It started after leaders at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) heard from an applicant who received a letter from the Michigan college.
“Have I been accepted?” she asked. “I can’t tell.”
That prompted the GRCC communications department to peek at the letters going out to new students. They were a little on the bland and bureaucratic side, including instructions about how to set up a campus email and Blackboard account.
First impressions are important, and community colleges already wrestle with long-outdated misperceptions. The communications department worked with campus partners to elevate the college’s acceptance experience. Now, all students accepted to GRCC receive a bright, colorful and celebratory package commending them for taking this next step in their educational journey. The goal is to have students be loud and proud.
“We wanted to build excitement,” said Malinda Powers, GRCC’s associate communications director. “Students should be just as proud to come to GRCC as they would be to attend a four-year university. We want to celebrate them, and we want to give them something to celebrate with.”
Lead designer Alissa Raddatz created a vibrant, new package reflecting the college’s current branding. The experience starts with an envelope bearing a color photo of three students and the words, “Welcome to your Future” on front and “Show us how bright your future will be!” on the back, with a graphic of a GRCC pennant.
The first thing students pull out is a letter from GRCC’s president, recently updated as the college is in a leadership transition. The letter features a full-color portrait of interim President Juan R. Olivarez, a former GRCC president stepping in again during the presidential search. He is well-known in the community, and the campus’s student plaza is named in his honor. The letter is intended to be a personalized, welcoming message from someone students may know and respect.
Next is a flier with information about student identification numbers and setting up campus accounts. It is colorful, with the student’s name in big, bright yellow letters. The steps are described simply – no tech jargon – and the back reads, “We are here to help!” with contact information in case students need some assistance.
Then students pull out a tri-fold, die-cut poster printed on heavy stock. One side has the GRCC Raiders athletic logo, and the other side shares how students can win a T-shirt if they post a photo on social media of them posing with the poster. The package also includes a Raiders laptop sticker and a felt magnet shaped like a pennant with college logo.
“We want students to feel appreciated and that they are part of something special,” Powers said. “We’re elevating our brand and the student experience. We hope a new student will place the poster on their wall, put the magnet on their fridge and post their acceptance on social media.”
Projecting quality and more
The packages go to everyone who is accepted. GRCC, like other community colleges, embraces its mission as an open-access institution and accepts a great many people – from recent high school grads to people starting or restarting an education after years or decades away. The packages also go to students who are choosing between GRCC and four-year schools.
“We need to make an impression and help a student or potential student realize a GRCC education is just as good and, in many cases, better,” Powers said. “Our acceptance letters need to be just as celebratory – if not more – than what they are getting from other colleges.”
Reimagining GRCC’s welcome experience definitely required additional resources, collaboration and financial support from multiple departments and a new process with the campus print shop, including a more automated system.
Lori Cook, GRCC’s associate dean of access and first-year success, was a key partner in the project. Cook is focused on improving the student experience, and the packets coincided with a larger effort to streamline and improve the admissions and enrollment processes. To make the project work, Cook’s team overhauled its process for sending out the letters, given all the new elements. She also lobbied administrators to create a new budget line to ensure the project is ongoing.
The end result is a package that stands out from the moment it is pulled out of the mailbox and rivals what potential students will receive from other colleges. It’s all about reinforcing the message that Grand Rapids Community College is thrilled to have them and will go the extra mile to help them succeed.
Dave Murray is the communications director at Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan. He is also the Michigan state representative for NCMPR’s District 3.