Every college has a mission, and most are pretty boring. Colleges have to figure out how to put that mission into compelling language that aligns with the audience they’re seeking.
It’s a challenge because, at many small colleges, the mission statement was written in institutional language that falls flat.
How can a university communicate it’s mission to prospective students in compelling ways through stories, brand-right events, and appropriate messaging?
Dr. Chato Hazelbaker, Vice President of Enrollment and Marketing at Carroll College. joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss how institutions can do a better job communicating and effectively positioning their “mission.”
Communicate the Value of Mission to Prospective Students
“The mission should really be about the heart,” Chato told us. “It really should be about the emotions around the school.”
Carrol College, where Chato serves, is a smaller, semi-selective Catholic institution, the oldest Catholic institution in Montana. Its religious heritage is fundamental to its identity.
“I have good friends that are at Reed College,” Chato said. “Reed College, philosophically, couldn’t be any different in some ways than the college that I’m at.” But Reed doesn’t try to hide its funkiness. That’s part of their institution’s brand.
“We have a distinctive here that you may choose, you’re going to choose Reed, or you’re going to choose Carroll,” Chato said. “You’re probably not looking at two of those both side-by-side, and neither one of us are going to hide our identity.”
Make sure that students who are attracted to your school know what they’re signed up for.
Also, don’t build the culture on your campus by trying to hide part of your identity. Once you’ve recruited four or five classes where you’ve downplayed a part of your identity, your identity will have changed around you and you can’t even get that back.
Be true to your mission and your brand in all your communications.
Communicate Missional Positioning Effectively
Communicating mission is inherently emotional, and it means thinking about strong anecdotes and stories.
“When I deal with boards and leadership,” Chato said, “this is one of the biggest challenges I have. People always want you to use numbers.”
For example, “99% of our students receive financial aid.” But that number is confusing in the marketplace. In this case, are you saying that you’re so expensive that most of your students need financial aid, or are you selling the fact that every kid’s going to get financial aid? What does that 99% actually mean?
“If part of your mission is to be affordable,” Chato said, ” stories about how students actually afforded your college, that’s what’s important. And actually, that one compelling story often makes a better case than all of the numbers and charts and graphs in the world.”
We identify with people and their stories, not with percentages.
How a Strong Mission Impacts Strategic Decision Making
“One of the brand differentiators for me at Starbucks is that it smells like coffee, right?” Chato said.
We don’t walk into Starbucks expecting scented candles. They don’t match the brand, and Starbucks would never want to hide their distinctive coffee smell. The core of their brand, after all, is the actual cup of coffee.
At higher education institutions, we too need to think about how the decisions we’re making either build or detract from our brands.
“At a previous institution,” Chato said, “we were really focused on one-on-one attention and that was part of this sense of community was part of our mission statement. But what we did, is we decided over one summer that we were going to go to visit programs that were all really, really big visit programs.”
Rather than doing visit programs for small groups of students over several weekends during the summer, this college went to a couple of visit programs that had three or four hundred prospective students at each one of them.
“That’s brand-wrong,” Chato said. “What we were selling these students on was this one-on-one, close, intimate experience, but their first major visit to campus was this big, boisterous, sort of party kind of atmosphere. That’s just not who we were.”
Prospective students got turned off because it wasn’t what they expected. Always ask: “Does this decision that we’re making positively or negatively affect the brand?”
How Colleges and Universities Can Better Communicate Their Mission
Every admissions officer and every person in the marketing office needs to do two things. One, they must be able to state the college’s mission in their own words and in a way that’s authentic to them. Two, they should have one good story about the mission. When they think about the mission, is there one example, one student, one professor, or project whose story they could tell?
“And that’s, I think, the place that I would start in really trying to get mission focused,” Chato concluded.
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