We have all seen the stickers, t-shirts and coffee mugs. Every institution has its own variation of the popular tagline “(insert mascot name here) for life.” But what if the saying “for life” was more than a cheer in an arena or camaraderie at airports when you spot the same logo you are wearing? What if the relationship was truly a lifelong learning experience?
Amid discussions of enrollment challenges, economic downturns and the perceived “value” of higher education, the focus on traditional residential students remains prominent, while the idea of higher education as a place of learning for all audiences continues to be a back-burner strategy for many colleges and universities across the country.
Think about a brand that you admire, whether it is clothing, cooking, travel, etc. Your first interaction with that brand was most likely through the traditional “funnel”: awareness through conversion. However, a brand that builds affinity turns that conversion into a linear relationship, staying top-of-mind and ready for one conversion after another.
In today’s employment and educational landscape, institutions with those linear relationships are at the forefront of what higher education needs to look like in the 21st century.
A recent study found that 29% of individuals have switched careers entirely since embarking on their first post-college job. Similarly, research indicates that only 21% use all of their education in their current job, 53% use half or less and 15% use none.
With desires for salary increases or career changes, institutions must proactively offer relevant degrees and certificates to assist these audiences in achieving their readjusted personal and professional goals. And where will these audiences look first for this transformative journey? The institution that promises to stand with them “for life.”
While understanding it takes the power to move mountains to make systemic changes at a college or university, there are ways to ensure that a lifelong learning approach is actually valid.
Encourage collaboration across departments: admissions, student success and alumni
Multiple CRMs. Numerous communication strategies. Broken handoffs. The path from prospective student to alumni is littered with poor data, varying messages and minimal cohesion.
To have a deeper, data-driven understanding of what the entirety of your audience needs, departments across an institution that holds the most important student data must communicate and collaborate. Even the smallest coordinated efforts to gain more of a 360-degree view of the student experience, from recruitment to retention through graduation and lifelong learning, will create the linear relationship that is needed.
Maximize lifelong learning opportunities with academic program demand research
Conducting program demand research, specifically for audiences that are looking for a career or life change, helps align your offerings with what your most loyal audiences need from your institution. Coupling alumni data to find where large pockets of your graduates live and what they need for ongoing support (certificates, in-demand careers, labor market changes, etc.) is a great place to start.
Simply put, if you do not know what is in need, how can you offer it effectively?
Treat alumni as more than a conversion
Building lifelong relationships means making more deposits than withdrawals when investing in the longevity of your most enthusiastic alumni.
The majority of college graduates have had the same uncomfortable phone call within the first year of commencement: “How would you like to donate back to your alma mater?” Despite the burden of student loans and debt, some institutions place the experiential value above the monetary cost of education, justifying their solicitations.
Creating communication and marketing strategies that include career advice, resources and relevant content helps to build trust and breaks the mold of institutions constantly asking for something. Positioning the institution as a thought leader, an innovator and a source of information makes it much easier for an alumnus to consider their alma mater for lifelong learning instead of being soured by a poor post-commencement experience.
Institutions have thousands of alumni across the world proudly displaying diplomas on walls, bumper stickers on cars and flags in front yards. Recognizing that these individuals are not mere one-time customers, but ongoing beneficiaries in need of support long after the first graduation holds the potential to transform both the higher education and workforce landscapes.