It’s that time of year when those of us charged with the task of recruiting the next group of keen undergraduates are honing our communications to students and thinking about how we can inspire the right students to choose our undoubtedly fabulous programs over the plethora of other choices they face. Having been part of this effort for most of the last decade, there is one central tension that I’ve come to see in the process: the tension between the desire to communicate what we are offering simply and cleanly to students and the complex nature of the role that universities fill.
Universities are inherently complex. As social institutions that study the natural and social world, the complexity of that world is reflected in everything we do and especially in the programs choices we offer our students. Set this against the current accepted truth in marketing to our main audience: students in their teens are not interested in reading long-form content. The end result is that universities put out promotional pieces that say precious little about what students will actually learn. In print, a four-year major program might get 40 words. On the web, there’s room for a longer explanation, but detailed information is often relegated to a format designed to guide existing majors through course selections. All too often it is a list of courses to take.
The challenge we face is to dare to stray from “best practice” by rejecting the simple but seductive solution presented in the drive to simplify. We need to take the complex path and answer the question: “How do we best help students navigate complexity?”
Academic departments put hundreds of faculty hours into curriculum overhauls but often don’t finish the job by distilling that new curriculum into a clear and reasonably detailed description of what students will learn and why this is important. Curriculum revision should not only involve rewriting course descriptions and syllabi, it should also revise how we communicate the new programs to students.
Once descriptions have been written well for a prospective student audience, the next challenge to tackle is dissemination. This time, the challenge is that university websites are vast and complex. Students find it very difficult to find the information they need. To help solve this, academic departments and recruitment communicators need to look beyond the part of their website over which they have exclusive control and examine how students are looking for program information. Does a Google search for ‘MyU Admissions’ lead a prospective student to the same information as ‘MyU Science’ or ‘MyU Computer Science’?
Once the detailed program information is easier to find, we need to make it more readable. Students will spend four or more years pursuing a program, and they will spend at least $25,000 paying for it. How are we helping them to understand what they are getting?
For example, could we follow Amazon’s lead and point students to related programs at our institution that may also be of interest? Could we take a page from automobile manufacturers and make it easy to compare various programs? Have we tried to convey the passion for the subject that has led the professors who teach it devote their lives to its study? Young people will read a lot of content, but only if that content is compelling.
All this is easier said than done. There are many excellent and compelling recruitment materials across the country, but the resources to achieve quality and depth of information often don’t exist. Also, in web communications development, there is rarely a truly firm deadline. The web doesn’t line up outside your office; other priorities often seem to take precedence.
But some institutions have started down this road. See the Viewbook of the Harvey Mudd College in the U.S. for compelling writing about a variety of complex studies. Read, for example, about professor Ran Libeskind-Hadas to see how research in computer science can be written about in a way that that conveys both complexity and passion.
The University of Idaho has made an effort to display its program information in a way that helps the web user, rather than being a slave to how the organization is structured.
I’d like to invite my colleagues nationally to help bring about this refinement in how we talk to students. We are increasingly called upon as institutions to prove our worth to students and society. Part of our response to this call ought to be a clearly and compellingly articulated case for why a student ought to study in our programs, faculties and universities and why their futures depend on being able to navigate complexity.
Stephen Price is student affairs coordinator with the faculty of applied sciences at Simon Fraser University.