This fall, my twin sons are headed to college. Make no mistake — this is not my first trip to that rodeo. Our older son started his journey six years earlier.
While my husband handled all the college tours, Mom was the designated supporter for completing college applications and, upon acceptance, attending the orientation sessions. Now, after attending three different colleges, I’m impressed with some of the strategies colleges are deploying to make sure they’ve got your kid (and you!) hooked for a four to six year relationship. Some of these institutions have mastered both acquisition and retention efforts and I wouldn’t be surprised if they could teach a course on the subject.
Considering only 55 percent of undergraduates finished their degree within six years, and the average four-year college cost is between $23,410 and $46,272, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars at risk. So, like any good business, colleges have started figure out that there needs to be some really smart marketing strategies at play if they’re going to maximize their student investment, and it involves both the student and a key group of influencers — their parents.
One state college orientation was by and far the most memorable of the three, as I left their event feeling like I was the one going to college (clearly, they had me hooked). So take a few tips and apply them to your own marketing efforts.
- Relationship Nurturing 101: The Welcome Letter
You’d think we’d voluntarily joined a membership club with the surprise and delight that exudes from the acceptance letter. “Congratulations,” it chirps, “and welcome to the Class of 2019!” already planting the seed that we’re in it for the next four years. The letter goes on to remind you of all the fabulous things you’ll be encountering on your journey and keeps reiterating that we’ve made a fabulous choice. (Remember, my son hadn’t yet “accepted” their offer, so the sales pitch needed to be a powerful reminder of all the reasons he applied in the first place.) The “handwritten” notation by the Dean of his school of study, casually jotted at the bottom of the letter, added to the personal experience and feeling that they really, really wanted my son to attend.
- Reaffirming the Purchase Decision: The Acceptance Confirmation Letter
Once my son had confirmed his attendance, the next communication came via email — and you’d think he had won the lottery. It was lighthearted in tone, oozing with details about what he’ll experience in his campus life, and setting the stage for the mandatory orientation. But instead of feeling like a punishment, it was sold as an exciting way to meet new friends, learn to navigate the campus before classes actually start, and discover “insider’s” tips on how to make the most of your next four years.
- Onboarding: The Orientation
A two-day effort, this event was carefully calculated as a way to weed apart the parent/child relationship and start the separate, but equally important, sales pitch(es). Parents registered at a separate table, while students were redirected to a location beyond my line of sight. Parents were directed to a large room where a combination of student leaders and selected faculty sat on the stage. Each one was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and truly made me feel welcome. After brief opening remarks, they asked, through a show of hands, which states families were from – and then encouraged us to introduce ourselves to the people seated around us. Of course that sparked immediate conversation, helped everyone to relax and start to feel an intimate part of a special community. To keep your attention, they broke parents into different groups and moved us into different and smaller rooms for more Q&A-style sessions so that by lunch time, you weren’t worried about finding a buddy to share a lunch table. At cocktail hour, they walked us over to their new state-of-the-art music center where a group of students performed followed by a casual wine and cheese event. The faculty moved easily from table to table distributing a brochure featuring their fall line-up of musicians and it definitely made me want to return regularly to see other performers (yes, I was shifting from “like” to “evangelism” rather rapidly at this point, but they could also see the ROI in that cross-sell effort).It seems my son was getting the same welcoming treatment, only from a different angle. Lots of pretty girls and attractive boys created an upbeat environment. Broken into smaller groups, he was immersed into campus life. They played games, met professors, learned about course options, selected his fall semester classes, played ultimate Frisbee, participated in a water fight, and stayed up late watching horror flicks on the grassy knoll before retiring to his temporary dorm quarters exhausted.
- Sealing the Deal: The Closing Rally
At the end of a second day that involved a tour of the athletic center (Olympic-sized pool, five gyms, squash courts, workout rooms, yoga studio – heck, sign me up!), library (where all the cool kids study), and lake-side luncheon (can you say BBQ?), we were ushered into another venue for the closing ceremonies, and that’s the first time I laid eyes on my son since the morning we arrived. He was sitting with his newfound friends wearing a team t-shirt with a big grin on his face. Within minutes of being seated, group by group stood up and shouted their newly created team cheers, razzed other groups, and generally laughed their way to the final gong. Music filled the air as we danced our way out of the venue and made our way back to our cars for the trip home, barely containing our excitement about the start of his new life away from home.
- Performance Improvement: The Survey
About 2 days after we returned, we were both sent an online survey about our onboarding experience. Needless to say it got very high marks from this mother and son.
All-in-all, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with any college ever. Everyone was welcoming, friendly, helpful and truly invested in ensuring both me and my son were excited about what the future would hold for both of us. My other two college orientation experiences lacked the genuine enthusiasm, excitement and innovativeness of experience and felt more like their role was to make sure that I realized I needed to let go — but not before understanding that I would not have access to grades unless granted permission by my child.
Many colleges could take a lesson from this state school because I’m sure their retention rate thru graduation is better than the norm. They figured out that it isn’t just the student who needs to fall in love with the school, but the parent, too. After all, my son won’t be writing those tuition checks all by himself.