Student Learning Outcomes as College Marketing Tool

Nearly all colleges and universities today have initiated outcomes assessment programs to find out what students do or don’t learn and how satisfying the student experience is at their institution.  Most colleges have begun to compile significant data from their studies. Fewer have used the results to improve learning and student life. And fewer still have made the results of their assessment efforts available to the public. By not publicizing such results, however, colleges are missing an important marketing opportunity.

Visitors to most college websites can be forgiven for concluding that all colleges are alike in most respects. College websites typically tout long lists of attractive features: small classes, concern for the whole person, an emphasis on ethics, state-of-the-art technology, gleaming new science labs, posh residences and athletic facilities, winning athletic teams, and happy, satisfied students (usually sitting under trees!). Little short of utopia, along with the promise of high-paying careers upon graduation. Unfortunately, none of these features, as attractive as they are, differentiates one college from the others. In these difficult economic and social times, inquiring students and their families want to know whether their investment of time and effort is really worth it.

Publicizing outcomes assessment results can address two questions at once: what distinguishes one institution from the others, and what assurances can prospective students have that their needs will be met?

For instance, ACT reports that roughly 75% of entering students this year will need remedial instruction in one of four basic areas. Imagine the impact if a college has developed demonstrably effective programs in basic writing or mathematics and can demonstrate success for students who need that kind of assistance. If a college can assure prospective students that they will benefit from such programs that truly work, everyone wins.

By suggesting that colleges publicize their assessment results, I do not mean that they should publish the raw data that only trained statisticians, educational psychologists, and learning specialists can understand. To do so would be counterproductive. Moreover, I also do not intend that colleges be compelled to reveal results that reflect poorly on their programs (although doing so might lead them to address deficiencies more rapidly than they otherwise would). For now, I merely mean that colleges should take advantage of assessment results that demonstrate that they are doing at least some things very well, perhaps better than their peers.

Finally, how colleges should present this information is crucial. Assessment results should not be hidden away on the web page of an office of institutional research! On the contrary, colleges should employ all of the tools of effective communication.

For instance, a brief posting on a college’s website could indicate that more students are able to succeed in heavily quantitative programs because of the college’s proven success in providing students the mathematics instruction they need. A few brief video clips featuring students explaining how effective the program is and how easy it is to get help could illustrate the posting’s message. Prospective students could literally see with their own eyes that their inadequate quantitative skills will be addressed. And perhaps that would be just enough to help convince them to consider such a college over against other alternatives.

We can never forget that choosing a college is an emotional process. But students and their families also need reasons, including information about areas in which particular colleges are truly successful, to justify their choices. By publicizing outcomes results for learning and student satisfaction, colleges can differentiate themselves and assure prospective students that their particular needs will be addressed.

To request a copy of my white paper, “Why Content Matters in College Branding,” just click on the title.


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