When Goucher College President José Bowen saw two of his older buildings on campus had to be updated to meet the needs of both current and incoming students, he decided to involve students in the process to gain more insight into their needs. Built more than half a century ago, Bowen realized the sites didn't contain proper electrical outlets, air conditioning, or public lounges, among other amenities students generally expect when stepping onto campus.
It occurred to him that student satisfaction — especially in an age where potential enrollees extensively read reviews online —would impact enrollment, Bowen decided that he wasn't just going to rebuild the buildings. Instead, he decided to move them and update their features with budget, sustainability, retention, recruitment, and student outreach efforts in mind.
"Retention is the single-most important proxy for quality, because if [students] don't graduate — it's not worth it," said Bowen. "I think most people recognize that most of the rankings use retention as an indicator of quality, so retention is recruitment in a lot of ways. So the two are always considered together."
"We do consider new buildings a part of recruitment, but we designed our new buildings looking at retention, which is why we sought student input. We knew that if it was successful, students would want to live there," he explained.
Branding also plays a role in whether students are attracted to a postsecondary institution — as high school seniors more often than not tend to get information on where to go from their parents, college counselors, and online, rather than having the resources to visit every campus themselves. But the reputation an institution holds in the minds of current students and alumni may have a greater impact on what type of information gets to potential applicants.
For example, in a 2016 survey of more than 600 full-time and part-time undergraduate students and university graduates, the authors found student satisfaction correlated strongly with a strong sense of attachment to the institution, and while brand image could influence satisfaction – the study found that it does not necessarily relate to commitment.
In other words, even if a university has a positive historical brand, individual students' perceptions, as well as how those are communicated to prospective students, depends on what the administration is doing to build trust — which is shown to be statistically significant in having a positive effecting on both satisfaction and commitment to a university.
"Of course, you can have the best product ever, but [if] you don't have a marketing budget, you won't sell any [units]," said Bowen. "On the other hand, if you spend all your money on marketing and your phone doesn't work, nobody cares — so you have to do something different from other colleges, but ultimately people want to know whether current students are happy there."
"Remember, in the age of social media, authenticity is everything. It's no longer about slogans, nobody cares what a school's slogan is. What they want to know is whether the students who are there want to come back."
And the study's authors corroborate this idea.
"The work suggests that universities' positioning strategies may be focusing too much on building prestige," write the authors. "Whereas strategies aimed at improving student satisfaction could have more positive effects on brand equity." These include things like "facilities, social life, atmosphere, and employment opportunities."
"Marketers aiming to attract students to HEIs should aim for improved customer orientation, focusing attention on the practical things that matter to students, such as the quality of the courses (and perhaps also the social life)."
Why focusing on retaining students has a trickle down effect to prospective students
"Once a student gets into college, that's only half the battle," explained Dr. Julie Ajinkya, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. "[If] students are engaged, feel as though they belong — that increases their likelihood of persisting and completing their education."
Creating such retention strategies are important and necessary to the functioning of university businesses, Ajinkya said, because the industry is much different from in the past, especially with the influx of newly defined "21st century students."
"Our higher ed institutions were not designed originally for the majority of students in higher education today. We're seeing the new normal are actually students of color, students who are going to school part time while holding down jobs and often taking care of aging parents or young children themselves. The new normal are first-generation college goers and low-income students," said Ajinkya. "So we really want to think through how institutions can be more responsive to these students' needs."
So, in handling the buildings Bowen considered not only the importance of amenities, but factors like not wanting to overcharge students for new beds. Instead of just deciding to spend lots of money on completely rebuilding, Bowen looked at whether it was possible to simply renovate and move them to maintain a basement — which ended up being even cheaper than other dorms on campus.
But at the same time, he realized that the building could be used to engage and leverage students' interests. He mentions, for instance, building a bigger lounge so that students could converse, and making sure to include a microwave — because that one simple addition is extremely important to them.
"We asked students at the very beginning 'What do you want?'" said Bowen. "What makes the biggest difference? We had a contest of what goes in the courtyard. Students today want to have a big grass courtyard where they can throw a frisbee."
"You're not just building barracks, you're not just creating a place to house students. You're building places were students will have different learning experiences," he said. "In the classroom, this is something like transparency — it benefits all students, and [there's] a disproportionately positive effect for first generation students. The same is true for a residence hall or building," said Bowen, who mentioned putting faculty accommodations into the renovated buildings.
"Putting faculty in the buildings provides more access to first-generation students, and they are more likely to go to office hours. Of course everyone benefits, but it has an additional impact on first-generation students."
In constructing the new facilities, Bowen said the ultimate goal was to make sure that students would be successful and happy there. But also says the added benefit of thinking this way is lending to an "authentic recruitment process." When students visit campus and talk to students about what it's like to live there, there's positive energy around what's happening at the school — and more trust in the idea that administrators are giving students what they want, which influences whether prospective students decide to enroll.
"Even construction tape is good for recruitment. It builds a sense of excitement, you have to build your imagination on what will be here," he said. "We've definitely seen the interest in Goucher and the interest in living in the building have both gone up."
"Students are looking at a lot of things — the curriculum, the dining hall. But where you're going to live is still on the top list of things that matter to students, the quality of the community you're going to build is important to them."