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Segmented, Stretched, and Misunderstood: Student Affairs Marketing and Communications

Segmented, stretched and misunderstood: the current state of SA marketing and communications

That’s the tweet. The TLDR. The spoiler alert.

What is the current state of student affairs marketing and communications? 

It is segmented, stretched, and misunderstood. 

For over 10 years, I have been supporting and strategizing marketing and communications across campus, especially in student affairs. 

During the spring of 2022, I began formally researching how the student affairs divisions within colleges and universities were operating marketing and communication functions:

  • What was the staffing structure like, from position titles to reporting structures?
  • What was compensation, professional development, and training? 
  • Were there budgets in place? And did people know they could use them?
  • Are departments/divisions centralized or decentralized, or somewhere in between?

I recently presented these findings, and I’d encourage you to check out the full recording and presentation deck. 

For today, I’m sharing a few major findings.

Representation Gaps

At the time of writing, the research is based on 25 campuses. We had multiple institution types, including four-year large and medium, and both residential and non-residential. However, diversity is lacking, with the majority of participants/marketing professionals identifying as white and small colleges and two-year colleges were not represented.

That said, Student Affairs MarComm staff is experienced. Over half of the participants had at least 11 years under their belt. The pay range was staggering. Although a combined 48% were in the 60-80K range, there was a large gap in how directors were paid — some as low as 65K, others over 100K. 

Student Affairs Staffing Problems

Unfortunately, this is an ongoing staffing problem in HigherEd as a whole, and the pandemic may have made things worse. From retaining staff to recruiting them. Participants expressed this clearly. 

“We are extremely short staffed due to vacancies that occurred throughout the pandemic and are having a hard time getting applicants.”

– Director Marketing and Communication; 4-year, public land grant university. 

The majority of respondents do not have full-time or part-time reports. Others are getting by with a little help from their students, who say they actually couldn’t do their jobs without their student assistants. This results in missed opportunities and limits long-term strategy. They’re stretched so thin day-to-day work doesn’t get completed in a timely fashion. 

“Some of the regular “maintenance” type work that needs to be done (e.g., proactive updates to the website, refreshed designs of newsletters, etc.) gets missed because I am often too busy just keeping up with the latest fires that need to be doused.” – Director of Communications for Student Life; Large four-year highly residential institution in the midwest.

What Is The Budget? And Do We Have One? 

I knew we had a funding problem. 

Sixty-two and a half of the respondents said they had no formal budget or were unaware of their budget for marketing and communication operations or needs.

One associate director from a four-year, medium, highly residential university said, “We request through our VPs office at budget call and hope for the best.”

How are we strategically planning when folks are unaware of their resources? 

Another participant reported they have to request money from their business officer as needed. 

What does this look like when some departments have funding but others do not? 

Is Centralization the Answer?

It might be. It doesn’t always look the same and may never truly be “done,” even when implemented. Still, there’s evidence to support it may be the right direction for clear communication lines, equal funding, breaking down divisional silos, and reaching students.

For one, it’s a quality-over-quantity approach. 

One study participant said, “It is turning down the volume of the many messages to better allow the priority messaging to come through. There are still too many emails, social channels, apps, and websites. It takes a lot of time and money to figure out what resources to put where, what to add, and what to subtract.” 

A director of marketing and communications from a public research university in the southeast, who has implemented a centralized approach, said, “The centralized structure allows for better coordination across departments and provides support to those staff members that they weren’t receiving before the centralization. The feedback I’ve received from them has been that they are happier and more engaged being part of a larger creative team.”

It’s going to take time. For those who have already started the process, it took them at least a year and a half or more. Things may get political during the implementation, explaining the benefits of centralization and why students come first is key. Moreover, involve the right stakeholders. Is your VP in the know? Are they aware of the lack of staffing, funding, and overall support for marketing?

“I think the future is bright for us, and we need to keep plugging along and doing the work. But I also think we need to keep advocating and getting leadership to advocate for us and if they don’t already understand – get on the same page and see why this is so critical.”

How Can Josie Help?

I support student affairs marketing and communications through various mediums and work with you and your departments to meet your goals. Here are some ways I can help: 

  1. Training
    • Keynotes, full-day, and multi-day facilitations. I customize sessions to educate your entire division, marketing pros, executives, and your students. 
  2. Consulting
    • Semester or yearly services specializing in student-centered tactics, strategic communications, and division-wide strategy. 
  3. Digital Community Building Cohort
    • A two-month higher education group mastermind that advances your social strategy skills – from goal-setting tactics and analytics. The next cohort starts in January 2023!  

What’s Next?

The study is still open and will be accepting responses until December 1st. I’d love your input to inform not just this study, but to understand the entire industry better. 

Next up, I am also developing a benchmark rubric, a job description database, a directory for student affairs MarComm, and a toolkit for SA centralization. 

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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