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Learn how Victor Valley Community College Created a Culture of Care to Keep New Students

Your marketing and media campaign numbers exceeded expectations—inquiries and applications are way up! But enrollments are lagging way behind. Prospective students are complaining they can’t navigate the onboarding process and that the college staff is rude and uncaring. What can you do?

Learn how Victor Valley College built a Connect2Success Center that supports onboarding new students. Not only does the Center prepare students for the college experience but ensures new students show up for class ready to learn.

Join Interact’s Dr. Pam Cox-Otto and Dr. Diane Walleser, as they have a conversation with Victor Valley College President Dr. Daniel Walden for an engaging and enlightening podcast to hear firsthand how Victor Valley fosters student success.

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Episode Transcript

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 and recruitment equity, guided pathways, retention, and beyond. With more than 25 years of experience working with nearly one 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.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: Welcome everyone to Interact’s podcast. Joining me tonight is Dr. Daniel Walden, who is the superintendent president of Victor Valley College in California. And with me also is Dr. Diane Wallesner, who works with me at Interact. And together, we do a wide range of things for Interact. So Dan, tell me about Victor Valley and what’s been going on with you, particularly during COVID, and all of the changes that have been happening in education.

Dr. Daniel Walden: Well, thank you, Pam. It’s great to be with you today, and Diane, as well, and just to be talking about some of the good things that have happened here. The pandemic was not something that I learned about in President school, wherever that was. They never trained us. We’ve been taught how to deal with emergencies, like active shooter drills or earthquakes. But at no point in all these many years have we trained for dealing with a pandemic, and so everything was new. Like the rest of the world, we made it work, and it worked pretty well, actually.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: Well, it shows how quickly colleges can engage in change when they need to. Sometimes, we feel like we’re large ships, and it takes lots of time to turn the ship. But I think community colleges show how quickly the ship can be turned when there’s a reason to do it — a powerful reason.

Dr. Daniel Walden: I was just delightfully surprised. I didn’t know how it would work. Everybody stopped and turned on a dime. And we went from everything being normal to fully online within two weeks. It was amazing.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: Wow. So you’ve been trying some new things as well. I understand you’ve got to Connect to Success Center. Talk to me about how that’s played into the student experience and what led you to that.

Dr. Daniel Walden: So, the Connect to Success, just for a visual, is the word ‘connect,’ the digit two, and then success, all as one word — so Connect2Success. That’s our branding and how we brand it. It is a call center, in one sense of the word, but not your typical call center. It’s a very specialized and highly trained call center. And so, we don’t really refer to it as a call center. As far as the public’s concerned, it’s our Connect to Success Center. 

One of the things that was a motivator was we were doing all of this advertising on social media, most of it with you guys at Interact. And we started getting all these responses. It’s very interesting how we do it in community colleges. We will send out the mailers to the neighborhoods, and we’ll advertise on the radio, put up the billboards, and do our social media thing. And then, to be surprised with hundreds, even thousands of responses, and I’m not prepared to deal with them. But, just responding the best you can. 

Here are the responses just stacking up. One of the things that has always been a problem for me in my work with community colleges is how people get the runaround. I’m the Chief Executive Officer — in title and function, and in the law, that’s what I am. But, I have sort of changed the CEO to the Chief Experience Officer. I see myself as responsible for the experience of the students on the campus, and that even starts with the experience that the employees have as they work here. 

I want them to have a five-star experience. I believe if you have employees with a five-star experience, they’ll give a five-star experience to your clientele, which in this case is our students. And if you give your students a five-star experience, they’re going to connect to the institution, they’re going to engage with the institution, and they’ll be more likely to be successful. 

For example, we like to go to those nice places where you can shop, and they meet you at the door. They walk you through. You can go into some stores, and they’ll say, ‘well, that’s in aisle 13, all the way to the end.’ … Do you know how many things are in aisle 13 in a big hardware store? Then you find yourself walking down aisle 13, trying to find it. And I just wanted us to have something where we can have an immediate connect to the success of the student. I get frustrated, just like my TV at the house, or the cable company, or the satellite company, or your Wi-Fi company. You try to get a hold of them, and it’s just through a whole loop of ‘hit this number, then that number, then you gotta listen to this and that.’ And what you want to say is, ‘I’m frustrated things aren’t working. Just let me talk to somebody.’ And that’s why we created the Connect2Success Center. It was the idea of one call, one email, that’s it. You get to talk to someone, and you get a response.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: That’s very wise because over the years, for some reason, we’ve thought that if you call me, or you walk in, or you send me an email, as long as I answer your question quickly and kind of get you out of my way, that I’ve taken care of you. You call and ask, ‘When does a semester start?’ I say, ‘August 12.’ And you go, ‘okay!’ And we hang up. I don’t know who you are. I can’t call you back. I don’t know what you need beyond that date. There’s no relationship, right? Yes, you took care of me, but we don’t have a relationship. You answered a question. And I can get my phone to do that. If I say ‘Hey, Siri,’ — which I’m not going to do because she’ll talk to me — it’s never good. So that idea you want to make this something that connects and makes it into a relationship, that’s wise! Because there are so many people that marketing creates the interest and the excitement to reach out, but they reach out, and they don’t have any kind of connection, and they go away. And they go away thinking it’s them, not us, when it’s us, not them — and realizing that that was an issue, smart. And I can’t help myself … So we helped you, huh? 

Dr. Daniel Walden: You did help me, and that was one of the big motivators. I previously served for almost two decades in the largest community college system, or district, in the nation. We were always struggling with the issue of ‘how do you talk to a real person when you have 250,000 students and 10,000 employees?’ Even as an employee, it was a real challenge. It wasn’t until I got higher up in the organization and got to really know people and then thought, ‘Okay, this is how I can really get something done,’ such as talking to this technician or talking to this person on this floor, and that was the way to get it done. 

But calling from the outside, it was just a lucky day if you can actually get through to someone or somebody picks up a phone. One of the things that we noticed was, we have a one-stop center on campus, and it’s a fabulous entity. You walk in, the student comes in from off the street, and we have everything there. There’s someone there to help them and financial aid. There’s actually someone to greet them when they come through the door. It’s a wonderful in-person place to go and be served on the campus. We thought, ‘well, why not do something like that digitally?’ Something that will work for people calling in, or even if they’re responding to an Interact ad. They can actually call a number or send an email and get a response right away. 

So in the pandemic, we created a virtual one-stop because we had to close down our campus. We had this virtual thing going on where we had people sitting waiting to answer the phones, but not really trained specifically to do that. But providing the services was just a pivot we had to do for the time. It made it necessary. But the idea here was that we create a one-call, one-email place that is the primary point of contact for the campus for anyone calling in from the outside. You could call in. You’re given an option right upfront. If you know the extension, you can dial it. If you want to go through a director, you can do that. Otherwise, you just wait on the line, and you get a live person.

So it was an entire office. We found a location on campus, and I told our staff that was putting this together. I said, ‘I want you to find a room with a nice view. Something that we can create with it, put the best furniture in there, make it a bright, warm place to work.’ It won’t have public access, but I want the people in the room to be happy to be there. And then, I want a friendly warm workspace. And so they found this room, and we fully equipped it. And then we hired all brand new people. None of our existing employees were put in this call center. We hired two supervisors. And then we’ve hired since, I believe, six technicians, and maybe planning to hire more. 

My point is, however many we need to hire to handle the workload, that’s what we’ll do. And so we have done that, and it’s just fantastic. I know that we opened last … We started taking calls at the end of November in 2021. And as of the beginning of March, the first part of March, we had answered over ten thousand phone calls, and nine thousand of those calls were resolved the very first time. There was a ninety percent success rate that students didn’t have to call back a second time to have their issue resolved. And sometimes, it was through a warm transfer to the appropriate department. What we mean by that is we don’t just transfer them. We let the technician get the right person on the phone, and then while the person is on the phone, the technician allows that person to help that student. In our survey data that we’ve been constantly giving out, that goes out with every one of the calls that comes in, we’ve had the technician resolve the issue one hundred percent response rate. One hundred percent of the callers said the technician resolved my issue. Ninety percent said the technician was very helpful. Eighty-five percent said the technician was courteous. Fifty-five percent said they felt more connected as a result of their interaction with Connect2Success, and then wrote things like overall great experience with very little waiting, my technician was excellent, etcetera. 

There is a feature on there that if the student or the caller doesn’t want to wait, they can get a callback, and our callbacks happen within 15 minutes. Nobody ever has to wait over 15 minutes for a callback. Or you can just wait on the line, and it will tell you information wherever you are. The system is all wired up. It’s got a reporting system so that every call opens a ticket. Every email opens a ticket. And that ticket stays open until the caller is satisfied.

Dr. Diane Walleser: So you can track it, too. Never lose it!

Dr. Daniel Walden:  Exactly. Even if we transfer to a manager to get something resolved, or let’s say it’s a deep financial, complicated financial aid issue, and it goes over to the manager for financial aid. It doesn’t go to a technician. It goes to the manager, who assigns that. Our supervisors in the Connect2Success Center monitor those tickets so that that bin stays empty. They don’t allow those to sit around. And they make the right calls and say that’s there, the student is waiting. And it’s really been an amazing thing that’s happened, and just talking about being a caring campus to make people feel as if ‘wow, this place cares about me.’ That’s what this whole Connect2Success Center is. 

We’ve set it up so that when we get responses from our — say, our Interact media advertisements — You’re great about getting responses for us. We’ve been really excited to find out how well we’ve done with social media. When the response comes in, sometimes the technicians, there’s a group that rotates on and off to make their day a little more spiced up, so they’re not just sitting on the phone all day. So they’ll go over, and they will respond to these inquiries. If somebody indicates that they would like a response, they get a callback, or they get an email. And so we’re following that through. We have a team of people assisting right now because we are still in the early stages, right? Our first phase was, ‘let’s make sure the calls get answered,’ and that all works. And then there are these other phases where we want to go later, and we’ll get more into that later on if you want, but one of those is that this center is able to do all the response for any inquiry into the campus. Whether it comes through email or whether it comes from somebody seeing the billboard, they call the number. 

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: You’re offering national quality response at a college level, which I’ve been doing this a while, and I don’t hear that very often. I worked with a college one time that literally would let their phone box fill up before they would start answering the calls. Or they’d say, ‘we’re going to respond to all of our emails on Friday, because we don’t break up our workday,’ and I understand why they’re doing it. They’re trying to manage the load. But in doing that, they’re basically putting off students and saying, ‘you’re not important enough to me to actually respond to you within a day or the same morning or afternoon.’

And that’s a message that we don’t want to send to students who are vulnerable and are wondering if college is for them. If we don’t treat them like they matter to us, we don’t matter to them. So, you’re doing the kind of thing I expect when I phone Delta, the helpline on Delta, it’s ‘do you want to be called back? we’ll call you back in X number of minutes.’ That’s phenomenal.

Dr. Diane Walleser: So, I personally have set up two or three one-stop centers in my career, and never have we achieved the success that you’re talking about. It was all aspirational. And so, I really have to commend you at what you’ve accomplished in such a short period of time. 

So for other leaders out there that want and need to do what you’re doing, what advice would you give them? And I mean, did you walk in the office one day and say, ‘we’re going to have a Connect2Success Center?’ Talk about the evolution and how you brought your team along, and how you got this off to such a successful start. 

Dr. Daniel Walden: Well, the first thing is, I made it my priority. So what I said is, ‘okay, I’m president of the college, I have a whole operation going. These are current numbers.’ Prior to COVID, we had over 18,000 students annually. Now we’re down to about 15,000, but we’re working our way back up. And we’re one of the few colleges of California community colleges that is actually growing this year. Most are already down. But it was the idea that I was going to make that happen, and I was going to see that the financial resources were committed to it so that it did happen. 

When you talk about hiring this many people and opening a new center, it was no small financial commitment. But you have to think about what it is that we’ll stop doing, so we can start doing what’s really going to make a difference. People are always saying, ‘give me more money, I’ll give you a better service.’ Well, what about the things we’re doing? Do we really need all these other things going on, and putting money in these places? Why not put money where it’s really going to make a difference? 

And one of the things that I think we need to know about one-stop centers is those people are in there working, and they’re working hard. You’re a financial aid technician. You got a whole stack of student stuff you’re processing, trying to get through, working through all the bugs, the mistakes students made when they were filling out the forms, and so on. And all of a sudden, you’re sitting there, and you’d get a cold call from the outside. You got this big stack of stuff or maybe another student sitting across the desk. So you pick up the cold call, and I think it was you guys that did some of the research on this that came back with this information that most people were getting referred to go look at the website. 

And it was really, ‘I’m so busy, I’m trying to do this, it’s important what I’ve got to do, and you’re calling me from the outside and this is available.’ So they’re just pushing people off, telling them to go try to search through a website. 

This was one of the things that really was a motivator. It was creating this Connect2Success Center that I thought, what a service we can provide our own personnel if they don’t have to take cold calls. They can do what they’re assigned to do, and then when there’s a real problem, you give it to the manager, and the manager says, ‘I need you to help student X here with this issue.’ Then they can do that! It’s not a call coming off the street in the middle of a busy day. That’s what the call center is for — Connect2Success takes care of all that. 

Imagine the burden that takes off all the people in the one-stop center. They don’t have to take cold calls from the outside, that most of those things are handled. As we said, ninety percent of 10,000 calls were handled at that very first level. Normally, those would have been going to the one-stop — somebody in the one-stop who’s already busy, who is already overloaded. And if you talk to them, they say they’re already overworked. So here they are, they feel this way and have to field all these calls, and what happens? They don’t pick up, or they just refer quickly to the website, or you need to be calling another office on campus, and students get the runaround. When I first became president here, I think it was in my first address. I started in January of 2019, and so my first address to the full college was in February, and I asked the question, I said, ‘what would happen at this college if not one student was ever given the runaround? If every student who walked on this campus, or inquired at this campus, did not get a run around, but they actually got served?’

Think about as an employee: What if you, as an employee needing to know something, never got the runaround? How would you feel about working here? And from the beginning, that was the tone that I was trying to set for the college. Because I think, actually, as the president, one of your jobs is to set the tone. So I was doing it at my very first address, where I had all the employees there. I only get them twice a year, so I try to be careful what I say. Even though we do president chats all the time on Zoom, but I may have 150, and if it was a real hot issue, maybe 250. But we’ve got 833 employees, so I get twice a year that I get to talk to all of them. And that’s the tone I tried to set, and that’s what we’ve followed through with. Really trying to develop a caring campus.

Dr. Diane Walleser: I think what’s fabulous is that you’re able to hire new people. Because the biggest mistake, and I made the same mistake because of budgetary reasons, is I moved operation people into the contact center or the one-stop. It doesn’t work. They’re good processors, but they may not be good people persons. It sounds like you’ve made the right move in getting the right people in the right places and getting that all started in a positive way. How did you accomplish this? 

Dr. Daniel Walden: So, a little dirty laundry. So we had a help center on campus. And Help Desk was what it was called. It had, I want to say, four or five people working in it. But then we offered a supplemental retirement package, and so all but two of them left. Well, then I was told that two people were really good. So I said, ‘Okay, we’ll hire four technicians instead of six.’ And we will put these two people over there if you’re telling me they’re good. Well, they go over there, and within a week, one of them is calling the union and saying, ‘oh, you know, we’re really duplicating what they’re doing over here. And this isn’t really in our job description.’ When I found that out, and I found that out in the morning, I said, ‘get those two people, put them back over at the help desk, and somebody in IT can figure out what they can need to be doing, but I want them out of there today.’

I did not leave that in there for one more day, and I moved them out. I didn’t advertise it, but I’d moved them out and said, ‘oh you know what, that was a mistake. You’re needed over here.’ That’s how we saved face with them and their union. But I did not want them poisoning this new crew. 

By the way, as president, I usually only interview in final interviews, usually top-level supervisors and executives. But what I said is, ‘I want to be the final interviewer for every person we hire in that Connect2Success Center.’ So I actually did all the final interviews myself. I mean, I had somebody with me, but I conducted those interviews, and I said, ‘I’m not hiring anyone that I’m not excited about. If they don’t make me feel like I want to jump up and dance around the room, then I’m not picking them for this job.’ Because they gotta love people, or they’re not going to work in this call center. And so I’ve just put the biggest priority on it. 

Anytime you want to do something, you got to find somebody who will feed the baby. Well, I decided that I was going to feed this baby. And in fact, it reports to a vice president, but that Vice President is now leaving for retirement, and I’m not going to replace that position for about six months. So during that six months, the Connect2Success supervisors are going to report directly to me. I’m not handing them off. I’m not throwing them around campus where, ‘Oh, you’re here today, and you’ll be over there tomorrow.’ And when I replace this, I’m going to do a reorg. And when I do the replacement, I’m going to have a special assistant to the president, who is the Vice President of Innovation and Special Assistant to the President. And that’s the person that this center will report to, and that person’s job will be to accomplish my agenda as president of the campus.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: It’s not about managing the workload. It’s about managing the student experience and the potential student experience. And if you begin with, ‘how can I manage my workload?’ Instead of, ‘how can I make this person realize that we are here for them, and we’re going to support them every step of the way?’ It’s not that those can’t exist, but they normally don’t. You have to begin with, I work for students, and I want them here to know that I’m all in on their success. And that’s a big difference. And clearly, you’ve been able to launch this and pull it off and do it in a very short period of time. Thank goodness because you’re in the minority in terms of being able to be in a growing situation in California. So many are dealing with still with double-digit downturns in their student enrollment. 

And this clearly is a good part of your success. And I gotta say, as CEO of Interact, I’m very proud that we’ve been able to do the kind of media buying and media support that’s driving people to your front door, to give you a good problem to solve. You have the issue everybody wishes they have, that the only reason you have that is you went through and solved. I hate driving people to a shut door. And so many times when we do very good marketing, I feel like I’m driving people to a shut door. And at the end of it, folks that aren’t taken care of are going to say, ‘I’m not college material. Clearly, I can’t figure out how to get into this college.’ And you’ve taken the tack. That’s just not going to happen here. That’s unusual!

Dr. Diane Walleser: So Dan, have you been able to notice any improvement in your applicant conversion rates?

Dr. Daniel Walden: So, it’s so new that we don’t have the data yet to actually tell you what that is. But we are working on that. One of our challenges actually has been our reporting system. I don’t want to use the name on the podcast, but we have a particular reporting system that somehow is not working smoothly. The data is somehow skewed, and so we’re not really able to rely on it. The way it’s supposed to work is, I’m supposed to get a report every month that’s full of all the analytics, that tells me every single thing about how many calls came in, how quickly they were answered, how many were resolved, what happened to the tickets and so on and so forth. 

And so in lieu of that while, we’re trying, and we are working on that issue. But while we’re doing that, in order to get data, we’re using a sort of a multi-tiered data analysis, where we’re looking at using the data from our ticketing system in conjunction with data from our user experience surveys, and that’s how we’re getting the data that we’re making decisions on now. So we know how well it’s doing while we work on a permanent solution with our analytic software.

Dr. Diane Walleser: So the enrollment numbers are a positive indicator that something good is going on, though. So you’re getting some good indicators that you’re gonna see some positive numbers.

Dr. Daniel Walden: And it looks like they were growing six percent this year, which just going down the hill here from the high desert, where we are. The very first community college district you run into when you get to the bottom of the hill, the chancellor there told me that they’re down another fifteen percent this year. And then when you move one district over that has three colleges in it, one of the Presidents told me she’s down fifty percent from her pre-COVID enrollment. So, every college down there is down until you get probably 45 miles away, and then it may be not so bad. But I think the very fact that we are up to six percent this year it’s pretty amazing.

Dr. Diane Walleser: Yes! We’re not hearing stories like this. Let’s just say that.

Dr. Daniel Walden:  So I say just wait and see. Because what we have been working on since December has nothing to do with this year. I’ve had a team of people working intensely since last December, all on the fall semester of 2022. And that’s where I really say and just wait and see. Because we think it’s going to really happen this coming fall, and we’re going to really ring some bells in regard to how you can get back numbers. I don’t know that we’ll get back to students we lost because I believe most of them went on to do whatever else they’re going to do in life, but we can get these numbers back in other ways. 

One of the things for the future of this program of Connect2Success Center is we want it to become the hub for the whole virtual digital matriculation of students into the campus. We’re not going to take away that face-to-face. One-stop is still there. But they’re free to really help people that walk in the door without having to go through the virtual elements like phones and email and so on. We want this Connect2Success Center to be the central hub for that part of that digital matriculation, to house everything that incoming or prospective students need with Connect2Success to successfully matriculate into the campus. 

The goal is to become the central hub by providing wraparound support and truly embodying the caring campus. So that it isn’t just one call, one email, but it’s one call, is all. And to do that, one of the things we expect to see is a whole other division of this Connect2Success that focuses just on current, returning students and their needs. We want to be the primary source of information that allows those current and returning students. Right now, we’re serving everyone, but the focus has really been on new students. And to have a whole other branch that specifically is dedicated to returning students, making sure they’re aware that they can access campus resources and that they get the nudges that they need. 

Like, ‘Did you know that you just need two more classes to actually graduate?’ Or that kind of thing. I can see us move to actually hiring counselors that work just in this digital environment and hiring financial aid people that work just in the digital environment. So you have this total wraparound thing going on. And I’ll knock out as many walls as I need to knock out and hire as many people as we need to hire because I actually am crazy enough to think this will work. And it will more than pay for itself.

Dr. Diane Walleser: You are on your way! I’m gonna get geeky on you here. Are you using a knowledge base? Or, what’s behind all of this and helps your staff understand all the answers to the questions? Or what’s your infrastructure behind the support for your technicians? 

Dr. Daniel Walden: So we hired these two supervisors last spring. So way before the call center ever opened. And the first thing they did was develop training manuals. I hired some pretty qualified people. One of the supervisors was the special assistant to the CEO of AT&T and handled those highest level complaints that get passed by everybody else, and finally, they end up on the CEO’s desk because they’re going to court or they’re going to do something, and she was the person that handled that. I was able to somehow snag her out of the waters and pull her in here. 

Then we hired another young lady that just had all the qualities, and they have just been the perfect two people to get in and work together. They complement one another. They get along. They built this whole thing together. And so what they did is they created the training manuals, and then over time, everyone’s knowledge base is increasing — so that they’re learning a little more about financial aid. At this level, they’re not handling the deep issues of financial aid. That’s going to go over to the one-stop and be assigned to a manager who will give it to a technician or handle it himself or herself. As it’s morphing, these people are really getting smart. They know more about the college than I do, I’ll tell you that. If I really need to know something, I’m gonna call the Connect2Success line. 

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: The fact that you brought them in, not only the staff were the technicians, but the supervisors, meaning they knew they had to look at the problem, and said, ‘What do I need to know to answer the questions and to train people?’ And that means they got the knowledge based on being an outsider, as opposed to when insiders do this frequently, they either dive too deep, or they think it’s very clear because ‘I developed this!’ 

And it isn’t clear. You understand it because this is your area, but other people, as you try to explain it, it’s not clear to them. But with all of these folks coming in from the outside, they brought a willingness to understand it. They also brought the right questions that are being asked by new students coming in. 

I’ve talked to financial aid folks and counselors, and sometimes you ask them what you think is a simple question. And they deep dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in terms of giving you such detailed information that not only is it too much, but it didn’t answer my question because they know it so well. It’s not clear in many ways. So bringing these folks in means that you built the system around — not from an insider point of view — but from the outside, or what you need to know to help them point of view. And that’s, that’s brilliant. 

Dr. Daniel Walden: When you put insiders in, and we’re all like this, I’m like this too, it’s, ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way.’ Or, ‘We tried that before.’ I’ve not heard that one time from this group because they’d never tried it before because they weren’t here before. The other thing that I did was I hired only people with an entrepreneurial mindset. I wasn’t interested in hiring employees. When I hired these people in this center, I wanted to hire people who come to work like an entrepreneur, with the mindset ‘this is my thing. How can I make this better? Because this thing is depending on me, and this is my shop, and I own it.’ And I empower them to do that.

And so I asked every single one of them in their final interviews, I said, ‘What do you want to be doing?’ First of all, I asked them, ‘What would I as President say about you in five years?’ And then I got some really good responses on that. But then I said, ‘what do you see yourself doing?’ Because they were mostly younger people. Not really young, but younger, in their 20s or maybe early 30s. And I said, ‘So what do you want to be doing ten years from now?’ None of them wanted to still be in the call center, and I made sure that I didn’t hire anyone who saw themselves as someone sitting just answering calls. They want to go somewhere in the institution. These people are going to feed other positions as I get openings at a higher level. And this entrepreneurial mindset that they’re allowed to develop over here is going to come into the and infiltrate the campus as these people get promoted. And I will always be hiring, I’m telling you, but as long as I’m president, I will hire every new person that goes into that connect to Success Center.

Dr. Diane Walleser: Dan, what do you think the Connect2Success Center means for your students? Especially low-income, first-gen students, you must serve a very diverse population. And those are the ones that get really, really stopped out by all the barriers. What are your thoughts on how that will help them?

Dr. Daniel Walden: So this whole thing is equity-driven. It’s all about giving everyone an equal bite at the apple. Whether you’re short or tall, somehow, you’re gonna get the same bite of the apple. It’s not just the giraffes that are going to get this bite at the apple. We’re going to create a ladder or whatever we need to do so that you get high enough on the tree that you get to bite the apple. And to me, this whole thing is about equity. 

This is about diversity. It’s about equity. It’s about inclusion. It’s about giving the people who normally get the leftovers to give them as if they were walking into Nordstrom. And maybe they never buy anything in there, but they get to go in there, and you get anything in the store that anybody else can get, you’re gonna get the first-class treatment, just like somebody with money or somebody with privilege, or somebody who knows a board member, or whatever. You don’t have to know a board member to get treated the five-star experience at this college. You’re going to get it at this center because we’re with programming. And you know what? I call over there. The other day, I had a Vice President with me, and I said, let’s call the center and let’s see what kind of response we get. 

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: Your own marketing research!

Dr. Daniel Walden: I have a President friend, and I’m thinking about doing this, he’s in Texas, but he hires 20 student shoppers every year. He doesn’t tell anybody who they are. So not even his own confidential group at the college — the Vice Presidents and so on do not know who these shoppers are, and they’re out there. 

He meets with them three times a year, and they give him feedback on their experience on the campus. He’s one of these guys, that the whole college goes around saying, ‘I love you.’ His mantra is ‘I love you.’ If you love people, you’re only interested in the things that are going to lift them up and help them in life, and if they feel loved, they won’t leave, they’ll finish. So that’s just another way of saying I love you, because we’re doing the work of love, it’s the effort of reaching out and doing something about what you say you feel, which is love. Are you willing to do the work of love? Otherwise, it’s not really love. 

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: You know what, I was wrong. You’re not national class. You’re world-class. That’s amazing. That commitment it takes for you to take that on because a lot of presidents will assign it to somebody else and say, ‘go do it.’

And this shows what presidential focus can do, first of all, and having a real focus on caring about students and showing that you care about students. Because you’re right, we use caring, but we frequently don’t say love, and that’s actually the difference between an okay experience, a good experience, and a great one. It is how much I feel the love from the college, showing me that I matter to them. That’s world-class stuff.

Dr. Daniel Walden:  We’re building the caring campus. It is not built, but we’re building it, and I just think that it will. I think Peter Drucker said something like, and I’m sure you’ve heard this, that ‘culture eats strategy for lunch, or breakfast,’ whichever meal you’re having. Culture doesn’t change overnight. Culture changes when you go in, and you stay, and you keep doing the right thing and saying the right things. And you get about fifteen to twenty percent of the people with you that are passionate about what you’re doing, and when that happens, you’re on your way because there’s about sixty percent out there. They’re just waiting on somebody to nudge them. 

You got the other opposite end, of the fifteen to twenty percent on that are the naysayers, and they want to kill everything that happens. And they gather around the water coolers, but you get momentum like that and get the sixty percent with the twenty percent in the early part, the passionate people and change agents. Then, you’ve got eighty percent of your institution moving in the right direction, and the others, they’ll either just go off and crawl in a hole, or they might even change their mind, or they’ll retire or do something else. 

But to make that happen, it takes time. People got to know that you’re here long enough that it’s not going to change. I had someone just recently who had been here for many years come and tell me, ‘I retired. I’m leaving because I don’t like the direction of the college is going in.’ And he’s failing fifty-five percent of his students and has been doing that for years. They only have forty-five percent exceed. That’s not okay. 

I’ve not been personally on him, but what he’s feeling is the pressure of everything that’s happening around him because we’re trying to go after this Aspen Prize and be the number one community college in the nation and to be recognized as such. Our aspirational statement is, and this is in our educational master plan, that ‘we are the best at what we do.’ And because we are the best at what we do, we are also recognized for it. And so if you’re really good at it, somebody’s gonna recognize you.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: That journey alone calls everybody to a higher level of excellence. A million years ago, I wrote a speech for my president, and I learned what the word mediocrity stands for. Mediocrity comes from the word medocris, which is the midpoint in a journey. And it’s settling, you’re no longer uncomfortable, and you’re not there, but you’re willing to settle. And what you’re doing is saying, ‘we are never going to settle, we’re going to be we’re going where we’re heading for the best that we can do, and anything less than that is not okay.’

And you’re right, the people who aren’t willing to give that aren’t will sort themselves out. They’ll decide they want to make an effort, or they won’t. This isn’t the commitment they’re willing to make. And that’s okay, that this is a place where the students deserve our best. So for you guys to call out that you’re going to be the best at what you do, that’s what you are. That’s what the students deserve.

Dr. Daniel Walden: That’s exactly what I was gonna say. Don’t the students deserve that? I mean, if some of these colleges that have been winning this Aspen Prize, they’re just little podunk places. They’re out there in the middle of nowhere. One of them, not far from where I grew up in West, Texas, is Odessa, Texas, Odessa College. And, hey, we got mountains around us here. Odessa has nothing around it except oil wells and smells like oil wells, and yet here they are, a college in Texas — who gets students from their feeder high schools, the lowest-performing students in the entire state — and they turned things around. This legislature was going to close the college down, and within six years, they’re recognized as one of the top Aspen colleges, and Aspen telling them just last year you have the highest success rates of any community college in the United States. How do you take the lowest-performing high school students and make them the highest performing college students?

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: How do you do that? Well, you focus on the data, and you focus on service and cohorts. All of those. We’ve been the agency of record in the past for Odessa, and we were there when they were going to be defunded. We worked through that piece, and we were there when they passed their bond to allow them to build the kind of buildings and space they needed to be able to do those things. 

I know the president and that demand for success that we’re not going to settle for second tier. I will tell you, I was in the audience when he told the entire population of his campus, ‘I hear a lot of you talking about what you have to do, we have to do this, we have to do that.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to hear it, I want to hear, I get to do this, I get to do that. Because the students deserve us, embracing them and being excited about the work we get to do for them. And it’s not I have to, it’s an I’m honored to do this.’ 

And that was part of their shift. And that presidential focus, he had it, and clearly, you do too, which is it’s fun to see what you’re doing. And I’ll just say, we’re all honored that we are a part of being able to drive people to your front door and know that they’re going to be taken care of in the way that they deserve. That’s soul food for those of us here.

Dr. Daniel Walden: I like coming to work feeling like I’m making a difference. If I could no longer do that, then I’ll ride off into the sunset. But coming to work, knowing that you’re making a difference, and students are going to be walking across that stage in June because you have to make that possible for them. It’s like they say, do something you love, and you never work a day in your life.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:  I think we’re lucky that’s this is what we do. This is what you do. Thank you for your time. I appreciate it. This has been a great conversation. And I have no doubt you’re going to get a few phone calls from presidents saying, ‘Help me, Help me!’ Because what you’re doing is the stuff that so many try and so few succeed at.

Dr. Daniel Walden: I’m happy to share whatever that we have done with anyone else because I didn’t get here without learning from others. So thank you, I’d be happy to do it.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto: Thank you, Dan.

Dr. Daniel Walden: Thank you, Pam. Thank you, Diane.

Thank you for listening to another episode of the Community College Marketing Master Class podcast hosted by Interact’s team of 2-year college experts. For more community college resources, insights, and downloads, including the transcript of today’s show, visit Interactcom.com. That’s Interactcom.com. And don’t forget to follow Interact on social media and subscribe to this podcast to keep your finger on the pulse of higher ed trends. That’s all for today. Good luck herding cats out there, and we’ll catch you next time.

By Published On: May 2, 2022Last Updated: June 14, 2022Categories: PodcastsTags: ,