Establishing and maintaining strong lines of communication with stakeholders is of critical importance for today’s higher education institutions. Constituents are developing an increasingly voracious appetite for timely, relevant and specific information, and are voting with their feet and dollars for institutions that meet those needs. While certain financial and nonfinancial reports are compulsory, higher education leaders are taking deliberate measures to go above and beyond by proactively disclosing fiscal and operational performance to demonstrate transparency and a commitment to the relationships between the institution and its stakeholders.
An institution’s constituency tends to be quite diverse, with each segment possessing its own unique set of needs. Whether addressing internal stakeholders (boards, students, alumni, faculty, administration, etc.) or external constituencies (parents, prospective students, regulators, corporate partners, credit rating agencies, the media, the broader community, etc.), institutions are deploying enhanced communication techniques to build awareness, increase engagement, earn trust and demonstrate goodwill. After all, an institution’s reputation and stakeholders’ perception are largely shaped by the number and types of touches brought to the attention of these constituencies.
Enrollment, funding, alumni relations and internal project support are on the line
In an era of increased scrutiny, college and university leaders are under ever-greater pressure to differentiate from competitors, demonstrate the value of a degree, and assure prospective students that their future employment and/or graduate school aspirations are attainable. Compelling engagement with prospective students can significantly affect the level of interest generated, total number of applications received, selectivity metrics and overall student quality. Improving communications and relationships with current students leads to improved responses from ranking institutions’ student surveys and begins the lifelong alumni relationship on the right foot.
From a fundraising perspective, an institution’s ability to engage alumni, share relevant information and establish a tradition of giving has tremendous impact on financial position. There are staggering differences in results between institutions that engage alumni with effective messaging, and those that lack a formal alumni relations and development strategy. Overall revenue diversity and financing of future growth hang in the balance.
Since the definition of institutional success may vary from one constituency to the next, maintaining open lines of communication is key to generating dialogue and fostering mutual understanding. For instance, many institutions are in the midst of formulating or implementing transformation initiatives; it is critical to be proactive in providing information to those who will be affected by change, and in answering questions to build trust, demonstrate transparency and alleviate anxiety. Clearly articulating anticipated changes, expected benefits and implementation timelines enables leaders to set expectations for faculty, staff and other key stakeholders.
Institutions have found that communications and transparency work
Institutions are taking the cue that stakeholders expect more communications than in the past.
- Relationships with current students: Observing a spike in student loan defaults, Indiana University decided to increase transparency about student loans. The university provided current students with a report of what their postgraduation loan payments and total debt would be. Students heeded the message; according to Bloomberg Business, federal undergraduate Stafford loan disbursements dropped by $31 million (11%) in nine months.1
- Alumni relations: Clemson University is recognized by The Princeton Review as No. 1 in the country in its list of top 10 colleges with the best alumni network.2 Beyond traditional means of interacting with alumni — such as direct mail, email and social media — Clemson’s exceptional alumni engagement can be largely attributed to the university’s vast network of Clemson clubs and special-interest groups, and the university’s focus on delivering a consistent message through that network regarding what it means to be an alumnus in terms of obligations and privilege. Such an infrastructure helps facilitate the institution’s ability to share information about recent activities on campus, articulate how alumni can help their alma mater on a national and local level, and build cohesive engagement. Viewing its 75-plus Clemson clubs across the country as a communications channel, volunteer leaders, along with young alumni councils and a robust alumni relations staff, help foster a lifelong connection between the institution and its alumni. Clemson’s alumni relations and constituent engagement strategy is one part of what enables the university to achieve its No. 1 ranking in The Princeton Review’s best career services.3
What does good look like?
- Institutional transformation: Communicating via a less traditional medium, the University of Michigan maintains a YouTube page with over 11,000 subscribers and approximately 3.7 million views.4 Posts include an inside look at a nurse’s job in the university health system, TED-like talks and student perspectives about campus. An April 2015 post is a 19-minute discussion of the budgeting process; eight months after posting, it had been viewed almost 900 times.5 The discussion traces the progress of cost-cutting measures; addresses criticism and describes changes in the sources of funding; delineates budget allocations, models and processes; and articulates the beneficial outcomes of the new approach to budgeting. Additionally, the university’s website reports on financial positioning and ongoing budgeting efforts. This level of information sharing about rationales for decision-making enables an open dialogue with the internal and external community.
Higher education institutions are improving transparency and sharing information in many ways. A few best practices stand out.
- Timeliness: Provide data consistently and quickly after it is available or collected.
- Appropriate level of information: Communicate the right level of quantity and complexity, based on each constituency’s degree of interest. When burdened with too much unexplained data, the message gets lost. When information is meager, stakeholders have more questions and less trust.
- Full disclosure: To build trust, share the bad with the good. Be forthcoming about challenges, crises and other less-than-optimal situations. Accompany these reports with a description of remedial actions or plans.
- Open conversations: Keep the conversation a two-way street; develop channels of communication so that constituents can speak to you. Listen and respond.
- Metrics that matter: Align metrics to a broader vision and strategy, and demonstrate how the institution is executing its key mission and values. However, understand that data alone doesn’t explain anything. Provide analysis and accompany it with interpretation, and explain what the institution intends to do in response.
Partnering with your constituents is part of the foundation for your institution’s success. As in any partnership, trust is earned through honesty and transparency. Earn your partners’ trust by maintaining meaningful, ongoing communication to tell the story of what has been done, what is being done and what comes next.
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The State of Higher Education in 2016