The Higher Ed Marketer
The Higher Ed Marketer

Episode 61 · 8 months ago

Being Competitive With Bold Marketing


A small liberal arts college education comes with many benefits, but most also come with an expensive price tag. Does it have to be that way? 

In this episode, Dr. Scott Feller, President at Wabash College, shares how to provide an elite education without an elite price tag. Dr. Feller explains the benefits leading with student outcomes, embracing comparison, and building a philanthropic alumni network. 

We discuss:

  • Why to lead with outcomes
  • How philanthropy becomes self-perpetuating 
  • How to be competitive with larger schools   

To hear more interviews like this one, subscribe to Higher Ed Marketer on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.  

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The High Red Marketer podcast is sponsored by the ZEMI APP enabling colleges and universities to engage interested students before the even apply. You were listening to the Higher Ed Marketer, a podcast geared towards marketing professionals in higher education. This show will tackle all sorts of questions related to student recruitment, don'tor relations, marketing trends, new technologies and so much more. If you are looking for conversation centered around where the industry is going, this podcast is for you. Let's get into the show. Welcome to the High Reed Marketer podcast. I'm troy singer here with Bart Taylor and this week we speak with Dr Scott Feller. He's the president of Wabash College. It is an all men's college in the State of Indiana, and we talked to Dr Feller about leaning in and marketing your distinctives and he brings his message very boldly and very dynamically. Yeah, Troy, it's a great conversation. I was really excited to have Dr Feller on the on the podcast today. He was an introduction via Ethan Braden from purdue, and so Ethan really encourage me to reach out to Dr Feller. He had heard him talk about, you know, trying to switch the emphasis to outcomes as opposed to, you know, selling the academics necessarily, and I think that Scott does a great job of articulating that and explaining how he leverages those distinctives of a small private men's college into really the benefit that that students and families can understand. I'm excited to get into this conversation with Dr Scott Feller. It's our pleasure to welcome Dr Scott Feller, president of Wabash College, to the High Red Marketer podcast. And Scott, before we get into some of the uniqueness of how your marketing Wabash, if you could give our listeners a little bit about the college and some of the unique things about it if for some of them that are not familiar that they should know? Thank you very much. Yeah, we're very unique college. We're one of only three all male liberal arts colleges in the country. So we're locating Crawford Zool, Indiana, with a hundred percent residential campus. It consists of about eight hundred and fifty young men. I've been the president here for about eighteen, nineteen months, but I've spent this my twenty four year at Wall Bays. I began my career as a faculty member, served as the college is chief academic officer and July of two thousand and twenty I moved over to the president's room. Thank you, Scott. And one of the things that sticks out to me as we speak to you and reading about the college is that the college is unapologetically a residential Liberal Arts College for men in Indiana. That very much right. We're we have a unique mission. We know it. Every student, Faculty and staff member knows our mission. We're very committed to it. We know it's not for everyone, but we think that for many young men it's a really excellent option and and we're very committed to you know, traditional liberal arts. The education here is both timeless in terms of based on a liberal arts curriculum that emphasizes clear written in oral communication, critical thinking, moral reasoning the ability to work with others, but it's also timely in that it's very much focused on sending young men from Wabash college out into the world. Thank you. I think some would even say that some of your marketing and how you compare yourself to the others could be bold so if we can start out our conversation by how wabash leads with the great outcomes. Yeah, we've probably been about three or four years in a model where we really lead with outcomes. I think traditionally small liberal arts colleges we tend to lead with what we are, not what we get done. Everyone says they're a...

...unique small community and they're right, but at the end of the day I think students and their families want to know what is going to be my experience through an after Wabash College. So we talked a lot about graduation rates. Young men are not graduating from college at great rates, so we're very proud. We think our focus on young men and their success gives us an advantage there. We also know that families are concerned about the return on their investment. Wabash is quite an affordable option for families, but we're still asking people to invest their time and their money. So we're very proud. We lead with the fact that ninety eight to a hundred percent of our graduates are settled in their first destination a couple of months passed graduation. We lead with our position in national rankings. We end up at the top of some very good lists. One that were particularly proud of is that we have the number one alumni network in the country as part of the secret and how we get these guys placed in internships and jobs. We also have some really enviable numbers from, for example, pay scale on the salary data ten years out, salary data, big career where we're among the top liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. So student can come to Wallbash, student can get a liberal arts education and the student can set themselves up for a lifetime of both satisfaction and professional success. As far as we're concerned, that's great. And I really like this idea of outcomes because, I mean, I've been in high red marketing for number of years and you know consistently over at least the less last five or ten years that whenever you look at the surveys from parents or even just from from students them solves, they always want to know that return on the investment. What what is it going to be for the outcome? And I know that we've talked with Jeff Fanter, used to be the executive vice president, and I've I've at Ivy Tech here in Indiana, the community college network he was really pushing outcomes because their data was showing the same thing that a lot of high school students and even nontraditional adults who are likely to go to community colleges looking for that outcome data and actually are. We were introduced through Ethan Braden, a friend of ours from Purdue University that that has been on the podcast a couple times, and he said, you know, you really need to talk to to Scott at wabash because they're doing some really great things with outcomes, and I'm just always fascinated with that because I do think you've got something there. Is that people want to understand where they're where they're going to be after this investment, and I think that colleges, especially traditional liberal arts colleges like wabash. Is Been Easy for us as academics to emphasize learning for the sake of learning, right the the many benefits that accrue from studying the liberal arts. But you know, we actually have to make sure that those of us who are not true believers, those of us who are not from the inside, we've got to translate this into the objective measures of success of a college. So we are we think that learned we think a lifelong love of learning is something that we impart in every student. But I guess at the end the day we don't maybe lead with that right we lead with things like graduation rate, first destination rate, salaries, awards that our students went. Yeah, I think that's interesting because I've also seen a lot of schools that are making a little bit of a pivot to you know, it's called kind of story branding, in the idea that you make the student the hero of the story. Traditionally, I think a lot of time schools try to make themselves the hero, to say hey, look at us, look at what we've done, look at our accolades or rankings, and not that you're doing that at any way. You were actually making this the student,...

...the hero, by telling them what they can expect out of their out of their experience. That's exactly right. On Friday I spoke to about a hundred perspective students at a visit day we had there, and my message to them was to talk to Babash students, current students, so that they could understand the trajectory they could be on next year, because we do. We want the students to imagine themselves as a successful wabash student and that, at the end of the day, is very important us. We're very proud that we meet each student where he is and and so the student story is the important story. The student outcome is the most important story. That's great. Thank you. Along with outcomes, you also have the philosophy about embracing comparison and would like to know if you could share that philosophy with our listeners. Yeah, we've decided we're going to be pretty bold and put this stuff out there. I think there are it's a crowded market residential liberal arts colleges in the Midwest where we're located, and we've got to distinguish ourselves from others. So we emphasize often are are placing rankings, you know, most accessible faculty, top career center, best athletic facilities, a lot of metrics like that where you can see wabash ranked among the top colleges in the nation. So and when we look at something like we look at pay scale and we look at those salary data, they are incredible on their own, but I think what's really incredible is to look and see the neighborhood of other colleges that were with. It's the top colleges in the country and, quite frankly, those colleges they roll a lot more students who had a pretty good head start in life. We continue to draw students, lot of pilgrim recipients, lot of first generation college students. So the fact that our value ad is really high and we're not afraid to put that up and compare it with another college. We're also very transparent. All our retention data, all our graduation rate data, everything about student of factory ratios, you name it. We put pages and pages of that out there and that we share with people because we're quite friendly. Were pretty proud and you should be, and I think that that's I think that would be a good note for our listeners. There's always something that you can share that's distinctive about your school. You know, we've talked to here wabashes, a small men's Liberal Arts College, and you can say, well, you know, they're special because there are men's only. Well, yes, they are, but that also adds a general that as as some challenges because you just cut your market place and half. So I think that one of the things, though, that I'm kind of thinking through. Scott that you've talked about. That I just want to kind of emphasize a little bit is this whole nature of really kind of leaning into who you are and then making the most of it and then you know and then being bold about that. I mean, I love the fact that you might be the Best College in America. You kind of claim that and I think that takes some some hood spot to do that. But I think you also have some things that you can vary articulately put out there and say this is why we think so and this is the data that supports it, and I think that I would really challenge a lot of schools to look at your data and find where are those places that set you apart from everyone else and try to stop being the me too in your marketing and start trying to be a little bit more of this is who we are, and I think you're going to find more mission fit students because they want to, they're drawn to the places that they want to be. Yes, certainly we are looking for the mission fit students. You know, Bart, when you say we, when we describe ourselves as Liberal Arts College for men, now we lose a lot more than half of the market with that state backly. Yeah, all right, we definitely lose sixty percent at least of the Liberal Arts College market. And then the...

...fact is that a single sex college is not whatever the experience. Everyone is looking for. So we're going after a particular student who is driven, who wants to get somewhere, and so that's why I think our comparative approach to marketing fins so well with who we are. We're also very competitive here. So we're celebrating on this campus last week. Are Wrestling team play second in the nation and division three and our basketball team played the final four. This place is competitive. That's part of in our DNA. So what we tell students is we're going to compare with others. We tell students you're going to learn more, you're going to earn more, you're going to lead more and you're going to play more. And so that's our that's our promise to students and, as you say, we work. We work hard to back it up. Yeah, well, being a alumni of Anderson University, I can attest to the competitiveness because we always played wabash in in football. I was not on the team, but I was in the stands cheering during those games. So that was that's exciting. Scott. A conversation that I've had the privilege of being privy to that Bart has with schools is for liberal arts colleges to really realize who the real competition is, and it might not necessarily be the other liberal arts colleges around you. Well, like to know your thoughts about that and your approach to the school saying who you consider is your competition. Yeah, try, you're exactly right. You know, we we have some crossover with the Paul and early for example, but that is dwarfed by our crossover applications with Purdue University and Indiana University. The competition is about drawing students to private residential colleges away from, you know, let's say, the familiar names, the the large are one flagships in their state. In Indiana that happens to be particularly tough competition because in Purdue University in Indiana University we really are competing against two very strong flagships and we know it. But when we go out of state, when we go to Texas again, we're not necessarily competing with a Texas Liberal Arts College. Were more likely competing with the University of Texas at Austin were competing with, you know, university Texas southwest. So that for us is we know that's where we lose the students. We have to differentiate the college experience here. We think that we're in a great position to differentiate that, but we also know we have to work really hard to get people's attention perdue and I you have such great built in ways to grab a student's attention. You know, if I could be on ESPN game a day, everyone's blow, I think I'd feel pretty good about our jets is with seventy year old young men. But that's all the way the worlds. That's right and I think I think you're so right in that because, I mean, I've often told a lot of my clients who are small faith based institutions here in Indiana. I know you can drive up interstate sixty nine and hit five or six schools that maybe appear to be similar. They're very different, but I've often told them that you're not competing a guest one another. You might cross APP with each other, but at the end of the day you're competing against, you know, the the state schools, and sometimes you're even a competing against life itself. More and more students are looking at gap years. More and more students and families are considering other creative ways of looking at it because, I mean, you know, let's be honest, even though schools make it affordable for students, the public, many times, especially Firstgen students and pell grant recipient family households don't quite understand how everything works, with with discount rates, with with scholarships, with financial aid,...

...with grants, and so I think that part of it is recognizing who the true competition is and many times that's just life itself and and what I would consider a little bit of just Nativity with with some of the families that they just don't understand and they think I could never afford a private college because that sounds elite and expensive. I'm going to have to go either to a public school or to a community college. How do you address those types of questions? You know what I talked with the family. I trying to share with them that we offer an elite education without any elitism. Right. We want to bring everybody to the table. So we've worked really hard at a couple of things. Transparency and financial aid is one of the ways that we go about we're very straightforward. With an Indiana student WHO's a pell grant recipient, for example, of He's been receiving free introduced lunch. He's going to receive pell grant, he's going to receive a grant from the State of Indiana and Wabash is going to write off the rest of the tuition with scholarship. So we say that from day one you're admitted to Wabash College, tuition is covered, and so that's been a big part of our messaging, as well as emphasizing our net price calculator or people can find out what the cost it is is going to be. I don't know what the answer is in terms of a sticker price versus the net price and the depth counting I feel that are. I guess I like our net price because it reflects how much we spend on students. Yeah, and that's not true in every college, but if you take our college's budgets, around forty five million dollars and you divided it by eight hundred eight under fifty students, you get our staker price. Now. Now the fact is that our students are paying a fraction of that because of philanthropy. You know that our students are typically, if they have any kind of financial lead, they're not really going to pay much more here than they would to go to produce or I you, because the this college runs on philanthropy. But admittedly it took me a long time to explain that in this podcast. It's not a sound bite, it's it involves developing a relationship with a family and and trying to explain it. So I wish there was a slogan that would help people see through the fog of scholarship and pricing. But on the other hand I want people to know this is an elite education. Somebody is going to spend more than Fiftyzero on your education at Wabash. Around two thirds of that is going to come for our alumni and friends in philanthropy, either the accumulated philanthropy of our endowment or hand you will give it right. So that's the tricky one. How do I explain to people this college is different? We're going to invest in you like no one else and and someone that you don't know is going to slap down two dollars for every one dollar that you and your family bring to the table. I love that right there at the very end. I think that's great and I think also just it plays in so well to your alumni. I mean you talked about that earlier, how that alumni network and and the job placement in the in the you know, the you know after the outcomes with things. I mean you've got alumni that are engaged with your students even before they even set foot on campus because of of all of this, and I think that's just a one full story. A few years ago, at the breakfast before graduation, I address the students and I asked the students to stand if a Wabash, a lamb, had been part of their process to get to Wallbash. Every single student who wasn't an international student stood up at that breakfast. That's great. That's that's really great. We talked a lot about it on the show. Schools are really struggling today to make the same ads been work. Cepms are up eighty nine percent you over year. On facebook and Instagram, our... clients are no longer looking for rented audiences. They're looking for an owned community where they can engage students even before they apply. This is why Zeemi has become so crucial for our clients. With over one million students, close to tenzero five star ratings, consistently ranked as one of the top social laps and recently one of apples hot APPs of the week, there is simply isn't anything out there like it, and we have seen it all. Zeemi not only provides the best space for student engagement, but the most unique in action will data for their one hundred and sixty college and university partners. We know firsthand from our clients that Zee me is a must have strategy for Gen Z. Check them out now at colleges dot Zee mecom. That's colleges dot Zee m eecom. And yes, tell them Barton Troy sent you. Scott. Being a all men's college, would like to know if you've heard heard of the where are the men or where the men are and, if you have, with the shortage of men going and participating in higher education, how you are responding as a college or how you address that. Would like to hear your thoughts and approaches to that. You can't be the president of Walbash College without having people send you every editorial and news story about where are the men. So I wish I wasn't quite so familiar with that literature and I think I'd say two things. First is often when we disaggregate the data on men's college attendance, what we see is that there is a substantial part of that loss that's happening in community colleges, for example, and is not directly relevant to Wabash College. But even in the private residential college sphere, on most campuses women outnumber men. So our response to it is again to double down on who we are where a college for men. Everybody here is focused on young men's success and getting them to a graduation and getting them to a job. So what we can offer is perhaps an antidote to the observation that young men are not thriving in higher education. Then come to Walbash college and this is the one place that that's completely committed to you on been thriving. If you women don't thrive at Wabash, you know there is no future for Wabash College. We produced graduates, because graduates are who primarily funds our philanthropy. Like to tell the perspective students that the relationship between a student and the college is a little different at wabash. It's not transactional we are necessarily looking for your tuition check right. We're looking for you to come and have a great experience and a decade down the road, for you to give back Philanth philanthropically, for you to complete that virtuous cycle. So I'm on the hook to give every student a great experience and you know they we don't just cash people's check and and have them walk away, because we lose money on every student. We've got to produce graduates, because the payoff for Wabash college it's not the tuition that comes in in the fall, it's the philanthropy that comes in. Your wrath. Great. That's very good and I think that that's so important that even there, I think a lot of other schools could learn from that because I think that it is important to create that experience. Not only will that produce retention, because I mean, I think a lot of schools fall into the trap of, and Nate Simpson from the gates foundation made a comment on one of the podcasts, that we work so hard to recruit them and then we when we hand them off to student life, we just hope...

...they do well and we don't do much beyond that. And especially at risk groups like first Gen and pel grant recipients. I think that we need to do a little extra work and I'm so encouraged to hear the work that Wabash is doing, not only because it's the right thing to do and it helps with three tension, but also it's going to it's going to build that legacy for the future. I mean you're talking about, you know, generation Alpha, the kids that are under eleven years old, are going to benefit from the senior that's in in Wabash right now that in another six seven years might start giving to the annual fund that's going to impact that generation Alpha student, and so I really love the way that that works at Wabash. Yeah, we're trying to be very intentional about that cycle. So my Luve's time meeting today was with a foundation that provides US substantial financial aid for Indiana students and we had twenty nine of our students there who are recipients of these awards to meet the folks that run this foundation, and that was as much we obviously we wanted the foundation to see the results of their philanthropy. But when I address the students, I asked them to for them to reflect on how philanthropy is affecting them so that down the road they'll understand. Okay, yeah, well, I stu did a lot for me. I'm going to find a way to support Wallbash. God, that's Great. That's very good. We wind every episode of the podcast up with a question to our guests and it's if they have something, an idea, anything that they would like to share that could be impactful for our listeners soon after, maybe even immediately. Do you have something that you can share as we pose that question to you, Scott, I do. I'm going to I'm going to use something and bartment reference to it at the very beginning. I think the message is you've got to be bold. Okay, I think the most college leaders, and I count myself among them, you know, come up through the academy, where we tend to getting it right tends to take precedence over getting the work done quickly, right and making an impact. I think also academics, you know, we also always often assume our work stands on its own, but the fact is, students and families want to know what makes you great right. They don't want to have to figure out how is wabash different from de Paul or how is wabash different from perdue? So I think be bold, differentiate. These are the things that your families need to hear so that they can understand. Don't expect them to figure out what the outcome is a great liberal artification. tellent to thank you, Scott. Well said. How would one get in touch with you if, after listening to the PODCAST, they would like to reach out? Oh, the easiest way as email me and president at Wabash doted. You go to the wabash email noll or what they slip page, you can find my phone number, but President at wall based, I need to use a great way to reach out. Thank you, Scott. Thank you for your time and thank you for the wisdom that you were so generous with today. Bart, any last comments or thoughts from you? Yeah, I just want to kind of pull back and kind of you highlight a couple things at Scott said that I think is really important for audience to walk away with. And I really love the fact that Wabash has done such a great job of leaning into the distinctiveness that they bring to the market place and I think that every school can do that. You don't have to. You don't have to have a special everybody has a special element. You have to discover that, figure that out and be able to start promoting that, and so I would really encourage you to do that. Once you understand what that distinctiveness is, be bold in that. You know, don't don't hide it, don't don't apologize for it. Lead with it and lead well with it, because I think that that's going to allow you to start comparing yourselves and contrasting yourself to other options and it's also going to give you that value add that, you know, somebody looks at and says, I think I...

...need that, and I think I would also really applaud wabash and Scott on this legacy building that they do from day one, even at even in the you know, as he mentioned, he had the prospective students on campus recently and had them stand up on those who were influenced by alumni, and a lot of them were doing that. Don't take your alumni for granted if your marketing doesn't include your alumni and you're not talking with them and you're not building a relationship with them, and all they hear from you as the annual gift, you know, bell go off in November. Be Sure you're doing more more with your alumni. Make it friend building rather than fundraising. It's a friend friend raising, I think it's what they call it, rather than fundraising. You have to do both. And so you know, a smaller school like wabash that you have, you know, not as big alumni network, but even if you're alumni network is really big. I'm sure Wabash is living in alumni network is in the T s. If you have more than that or if you have less, it's something that's worth doing and something to kind of take to your marketing team and figure out ways that you can kind of stay in front of that to build those legacies of not only enrollment but philanthropy going forward. So thank you, Scott. This was a great conversation and thank you, Bart for bringing us to a very powerful but soft landing. The hired Marker podcast is sponsored by Kaylor solutions and education marketing and branding agency and by thing patented, a Marketing Execution Company specializing and bringing customization, in personalization, to your outreach. On behalf of Bart Taylor, the cohost, I'm troy singer. Thank you for joining us. You've been listening to the higher at marketer. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player. If you're listening with apple PODCASTS, we'd love for you to leave a quick rating of the show. Simply tap the number of stars you think the podcast deserves. Until next time,.

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