Guests: Carolyn Simpson, Director of Communications for the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges & Mark D’Alessio, Executive Director of Communications for the Technical College System of Georgia
Host: Jamie Wagner, Executive Director of Media Prefs
Jamie Wagner connects with Carolyn Simpson and Mark D’Alessio, two high-level communication professionals advocating for and representing 15 community colleges in Pennsylvania and 22 community colleges in Georgia. The versatility and power behind Media Prefs’ custom questions are dissected, along with the importance of taking a step back to ensure a timely pulse on students and understanding more than ever that “data is king” when it comes to decision making and serving this unique population effectively.
Announcer: While community college marketing might be like herding cats, the Interact Communications team of 2-year experts has your back. Welcome to the Community College Marketing Master Class, where we explore the latest conversations happening in higher ed, including the trials and triumphs in recruitment, equity, Guided Pathways, retention, and beyond. With more than 25 years of experience working with nearly a thousand community colleges nationwide, Interact is proud to share best practices and insights from experts around the country. Tune in now for another great discussion with your host.
Jamie Wagner: Hello, and welcome to Interact Communications’ Community College Marketing Master Class podcast. I’m Jamie Wagner, the executive director of Media Prefs and your host for today’s episode. Media Prefs is Interact’s survey tool that helps community college marketers nationwide learn more about the media and communication preferences of their own students. The data is interactive and filterable, allowing colleges to deep dive into the nuances between student demographics, including age, gender, ethnicity, and college status, among others.
Join me as I connect with Carolyn Simpson, director of communications at the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, and Mark D’Alessio, executive director of communications for the Technical College System of Georgia. We’ll talk about what Media Prefs data meant for their state and advocacy organizations, how they encourage colleges to take part, and how the data even helps some of their colleges with budget increases and pushing leadership to try new initiatives. So, let’s dive in with Carolyn and Mark.
Well, Carolyn and Mark, thank you so much for joining me today. I am really excited to talk with you because I want to hear about your perspective when it comes to Media Prefs. Recently, I’ve had a conversation with two folks from the college perspective. They obviously have different ways to think about Media Prefs and promoting the survey to their students, where you guys had different responsibilities and needed a little bit different encouragement for the colleges that you support as well.
I’m interested in hearing your perspective, but first, let’s do some introductions. Carolyn, would you like to start it off, introduce yourself, where you’re from, what your role is, and maybe different functions of your role?
Carolyn Simpson: My pleasure, Jamie. Thank you so much for having us here today. This is wonderful and I really appreciate you thinking of me. My name is Carolyn Simpson. I am the director of communications for the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. I’ve been in that role approximately three years, but the commission’s primary purpose is to sway funding and policy decisions in favor of community colleges within our state. We’re a little bit unique. We are not a system, we are just a sector.
Jamie Wagner: Great. And Mark?
Mark D’Alessio: Sure. My name is Mark D’Alessio. I am the executive director of communications for the Technical College System of Georgia. We are the state agency that oversees the 22 2-year technical colleges in the state. Happy to join you guys.
Jamie Wagner: Thanks, Mark. You have 22 colleges. Carolyn, how many colleges do you have in Pennsylvania?
Carolyn Simpson: We just added our 15th. The inaugural semester for Erie County Community College is actually happening this fall, so our 15th just came into fruition.
Jamie Wagner: That is really exciting, congratulations.
Carolyn Simpson: Thank you.
Jamie Wagner: Okay, let’s dive in. I want to know, first of all, what led you to Media Prefs? Has research always been something that’s been very important to your organization or your role in particular, or what made you say, “Hey, this is a cool opportunity. I think we should really encourage our colleges in the state to take part.” Carolyn?
Carolyn Simpson: Well, Media Prefs has an outstanding reputation and so I think that’s what initially drew us to participate, but we also got a lot of positive feedback from, I think it was Westmoreland County Community College, who I think had a great relationship, Jamie, with you and your team. Since we worked so closely with them, they said, “Hey, have you heard of this? We may be able to have an opportunity here for you.” And so we took what they had already done and expanded it statewide. It was just a natural fit for that semester. It was a wonderful experience and I would absolutely do it again.
Jamie Wagner: Awesome. Mark, I know you guys all took part this past spring, 2021. What led you to Media Prefs and what made you decide, “Hey, this is something that we should really encourage our colleges to take part in.”
Mark D’Alessio: Yeah, no, I thought it was a great opportunity because as marketers, as communicators at the college or even at the system level, I think we get so busy in the day-to-day to make sure we’re marketing and keeping those things going, that it was a good opportunity to take a step back and take a look at, hey, are we doing things effectively, how could we improve, and what better audience to get the pulse on than our own student body. It was a great opportunity and really, really happy with the partnership so far.
Jamie Wagner: Great. Yeah, you both had colleges take part this last academic year, you both have colleges taking part this current academic year. We just wrapped up our fall 2021 survey, which was really exciting. You both had a good number of colleges take part as well. Did you get any feedback from the colleges about, maybe after they’ve received their data or anything about the survey process? We always try to make it as easy as possible for colleges to just pick up and go. I know we both walked through some training materials with all the colleges in your state on different sessions to help offer as much support as possible. Did you get any feedback from the colleges regarding that, Mark?
Mark D’Alessio: Yeah. I think you guys really made it as easy as possible for them to do exactly what you talked about, just, it’s already packaged for them and it is just a matter of spreading the word and getting students to participate. That was super, super simple, so thank you for that.
Jamie Wagner: Great. Carolyn, I know we worked with a lot of your colleges in the past. Another one that pops to mind is Pennsylvania Highlands. They are pretty much participating all the time and they also took part this fall. Did you get any feedback from the colleges on the process or how that went for them?
Carolyn Simpson: Absolutely. Let me first echo Mark’s sentiments, that Media Prefs does an outstanding job of making this as easy to pick up and implement as possible. The colleges that we see that really make this a priority, I think that they’re able to use the results and leverage them to inform everything about their strategy. From a statewide perspective, that isn’t how the commission is using the data. I mean, we took those 10 custom questions that you offer and we put in there things that we think that would be useful when having those conversations with legislators about funding and trying to prove that we are in need as a sector, but the information that is gathered for the individual colleges on where their students are spending their time and how to reach them, I mean, Penn Highlands has expressed, as you mentioned, they really do a fabulous job of using the program and I think they’ve seen a lot of benefit from that.
Jamie Wagner: That’s really great. I know you were really excited about your custom questions. You had a lot of advocacy-focused questions, which was really exciting. Was there any other themes in the survey itself that you were most excited to learn more about? I feel like from the college perspective, they would be interested in a certain side of things, but was there anything from the greater, I guess, statewide data that you received that you were most excited in learning about, Carolyn?
Carolyn Simpson: Well, there was. And I think that those questions will be different for everyone. Ours, frankly, they’re sort of a Debbie Downer because we talk a lot about have you ever struggled to pay your tuition, have you ever had to choose between food and books, have you ever dealt with of homelessness while you were a college student. I think sometimes refining some of those terms actually gets you better data, because what we realized recently is most students, even if they do struggle with housing insecurity, they don’t consider couch hopping homelessness. It’s all about how you phrase those questions, but we were able to take some of the results that we gathered and go say to individual elected officials in their district, “This is the number of students that have this problem in your district,” and then also those statewide numbers, which is really impactful if you’re saying almost 60% can’t pay their tuition. That’s a compelling figure when you’re thinking about, frankly, what is the most affordable option for higher education in our commonwealth? We definitely use those and still use them today, it’s been really helpful.
Jamie Wagner: That’s great to hear. I always love learning how different groups are utilizing the data, because oftentimes I onboard the colleges, I get them all ready to go, I give them their data at the end, and sometimes that’s the last I hear from them. They’re doing amazing things at the college level with the data that they find out.
Mark, was there anything for you, a specific theme that you were really interested in learning more about through the Media Prefs survey?
Mark D’Alessio: I think two things. I’ve spoken with a couple colleges that have used the data from the spring survey to help convince people higher up the food chain to increase their budgets. That’s always exciting. It also, I think, showed leadership the importance of the digital side of marketing efforts. Everything has gone digital now, the days of people opening an actual physical newspaper are long gone. I think that may have opened some eyes.
The other thing that I found really helpful was everybody is streaming now, whether it’s TV or music. The streaming services is where everybody seems to be at. I don’t think we do a ton of advertising or marketing on those platforms, but after the results we got from the spring survey, we’re planning on moving some money into those areas.
Jamie Wagner: That’s wonderful. This came up yesterday, too, when I was talking with Allison and Dane, is Media Prefs has the ability to remove some of the bias that those higher-ups on the food chain might say, “Oh, well, that’s just your opinion.” It’s like, “No, it’s not.” I’m sure lots of people have struggled with this, too. It’s removing that bias to say, “Oh, it’s not just me as a marketer saying this,” even though we’ve done the research and we know it as a fact, based on the trends that are happening in the industry, but now it’s saying, “This is right from our students.” This is the students telling us that, no, they are not reading the newspaper. They might be reading some online stuff. There is a case for, okay, maybe news is not totally dead, there is some online options there, but they’re not reading a newspaper. If you’re spending lots of money on putting print ads out, they’re likely not hitting at least those traditional-aged students.
A lot of times, Media Prefs can remove the bias and advocate for you as a marketer, too, to say, “This is not just my opinion anymore, even though I’ve been telling you this for the last few years. Now, this is coming directly from our students and they are showing you where they are engaging online or in the atmosphere,” wherever you’re targeting your advertising. I’m glad you brought that up because that is a point that I hear time and time again is, “I’m not the bad guy anymore. Now it’s just based on actual data from our actual students.” They are supporting what I’m saying and that’s very helpful. But also for budgets, like you said, if they were able to swing some more funding their way to accommodate some of these different platforms that they might not have been engaging with before, that’s absolutely great news.
Carolyn, I did want to jump back to your custom questions, because I did pull a chart that I thought was really interesting. And I want to know… The question I was looking at was, when we were talking about different financial challenges, food challenges, housing challenges, technology challenges, one of the responses said that 64% of the students who answered this question said that financial challenges made it difficult to focus on their studies and achieve their goals. 64%. What do you do with that type of information?
Carolyn Simpson: I mean, I think we use it… Frankly, as Mark said, it’s a proof point for us. It is information that is really difficult for our audience to refute because it’s coming directly from our students. For the first time, we’ve been able to walk into a senator’s office or a representative’s office and we’ve been able to say 64% of the community college students in Pennsylvania are not able to fully focus on their education because they don’t know that they can continue to afford it, and stop. I mean, it’s hard to refute that, and so we’ve been using that more and more in our narratives when we are talking with elected officials, saying, “These are the voices of your students.”
As I mentioned, where possible, we drill down into their districts. If we have a senator or a representative from a district and they don’t believe it, we pull the numbers from their specific college report if we can, which says it’s not just statewide, this is the students in your backyard, the people who are electing you feel this way. It’s been a powerful point to make, yeah.
Jamie Wagner: What is their reaction to this kind of data?
Carolyn Simpson: I mean, I think that as we continue our journey with Media Prefs we will get more and more engagement, because that’s the first thing we’re usually asked, is how many people took the survey, how reliable are these results. And we can only really make them more reliable and more consistent and better data as we continue this journey with you and we get more students every year and try to get the word out and bring on more colleges. I just think that continuing to grow with Media Prefs will give us better data, better proof points, and ultimately, hopefully, more funding.
Jamie Wagner: And change the world. I love it.
Carolyn Simpson: Yes, just change the world, yes. Something simple.
Jamie Wagner: Mark, one of your custom questions that I was looking at, when you asked your students, how was the college presented by your high school teachers and counselors as a choice after they graduated, and it said that over 60% indicated that their college was presented as a backup plan or only talked about after they discussed four-year college or universities. For almost 5% of them, they said that their technical college was discouraged as a choice for students. What do you do with that type of information? Does that start at your level or is that need to be lifted up by the colleges? What do you do with that kind of data?
Mark D’Alessio: Yeah, no, that’s a great piece of information. I think we knew that going in, that guidance counselors, most of them are still moving kids into the four-years. I have nothing against four-year colleges, I went to a four-year college, but we have work to do. The perception out there is still what it is, how a two-year technical college or a community college is less than a four-year, so we have work to do. That’s going to be boots on the ground, that’s going to be relationships. That’s people-to-people relationships, meeting with more high school guidance counselors, and the colleges do that. Getting high school counselors to come to the colleges to see what we do, I think will be really eye-opening for some folks, and to invite high school kids to come and to see what we offer at our colleges.
We kind of knew that going in and it just reaffirmed the fact that there’s more work to be done. I’m sure Georgia is not unique. I think this is a nationwide issue, but it is a problem we are trying to tackle every day.
Jamie Wagner: Yeah. I mean, and now we’re still in the middle of the pandemic, COVID is still an issue. A lot of those on-the-ground activities, visiting high schools or maybe college tours, were not in full swing as they used to be, maybe pre-COVID, too, because of different restrictions. So that could play into that as well, too. It’d be really interesting to see how this question progresses as the years to come, if you are able to get back in the full swing of being at these high school campuses and getting kids back for tours or having those relationships with the high school. I know our high school visits our community college down the street, too. Students are just blown away by, it’s like, “Oh,” it’s not the stigma of community college anymore. It is like, this is a real college with real, amazing, high-tech labs and all this cool stuff that they might not have even realized before, because we also have a lot of universities in our area, too, and those typically steal a lot of the advertising dollars and those kinds of things as well. I think that’s a great way to just get back in. Hopefully, post-COVID, we’re able to do a little bit more with that again, but yeah, it’s a lot of boots-on-the-ground effort. I wish you very well in your quest to boost those numbers, too, and make your community colleges shine in the community and be memorable again.
Carolyn Simpson: Woo hoo!
Jamie Wagner: Yes, Carolyn, woo hoo! And fight against those universities in the way that we know that we can.
Looking back at your data, big picture, was there any key takeaways that you had or anything that surprised you overall when you were looking at your data or comparing this college with this college with this college. Did you see any differences in those colleges or just one overall takeaway or anything that surprised you, Carolyn?
Carolyn Simpson: Well, I wouldn’t call it a surprise, but I think it kind of reinforced you get out what you put in. If you want exceptional data, you have follow the Media Prefs program. If you want some data that may or may not be right, just throw the link out there a couple of times. But we see some colleges that have exceptional data and others that just don’t yet, but maybe they will. And so I think, just, “you get out what you get in” would be my final advice.
Jamie Wagner: Absolutely. Mark?
Mark D’Alessio: Yeah, what Carolyn said. We had colleges that were all in a hundred percent and had a high participation rate and are doing things with that data, like I said, and then there were some colleges who we need to push a little more to get to participate. I agree a hundred percent that the more you put in, the more you’re going to get out, and the more beneficial it’s going to be not only for your marketing team, but for the college as a whole.
Jamie Wagner: Right. A lot of our data is not just for marketers. We are a marketing agency, so we do like to give marketers as much data as we can, but also, this is stuff that can be shared internally, at least from the college perspective. Some of these questions about student expectations, for example, talking about how soon they expect a response when it comes to leaving a voicemail, after they leave a voicemail at that college, how soon do they expect that response back, or when you post to social media, how soon do they want that, and that’s very important information to share.
Carolyn Simpson: If I could actually jump in, Jamie, I have something to add. In today’s world, where higher ed is very focused on equity and inclusion, and when you think about this as a self-assessment tool for some of those initiatives, I mean, you really can’t overstate how wonderful it could be to have feedback that’s honest like that. If you wanted to talk about, have you considered taking your own life in the past year, if you want to get in the nitty gritty with this and really use it to inform, as Mark said, where you’re placing your dollars within your college community and what you’re valuing and what you’re trying to change. I mean, those 10 questions that you offer, that can be literally anything, can shape your whole approach to how you’re managing your institution, I think.
Mark D’Alessio: I love what Carolyn did with her custom questions, because we focused on the communication side of things. Are we communicating too much with you? Are you annoyed by us? It was all like—
Carolyn Simpson: Yes, always yes.
Mark D’Alessio: …communications and marketing, where she’s asking really important questions that she’s able to take to our legislators. That’s—
Carolyn Simpson: Well, and when you think, even just as a self-assessment tool, if you say, “Have you felt discriminated against on our campus in the past year?”, when you think about what you could understand about your students and their experiences and then change for the better, I mean, you have the power to ask them anything and I can’t understate how wonderful that is.
Jamie Wagner: Yeah. I think it was North Carolina, and I could be wrong, but I think they asked, “Do you feel that you are represented in the marketing materials from your college?”
Carolyn Simpson: Ah.
Jamie Wagner: That’s a great question to ask.
Carolyn Simpson: It is, that’s a good question.
Jamie Wagner: It’s like, “Do we provide enough support when it comes to disability or English as second language, do we provide enough support on your behalf?” It’s like, those kinds of questions are amazing to ask, especially in this format where they’re already in survey mode, it’s just an extra few questions that are very specific to either your state issues or the college issues, whatever that is. It’s a really great time to ask those kind of things.
Carolyn Simpson: But I think if you’re brave enough, Jamie, because, depending on what those responses are, you could have a real come-to-Jesus moment over it.
Jamie Wagner: Yes. I know your questions were quantitative, but the qualitative feedback that you get from these survey responses is absolutely a hundred percent my favorite thing to go through. I love reading what barriers students are facing or what they’re struggling with or what bottlenecks they experience in applying for college or registering for classes. Those are the things that, it could be just this moment of, wow, we can fix that—really easily, too. This is a concern for so many of these students and they’ve told us about it, or it might trigger additional research to say, “Okay, well, something’s broken in our registration process, these students have expressed that. Let’s get a group of people together and let’s sit down and let’s talk about it and let’s dive a little bit deeper now into this.” Media Prefs also can be a jumping-off point for additional research, which is something that’s pretty cool, at least in my opinion.
Lastly, as we wrap up here, I would like you share any advice you might have for somebody or maybe a state organization. I mean, we’ve definitely worked with a lot over the last two years. Now that it has been free, especially, it gives some of these colleges access to this kind of data that they might not normally have the budget for. If a state organization or a group of colleges is really thinking about taking part but are on the fence or maybe they don’t have leadership buy-in quite yet, what kind of advice would you give to them to give them the push to either take part or to talk to leadership and say, “This is a great opportunity for us, here’s why.” Carolyn, do you have any suggestions?
Carolyn Simpson: Oh, gosh. I know I have a limited amount of time. I think right now, the fact that this is a free opportunity makes it not dangerous. If you’re ever going to try this, it should be now, because then you will have the proof you need to say why you need to continue. I think that’s the most important thing, since it’s not a capital request or something right now, get in now while it’s free, and then it will probably begin to charge again in the future, you’ll already see the benefits and hopefully have implemented new solutions based on the feedback you’re getting, that this might become such a powerful tool that you can’t steer the ship without it. That would be my advice.
Jamie Wagner: Yeah. Mark, any advice for other colleges or state organizations?
Mark D’Alessio: Yeah, again, I think, for us, it’s a wonderful opportunity. Data is king, and we’re able to aggregate all this data about our student body. It really helps with our decision making. Again, we want to be as effective as possible, and we want to be able to serve students as effectively as possible. All the data that you guys are able to collect is fantastic. Again, I look forward to a long partnership with you guys.
Jamie Wagner: Absolutely. Well, we would absolutely love that, for sure. Thank you guys so much for taking the time to connect with me again. A lot of times I don’t get to see this side of the conversation. I get to see the colleges take part and I get to watch their numbers as they progress through the survey window, but oftentimes I don’t get to see what they do with the data, so this is always very special for me to have these types of conversations. I do really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Thank you so much.
Carolyn Simpson: This was wonderful. Thank you, Jamie, really, truly appreciate you having me on.
Mark D’Alessio: Thanks, Jamie, really appreciate it.
Jamie Wagner: I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to my conversation with Carolyn and Mark. I am always so excited to connect with Media Prefs users and learn more about how they have utilized the data within their campus or state organization. If you’d like to talk about your Media Prefs experience or be a part of our next survey cohort, be sure to reach out to email@example.com, or check us out online at mediaprefs.com. You can connect with Media Prefs and Interact Communications on all your favorite social platforms and get free resources and insights by visiting interactcom.com. In the meantime, take care. We’ll talk soon.
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