Creating a College / Community Synthesis

America is obsessed with sports. And nowhere is this more evident than with high school sports. Very often 16 and 17 year olds are the masthead of a community’s sense of pride. How goes the local high school football or basketball team … so goes the collective psyche of the community. This is especially the case in “Small Town U.S.A.” These students are revered not unlike that of the gladiators in ancient Rome. Stories of their exploits hold high priority in the morning newspaper and on the 10:00 pm local newscast. In some areas of the country, Texas for example, high school football games can draw over 20,000 rapid fans. In fact the successful television series, Friday Night Lights, was based entirely on this phenomenon.

An unfortunate circumstance of this is that other students, their peers, are for the most part looked at with either irrelevance or outright distrust. “They don’t have any experience, so how can they know anything. And since they don’t know anything, how can’t we trust them. They’re all lazy, spending all their time staring at their phones or playing video games.”

I’m not trying to demonize high school sports and their student participants though. On the contrary, I want to use them as a template for a more inclusive view of how a community should view all its young people. And hopefully we can use this evolved view as the foundation for building sustainable communities of future.

The recruiting efforts of most colleges and universities in America mirror that of the 10:00 pm local news. Their attention is focused on high school sports and specifically on these sports’ top performers. Colleges gear up (literally and figuratively), falling all over each other, to sign four and five-star athletic recruits. The four and five-star recruits in leadership and science, well … they don’t have anyone gearing up for them, waiting in any lines anywhere.

Colleges wait for the rest of the non-athlete prospective students to come to them. They look at grades, or standardized test scores and maybe a recommendation (which are useless) to fill out their student body. But seldom do anything proactive. Why aren’t the student leaders in a high school recruited like athletes. These are our future leaders – the ones who will in turn will be influential alumni and donors. If you don’t recruit them – they’ll go somewhere else and become influential alumni and donors there.

Community 3.0 and Student Civic Engagement

The purpose of my community empowerment project, Community 3.0, is to connect small businesses to their community through volunteer projects. These connections will organize to solve its community’s problems directly by through Front Porch civic gathering hub set up at the businesses. The Front Porch empowers us to reclaim the priorities of our neighborhoods and communities – and do something about them through hands-on volunteer projects. It enables us to organize and take action directly, not wait on the sidelines while traditional institutions and government may or may not act (most likely the latter).

Under this participatory societal model, each business or Front Porch will sponsor Solutions as part of their involvement in the Community 3.0 network. They are designed to help their community pick up the slack and mend the societal safety net. We all know we need as much help as we can get considering our current political situation. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring program. And by being a customer of a merchant on the Community 3.0 network, whether young or old, you can get involved with whatever Solution fits your strengths and your desires. 

High school and college student involvement in volunteer activities is integral to anchoring them to the civic functions of their hometowns. For them to stay, they must look at their hometowns as more than just placeholders for a future somewhere else. For a community to truly grow and create a sustainable future, it needs its young to not only stay in town – but become educated and put that knowledge they obtain in college to work helping design their community’s future.

 The collaborative goal of all schools, high school and college – should be to nurture the local communities by replenishing them with educated talent, specifically talent who has a participatory vested interest in them.

Repositioning the Role of Higher Education

How many colleges consider themselves truly part of the community. Or more so – how many consider their role preparing their students to direct the future of the communities they’ve been part of for the last four years while in school? And for that matter, how many care about creating leaders for the communities where these students come from? I’m guessing most don’t care where their students end up – geographically or professionally. It’s a sad state of American higher education … but I’m afraid it’s all too much the case.

It doesn’t have to be like this though. 

Community colleges, the outcast of the higher education system, create a lot more of a community connection than their four-year counterparts. Four-year colleges could learn a lot from them. They don’t have offer the same curriculum, and don’t even have to follow the current needs of the community (though that wouldn’t hurt). They just have to be cognizant of where they are. Why can’t the role of a four-year college or university be to mold future leaders that will create the future of nearby cities and towns. These colleges could be a major influence in these communities direction … rather than just being passive revenue generators and focal points for sports jingoism.

While this would involve a rework of the college’s mission statement – it may be less than you think. As much as anything, it’s making a conscious effort to care where the students end up after graduation. The student transition from college to the real world is haphazard at best – and more often terrifying. Far too many don’t even make use of the degrees they spent four years of their lives and thousands of dollars to obtain. The hope is they will be prepared brave the world – mentally, emotionally and financially. And for most, they’ll have to do alone (if they don’t move back home with their parents). Some manage … and some don’t, mired in school loan debt, prohibiting any chance of creatively finding themselves in the first real unstructured life experience they’ve ever had.

For some reason higher education has chosen to emulate the medical industry (the worst aspects of it). Since follow-up isn’t a paid for service – it seldom happens. In this world of short-term thinking and transition-be-damned, the idea of striving for log-term positive outcomes, even only a year down the road – isn’t even part of the student/college algorithm. Too often the only post-graduation communication an alma mater has with its alumni is a donation request. And some of these requests come even before graduation. Imagine how much more effective it would be reaching out first, no-strings-attached, with an offer of help … especially at one the most difficult times in the life of an alumnus.  Helping them make connection with older alumni who can act as mentors could initiate a life-altering experience … for all of them.

The reason I’m obsessing on this isn’t to just bash the state of high education in America – but to present the academic side with a viable marketing and recruiting solution by emulating the sports analogy I mentioned above.

If we decide to tackle this new mission (and “we” since I want to join you on this journey), we must recognize that the repositioned role of the college is community building by providing and training the talent that will be responsible for its future. The curriculum and education processes a college provides must be a means to an end – not the end in itself. The college is not a destination or end point … but rather a conduit or vehicle for something much larger and more significant – geographically and chronologically.

Central to a higher education focus built around the community is obliquity. Obliquity is defined as, “solutions to complex problems are often best found through indirect means.” While at the helm of General Electric, the iconic CEO Jack Welsh was once asked a question by a reporter what his plans were to increase profit and revenue above its already record-setting quarter. His response took the report aback, “I don’t concern myself with profits or even revenue. My focus at GE is to make sure we are the most innovative company in each of the sectors we operate in.” And for many of them, they were – resulting in these record profits and revenue. This indirect approach to corporate financial management proved highly successful for Welsh and General Electric.

Central to our higher education indirect approach are two tenets:

  • Create future leaders from the raw hometown talent their communities refer to us
  • Assist these same communities by returning educated and well-rounded graduates to lead them in mapping and implementing their civic and economic futures.

The achieve this there would have to be a modest rework of the curriculum. This would take time, and that’s fine. Big ships, especially higher education ones, take a while to turn. But that doesn’t mean milestones can’t be achieved in the short-term and these accomplishments should have community impact. Below are the five stages of transition essential to a college commitment to a student/community focus. While personally I would love to see most colleges commit to the full five … I’m a realist and have built out the program so there can be success with only partial commitment.

Acceptance: The first progression is a simple acknowledgement that college has a responsibility not just to its students, but also to the communities they come from. This interconnected view of the individual (student or other) can often permeate indirectly through the normal actions both of those in the community and the school.

Transition program support: A step up from acceptance is acting on it. This 2nd level recognizes that community programs that were started in the students’ hometowns have merit and should be continued even while being away from home. Ways to support this is nurturing the continuance of communication between the mentoring parties at home (even if home is in the same city as the college) and the student. Dialogue during college counseling should also include discussion of the students plans after college graduation and how they fit into any current work being done with parties “back home.”

Transition programs augmentation: The 3rd level takes the support a step further by integrating issues with Solutions to these issues into existing classwork. College resources should be opened up to non-credited community project work. Colleges can even sponsor entrepreneurial or cause-based contests to further develop opportunities focused on community engagement.

Authorized independent credit: Level 4 expounds upon “Transition program augmentation” by authorizing independent credit for community-based research and project development, both in the school’s community and back home. The goal here is to spur dedicated “credit-compensated” projects that can take hold when the student returns home or even stays in the town the college is located. This is the “taking root” level – connecting the student to the community aside from just attending classes. It’s also crucial to have professorial and staff support and participation during this level.

Community-oriented class creation: Level 5 is the actual creation of a community-oriented curriculum. Classes could focus on disciplines that revolve around developing community-based sustainability efforts, placemaking, civic planning, entrepreneurship, nonprofit organization or any other related study. A further development of this commitment level is structuring a concentration or even major that would feed into a similar set of goals.

While the focus of this piece has been on recruiting new students, that’s only one of the benefits. The college that has refocused its mission around the community will more likely retain the students they attract. Once a student enrolls in the college, they are in fact joining the community. And the stronger that bond is, and not just with the school, the higher the likelihood they will stay in school. A simple 10% gain in retention is the same as attracting 10% more students. And anyone with any business and marketing experience knows – it’s a lot easier to keep customers (and yes students are customers) than to get new ones. Studies often site statistics that say it’s seven times more expensive (money and resources) to get new customers than hang on to the old ones.

And if attracting new students and retaining current ones isn’t enough, a student/community focus can produce other financial benefits also. Probably the strongest indicator of alumni financial support is the depth of the integration a college has with its community. Now some support can come from out-of-town, the bulk of the donations will come from alumni who still lives in, or have moved back to their college hometown. Get involved with the community and the community will get involved with you.

Guerrilla Marketing and Building the Referral Network

Now once the commitment is made, however deep that commitment level may be, it’s time to structure marketing and recruitment efforts accordingly. The program and the communication around it, should revolve around two main questions:

  • How will your college help the students
  • How will it help the community (either the college hometown and/or the student’s)

In a Perfect World you want a situation where a community’s leaders pitch together to persuade and support a top student to go to your college with the goal to get them back to their town after graduation. There has to be strong commitment from the community here. It’s something that your college should take an active role in establishing. This is the holy grail.

Target communities of a population 2000 or more. Don’t get hung up on state boundaries. This is especially important if your area has a regional attraction, such as ski resort or national park. If a community has multiple high schools, target each as a separate community. These will be your adjunct communities – communities where the college has a vested interest in their success since it will be molding their future talent. Ideally the town and community leaders have identified as the students they want to become educated and return to insure their town’s prosperity. Don’t take this responsibility lightly. This is the thing that’s “much larger” I mentioned above.

The stronger the contacts you have in the communities you’re recruiting from (adjunct communities), the stronger the talent who will be referred to you. Not only will top talent be uncovered (often ones that haven’t excelled in traditional ways), the higher the likelihood your school will have in landing these future stars.

Your prime referral sources of course would be alumni, but that might not always be possible. Other excellent sources are civic leaders, not just politicians, but business owners that have long-standing ties to the community and a vested interest in making sure the community prospers. School contacts are also good sources, but don’t fall into the trap of only enlisting the help of administrators. They often only focus on high-achievers from a traditional academic sense. Outliers with great potential might be over-looked. Instead, ferret out a teacher who has shown an ability to excel and inspire in unconventional ways (i.e a science teachers who creates community-driven experiments).

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of building strong community networks in these small towns. Very often their students are overlooked, except for athletics. And even then, only in a very limited sense. When asked to help – most people will, especially if they see the benefit to them and their town. It’s not far-fetched to imagine a town setting up a dedicated scholarship fund if they know the student recipient will return after graduation. In fact that’s something that can even be suggested.

Personally, even though I was student body president of a large high school, had a 3.9 GPA and earned multiple athletic letters (wasn’t a star though) – no one came knocking at my door. If a college would have shown they wanted me … I probably would have gone there. Don’t underestimate the power of “feeling wanted” to a high school student. You combine that recognition and a referral from a city leader (probably one the student looked up to) as well as the college reaching out … you have a strong chance of getting whoever you want to enroll. This is the greatest recruiting tool a college has.

Making a True Impact

All this isn’t going to be easy and it’s labor incentive. It’s not really expensive, but there needs to be people doing the ground work. No magic television ad campaign is going to be a substitute the grassroots effort I describe above. But effort will not only work, it’ll sustain itself once the network is put together. Far-flung communities will keep feeding the pipeline and family legacies at your school will be established.

Ostrich

But even more than developing a successful network and recruiting more students, your school will make a true impact. And you’ll be able to see first hand how it’s working. The college will not be the end point – but the vehicle. Rather than just blindly continuing on, doing things the same way and teaching the same material, you’ll be able to get direct feedback and adjust accordingly. We live in an incredible world where change is constant and feedback is mandatory to survive, let alone excel. Too many colleges and universities are seeing declines in enrollment and retention rates. Most have no idea why or who to blame it on. Demographic shifts are an all too common scapegoat, correct or not. Few recognize the problem is them and their inability to stay relevant – especially after a student’s graduation. They want to keep their heads in the sand and continue to think their responsibility ends with the graduate walking off the commencement stage.

The question is whether you’re ready to evolve … of feel comfortable being an ostrich. 

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