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Why marketing the completion agenda matters

Jennifer Boehmer

​When it comes to architectural features, community colleges may not be known for Corinthian pillars or historic bell towers—but we are quite known for our open doors.

The idea of the “open door” is synonymous with community college marketing—it is fundamental to our 1960s civil rights roots, when so many two-year colleges were born under the shared belief that everyone should have equal access to higher education. It is that special brand of “access for all” that continues to set community colleges apart today.

By positioning community colleges as places where everyone gets a fair chance, we market our role as critical to the economic success of our states and regions, and as an important fixture in the nation’s higher education landscape. We are proud of our open doors. It’s even why many of us choose to work at community colleges specifically.

That may be exactly why building a communication strategy around the Completion Agenda is so hard. And yet, it is absolutely critical. Certainly, addressing a nearly 70 percent average dropout rate for two-year colleges is no small task—and it is taking the investment of academic and policy leaders at every level to look at the way community colleges do business to turn this statistic around.

This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Not doing so means millions of students each year who become discouraged and miss the important step of earning a credential that leads to living-wage jobs. And yet, focusing on finishing can feel like shutting the open door, especially when “access” becomes more narrowly defined as an important step in ensuring students are prepared to face college.

Communicators can help. Like a bond measure, major gifts campaign or any communication initiative in which creating a cultural sea change from the inside out is needed, communicators can shine a light on the issue as a shared community dilemma and create needed momentum.

So how do we approach the communication shift? The immediate future of supporting completion hinges on changing the way we think and talk about it. Here are five communication lenses to consider:

Reframe access to include success. Communicators can help influence the culture of their community colleges by augmenting the way we talk about our missions. We don’t have to give up our roots; we have to grow them.

“First, realize that including completion messages in your marketing is not in conflict with the idea of access,” says Pam Cox Otto, president of Interact Communications, a marketing firm specializing in two-year colleges. “Instead, it is the absolute logical continuation of it…You wouldn’t invite someone to a party for the first 15 minutes and tell them to leave before the concert starts.”

Communicators can help market the idea of college as a continuum, from starting to finishing.

Create symbology that makes the need easy to understand. The Completion Agenda may be easy to grasp as a construct, but the steps your college is taking to address it are likely more complex. By creating a graphic identity and set of key messages, your communicators can create compelling shorthand to keep staff and faculty in the loop.

At Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon, we’ve begun to circulate the “Panther Path”—a diagram that outlines five stages toward completion in a step-by-step pathway. The diagram has a distinctive look and is replicated with sets of key messages on our website and in print material, and it is used as a tool for internal presentations. Portions of it are highlighted when new information becomes available about where we are in the effort, which makes it easy to understand.

Not inconsequentially, the diagram is named after our mascot. While incorporating the name of your mascot may not seem relevant, consider that the best communication packs emotion in every phrase. For PCC, the “Panther Path” immediately conveys the idea that this is a movement for everyone associated with the college, and it is also a point of pride. Likewise, you can invest in thinking about your own completion communication in the context of your college’s symbolic touchstones.

Find new ways to tell your success stories. One benefit of the Completion Agenda is that it gives you the opportunity to showcase alums who have gone on to make a significant impact in the community as a result of the education they received at your college. There is nothing that says “success” quite so strongly as the story of someone who did not think they could finish college but did, and flourished as a result.

Important to the strategy here is not just success for the individual student but conveying successes that result in betterment of the entire community, too. Fortunately, our colleges are full of these stories—nurses, teachers, firefighters, first responders and more are on the front lines of fostering healthy communities. By raising up these profiles in image advertising, media and web stories—both internally and externally—communicators can help create a culture that celebrates finishing, and why it matters to everybody. Invite your public to participate in sharing as part of the effort.

Involve your students. Hand-in-hand with the range of programs colleges put in place to address completion barriers comes the need for motivation and commitment, aided by persuasive communication. For example, one way to raise the importance of graduating is to spur a student-pride movement. Several colleges have issued an “Agree to Degree” challenge for their student bodies—inspirational marketing campaigns that ask students to make a public commitment and sign a pledge to graduate.

Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois has created a range of marketing materials that highlight just how transferrable this message is: from stories, to videos, to posters, to special events. They have chosen to make their “Agree to Degree” program a spear-point of student communication. The result is a highly visible conversation starter among students and administrators, as well as a mark of pride for students.

Enlist community support. For a culture of completion to really take off, it must span all stakeholders, both internally and externally. The Completion Agenda is everyone’s concern—from the student who will need the credential to compete for a good job; to the college that will need to compete for more robust funding; to the community at large, whose economic prosperity depends on a more educated populace.

Phi Theta Kappa (PTK), the community college honors society, has acknowledged this shared ownership by promoting “Completion Champions,” part of their comprehensive Community College Completion Corp campaign. To be a Completion Champion, faculty and staff pledge their support to help students succeed and graduate, and PTK offers a range of downloadable tools to help colleges create local signing events to raise the visibility of making that commitment.

Likewise, the PTK Foundation extends the champions idea by asking community members to share their stories about champions who’ve made a difference in their own educational journeys—powerful persuasion for understanding why colleges need ongoing community support.

One of the most innovative, stirring campaigns I’ve seen in service to the Completion Agenda comes from Mississippi Community and Junior Colleges. Their ad series features diverse adults reflecting on why “finishing” is important, and whose stories exhibit the campaign’s guiding messages—“strength, courage and will.” As a result, more than 16 percent of stop-outs have returned to college to finish their degrees.

“You took a break from school to take care of your family,” reads one ad featuring a mother holding her child. “Come back for exactly the same reason.”

It’s more than ad copy. It’s why marketing the Completion Agenda matters.

Boehmer is marketing manager at Portland Community College (Oregon) and director for NCMPR District 7.