April 25, 2012

From ‘Freedom to Flourish’ to ‘financial impregnability’

After two months of preliminary investigation into Knox’s marketing, the Art & Science Group presented its initial findings and recommendations to a group of around 55 faculty and staff members on Tuesday.

According to its website, the Art & Science Group specializes in market research for higher education institutions and nonprofits. President Teresa Amott had previously worked with the firm at Bucknell University and Hobart and William Smith Colleges and decided to enlist their services after learning that Knox had never done a study of its admissions marketing.

“I’ve seen it work at other institutions in ways that were actually helpful,” she said. “We do face some really substantial challenges, even though we are a gem.”

While Tuesday was the first time that Art & Science had held an open meeting with faculty and staff, they have already spoken with key faculty and staff and student focus groups in addition to reviewing data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey, studies of admissions and financial aid by Professor of Economics Rich Stout and several other sources.

The initial impression, according to Art & Science principal Richard Hesel, is that Knox has pursued its educational mission “remarkably well” and maintained a high level of student engagement despite pressure on the budget. Initiatives to contain endowment spending and cut costs have also largely been successful.

“You’re as close to financial stability as circumstances and resources permit,” Hesel said.

Despite these achievements, Knox’s competitive position has declined in recent years, with fewer students applying and more doing so for financial reasons as opposed to the college’s educational offerings.

“You need more students who come here because … the Knox experience is what they want, because Knox as an educational institution and experience is highly desirable,” Hesel said.

Even though Knox draws many students due to financial aid, Hesel pointed out that it still gives much less aid than many of its peer institutions. This has been accompanied by a decision in the early 2000s to decrease Knox’s upfront tuition costs — a strategy that does not appear to have benefited the college.

“What it probably means … is that you end up with less net tuition revenue that you can invest in the educational experience … but haven’t gained a marketing advantage as a consequence,” Hesel said.

In order to both increase Knox’s appeal and pursue financial impregnability, Hesel and Art & Science Marketing Associate Eric Collum emphasized the need to better communicate the value of a Knox education to prospective students.

“You have to improve your competitive position by strengthening … your perceived value,” Hesel said. “Students who come here get it, I think. We just need more of them to get it.”

Two primary strategies were proposed to help achieve this goal: refocusing marketing messages and telling Knox’s story through the voices of its students. The first, according to Hesel, arises out of Knox’s plethora of marketing slogans, from “I am Knox” to “Make a statement, make a difference.” Instead, Knox should hone in on one phrase: “Freedom to flourish.”

When asked by Instructor of Art Mike Godsil whether this would mean eliminating the other messages, Collum emphasized that the ultimate decision rested with Knox but that his impression of slogans such as “I am Knox” was not entirely favorable.

“’This is Knox’ could be filled with anything. It doesn’t really say anything,” Collum said. “’Freedom to flourish’ actually does say something; … it gives an impression.”

Adjustments to marketing on the Knox website and its social media platforms were also suggested to help create a more compelling message for prospective students. Essential to the process, Hesel said, was conveying Knox’s essence through the experiences of its students.

“One thing we were struck by … is that your students really have interesting stories to tell,” he said. “We’re suggesting focus[ing] on ‘Freedom to flourish’ and then using these examples of the student experience [and] student voices that demonstrate how that works.”

The next phase of the Art & Science Group’s study will commence in mid-May with telephone and paper surveys with hundreds of admitted students. Hesel and Collum hope to have new marketing ideas based on the data collected ready by early fall.

“Knox has a personality. We’ve worked at places that don’t have a lot of personality, and Knox certainly has it,” Collum said. “The trick is to capture it.”

Anna Meier

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