding of what information architecture (IA) is. No, it is not simply the navigation or a page design. Information architecture includes the hierarchy of individual page elements; it provides blueprints for the design interface and a path so users can easily achieve their desired outcome. At a very basic level, information architecture informs what elements should be placed on a site and where those elements should reside. Your goal is to balance the needs and outcomes of users and the reflection of your brand, and drive users to where you want them.

So how do you use information architecture to expedite the enrollment process?

For now, let’s dig into two key elements of IA: sitemap and page architecture.

Sitemap for Example University: Creating multiple information paths that satisfy the web visitor

The sitemap shows every page on your site and their relationship to each other. There are a number of factors to keep your site architecture enrollment focused.

  1. Identify the audience and organize for those users (their language, their terms, their needs)
    • Use the right nomenclature
    • Help the students identify if your campus is a good fit
    • Show them outcomes
  2. Guide their movement through the information discovery process (and the pages that will address these information needs in order of need and based on your analytics data)
    • Will they fit? (Example U Experience page)
    • Do you have the program they want? (Academics & Programs)
    • How do they get in? (Admissions)
    • What is campus life like? (Life at Example U)
  3. Support brand identity and differentiators
    • Is your school global? (Is this a brand attribute?)
    • What are you best known for—research, global impact, location, etc.? (Is this how you position you school?)

Wire frame (page schematics): Creating an information path at the page level that engages the reader

Once the visitor arrives on a page, information architecture then guides the wire frame, or the schematic of that page: how information is ordered, what’s called out, headlines, images, calls to action, and other key elements.

Consider this example of a program page. The numbers below highlight key elements.

  1. Relevant page elements:
    • What is your value proposition?
  2. Obvious calls to action for key tasks:
    • Every page should have a goal—always give students the ability to take action.
  3. Supportive tertiary content such as facts, promos, blog posts, profiles, videos, etc. that support the particular page the user is on. For example:
    • Grad students like to learn about their future faculty.
    • Student like to visualize their future self.
  4. Provide content that answers key questions:
    • What will I study?
    • Are there scholarships?
    • Where might I study next or where might a get a job?

Just remember that these decisions are all informed by various forms of research. The best campus websites use research and data to inform information architecture and guide prospective students through a seamless and satisfying experience that makes it easy for them to research your campus and connect with you.

Learn more about the keys to information architecture at our free webinar

In our upcoming Ruffalo Noel Levitz webinar Optimizing College Website Information Architecture for E-Recruitment, we will dig deeper into IA research methods, process, and deliverables to ensure your information architecture get users on the right path and gets you the best outcomes.  Or please email me if you have any questions or would like to have a conversation about structuring your site or web pages.

Flipping college marketing communications with prospective students


To engage prospective college students, you have to promote true interaction, not just an invitation to learn more about your institution.

Colleges spend enormous amounts of money, time, and resources communicating with students through campus marketing. But are all those communications presented in a way that resonates with how today’s students learn and process information?

From the research we have conducted, the answer appears to be no. We have conducted many focus groups with prospective college students, sharing with them examples of college communication. In one instance, we showed them a brochure that had a question on the front—a question that they found thought-provoking and interesting. They looked inside, where the brochure proceeded to describe the experience of being a student at the college and the benefits of attending.

Here’s where we lost them: they wanted to know how they could answer the question that was asked on the front.

This example illustrates the change in how students learn today, and how they want to interact with campuses. After doing extensive research on current pedagogical and instructional strategies, we have discovered that adopting a flipped learning paradigm is the right step—or rather the right “flip”—for your communication strategy.

What is flipped learning and how has it changed how students process information?

There has been a revolution in student learning. Long gone are the days of the lecturing teacher and the passively listening students who were expected to absorb the lessons. Students need to be—and desire to be—engaged in debate and interaction for the content to stick. Enter flipped learning, a teaching concept that prioritizes student engagement.

When adopting flipped learning, teachers create lessons, lectures, and other traditional instructional content for consumption outside of class at the student’s preferred pace. Since direct instruction is delivered outside the traditional classroom, “teachers can then use in-class time to actively engage students in the learning process and provide them with individualized support.” (See this white paper on flipped learning, p.4.)

Research supports the key elements of the flipped model with respect to instructional strategies for engaging students in their learning. It has proven to improve students’ academic performance. (See Prince, 2004; Hake, 1998; Knight & Wood, 2005). Active learning has increased student engagement and critical thinking while improving student attitudes in general (O’Dowd & Aguilar-Roca, 2009). There is also evidence of flipped learning helping to develop students’ higher order thinking skills (Kharat et al, 2015).

How can the flipped learning paradigm apply to college marketing strategy?

As we continue to develop communication to engage a high school audience, we need to embrace the fact that this group needs to discuss, needs to debate, and needs to express its opinion in order to retain and remember information.

At its core, flipped learning provides the opportunity to employ key active learning principles like analysis and evaluation more often. In the classroom, students ask questions, answer questions, and receive valuable feedback in real time. We want to mimic this engagement process and their desire for interaction as much as we can.

Instead of engaging students in this fashion, colleges tend to tell students why they might be the right fit and what their institution has to offer the student. Rarely do students have an opportunity early in the process to say what they are looking for or why they think they might be a good fit for the school. This is the flip in the communication strategy—providing an opening for the student to share back to the college and engage in a truly two-way conversation. We believe that this flip will lead to better engagement and ultimately more of the right students finding the right college.

How can campuses flip communication with prospective college students?

  • Engage higher order thinking skills. Simply asking a prospective student to remember something about a campus will yield less than 7 percent content retention. Asking a student to analyze a message and create a response will yield upwards of 80 percent content retention. (See here and here for discussions of content retention.) That has considerable potential for students retaining key messages about your institution.
  • Give students the opportunity to start a conversation. Campus response forms currently gather basic information about a student. With a flipped communication approach, those forms allow the student to ask questions, say what they want from a college, and start a unique and personalized conversation with the institution.
  • Create digestible, meaningful, and transparent messages that meet expectations. Understanding what someone expects to see when they open an email or letter is the first step to increasing engagement. Once we have their attention, we must deliver information in small doses that is relevant to interests and the process at hand.

So why flip communication with prospective college students?

First, existing communication strategies could be more effective. As the increase in stealth applications shows, students are less and less compelled to respond to college communications. Is it because they are not learning in the way they prefer or allowed to really engage a campus? Are they asking, “What’s in it for me?” and not seeing much reason to respond instead of simply opening a browser and researching an institution on their own terms?

By flipping communication, you can spark engagement and create a deep and meaningful conversation with the student. You can ask students the right questions and give them a chance to develop answers, share other questions, and tell your campus from the beginning what interests them and what they want to know.

Real-time feedback is not just valuable for students, but also for institutions of higher education as well. Imagine if you had a clearer understanding of what a prospective student liked about your institution and what they were unsure of or had questions about. By flipping communication and seeking that engagement, you can start a conversation that pulls the student in and has the potential to be truly customized.

Do you have any questions and ideas about flipping communication or how you can make stronger connections with students through your communication with prospective students? Email me and let me know, or leave a comment below.

Is your retention committee broken? Here are seven ideas that may help


Recently we released the 2015 Student Retention and College Completion Practices Benchmark Report. For those of you who contributed to these ratings, thank you. For those thinking about contributing in the future, we are always open to hearing what you think should be asked in the poll. We try to think of everything but understand there are always ideas you have which aren’t included. Send them our way please.

You will see six highlights on page one of the report which describe the information you told us. These highlights include effective practices for student success and retention management, the influence of performance-based funding, graduation rate trends, and, finally, your assessment of your written retention plans.

Why are so many retention plans inadequate?
How you assessed the quality of your current retention plan is what I’d like to talk about today. These findings appear on page seven of the report:

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In addition, the quality of the retention committee (not shown here) had similarly low ratings, with just 58.2 percent, 43.6 percent, and 31.2 percent of respondents from the three sectors rating their committee’s quality good or excellent.

What might this really mean? Do these low ratings have something to do with another item which was asked on the poll? Respondents whose institutions had a retention committee were asked to choose the best response from the three options below to describe the committee’s role: (You can see the results on pages 16, 24, and 32.)

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The third choice had the highest agreement percentage across all sectors (four-year private, four-year public, and two-year public). The second choice had the next-highest agreement percentage while the first choice had the lowest agreement among respondents across all sectors. It appears that nearly 58 percent of four-year private committees, 49 percent of four-year public committees, and 61 percent of two-year public committees simply meet to share information.

Seven ideas for strengthening your committee
In view of the above findings, here are seven ideas which might help you move more of your committee’s role toward making recommendations rather than just sharing information:

  1. The president should appoint the committee and charge them to make recommendations to leadership even when recommendations impact other functions on campus. (Volunteers sometimes do not make good committee members.) The charge should include elements which support the following:

−     Defining the current state
−     Defining the desired state (set goals)
−     Selecting the strategies
−     Developing an action plan for each strategy
−     Developing methods to measure the effectiveness of each strategy
−     Evaluating progress to modify or institutionalize

  1. The committee members should include opinion-leaders and innovators—people who will find ways to get the job done. They should be doers, not just policy makers. They must be able to create and aid in the implementation of the plan for the key retention areas.
  2. Committee members should be role models (i.e., they have themselves been influenced by sound retention practices).
  3. Committee members must be willing to give the time necessary to effect the changes they envision, as the committee work requires a commitment of time—lots of it initially.
  4. The committee should be large enough to be representative; however, it should be small enough to function effectively.
  5. The committee should represent the campus culture and include a reasonable cross section of the campus: faculty, administration, staff, and possibly students.
  6. Membership should include senior management.

I remember when I first formed a retention committee years ago. It was difficult to get movement because we were all trying to be respectful of our organization’s chart boxes. Sometimes we have to agree that for a total student success effort to be fruitful we are going to have to be able to trust each other in the process. This process is more important than the product.  If the process is broken then the product will be too.

What else keeps a committee from being successful and thriving?
I encourage you to add your ideas for making student success and retention committees unique and of very high quality.  Post them in the comments below or send me an email.  While every situation has unique challenges, we can always learn from each other by sharing our ideas and experiences.

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Shannon Cook