Monday, October 29, 2007


Print 'Em and Ship 'Em

A new correspondent writes:

Why do community colleges mail catalogs to everyone? It seems like a lot of expense for something that's unlikely to generate a lot of new students.

This is a very live issue on my campus. It's a tough one, because beliefs are held strongly, and almost entirely without evidence.

Most community colleges that I know of produce several different types of publications for public consumption. The most common are

  1. Catalogs

  2. Course Schedules

  3. Flyers

Catalogs usually cover multiple years (two seems to be the local standard), and they include full course descriptions, every imaginable policy, requirements for every major, campus maps, and just about everything except the actual days and times that classes meet. Catalogs take a full year to produce, since they're legally binding and remarkably comprehensive. That means, among other things, that they're already partially obsolete the minute they arrive on campus, and become progressively more so over their run. (Most colleges run up-to-date versions of the catalog on their websites.)

Course schedules typically cover a single semester or season (in the case of the summer, which may contain multiple sessions). They don't contain full course descriptions or major requirements, but they do include days, times, and locations of class meetings. There, too, the printed schedule is usually pretty buggy, and savvy students know that if they want the real information, they should look online.

(This is also where that mysterious creature, Professor STAFF, can be found. It's code for “adjunct.”)

Flyers are usually supersized postcards announcing a single event (an open house, say) or a new program. Flyers are much cheaper to produce and mail, but necessarily light on content.

There's a tension, really, between the need for marketing and the need for informing.

In classic conflict-avoidant fashion, we split the difference and mail the course schedule to every household in our service area, but only make the print catalog available on campus or by request. (Anybody can access it online.) The thinking is that the printing and shipping costs for that large a catalog run would be prohibitive, and it would be silly to re-mail the same thing every semester for two years. But the course schedule is smaller and it changes every semester, so we use that as a de facto marketing tool.

Of course, if you look at them, you'll notice that the catalog – which takes a little effort to find – is actually a much slicker marketing piece than the schedule, which is ugly, detailed, and everywhere.

My guess is that over time, we'll move away from thick paper publications and bulk mailings, and more towards online information. It's easier to update, the marginal cost of adding readers is close to zero, and the savings in printing and postage would be surprisingly substantial. I could envision a flyer each semester announcing that next semester's course schedule is online, giving the web address, and leaving it at that. A postcard is much cheaper to print and mail than a course schedule is, and much less likely to be riddled with errors.

We haven't tried it yet, though, since there's still no way of knowing what percentage of our target population won't look online. I suspect the percentage is small and shrinking, but when you're scraping for enrollment as it is, every little bit hurts. Given enough data, we could do a cost-benefit on it, but the cost of getting the data is itself prohibitive.

I'll ask my readers. Wise and worldly readers – has your college abandoned the detailed mailings in favor of putting the catalog and schedule entirely online? If so, has it worked? Did anything happen that nobody anticipated? Any real-world guidance you could offer would be much appreciated.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Geez, the whole course catalog? Ours is super-thick, I can't even imagine.

We mail (and I, living in the service area, receive) two types of mailings about 4 times a year each (I'm not sure, but that seems to be how often I receive them). We do one that is sort-of a newsletter of what's happening at the college and seems to be a sort of sales piece for taxpayers ("don't complain about our levy! look at all the awesome stuff we do!"). The other advertises "community" classes -- craft classes, computer classes, etc. Both are about the size of a half-broadsheet, folded in thirds (and on heavier stock, obviously).

Both urge you to take a regular class, go online, enroll, etc. But the entire catalog or schedule isn't sent.

I don't know how effective they are as a general thing, but they were certainly effective at getting me to take a couple community classes when I first moved here.
When the CC paper schedule is mailed out to my house, I always take a look and see if there are any interesting classes that I want to take that semester. That's how I started the Communications Design program at my local CC - I started taking a few design classes, enjoyed it so much that I worked my way through. While I've always been interested in it, I needed to look through the physical schedule to tickle my interest. If you say "go look at this website, I am actally less likely to do so, just because . . .

I have always been of a mind that paper is a great reminder - it's portable and physical. You cna carry it around in your purse/bag and act on it when you see it. Sadly, I am less likely to do so with e-mails - just because there are so darn many of them. And I have to be in a certain mood/have time to go looking deep into websites.

I may just be a freak though, but I have a hunch not . . .
My column for University Business, "Demand Print or Print On Demand," published this month is about this topic.

I did a survey this past summer to prepare the column. The main results can be found at

Karine Joly
The college where I work seems only to print the college catalog and distribute it to professors; students and their families always ask where they can get one, and I don't know. It's available on-line, but I still think there's something a lot easier about flipping through an actual book to find out the gen ed requirements, etc. Similarly, we've just gone to having the course schedule only on-line this term, and again it just doesn't seem as user-friendly to me. I wish printed copies were still available.
There are course schedules mailed out from several different community colleges but the course schedule I like the most is from an adult education office. They mail something more like a flyer that details their most popular offerings and courses for teens who want the enrichment their high schools can't provide. It has pictures and quotes from students who have taken courses they enjoyed.

Course schedules are a crummy way to get the word out. They are not attractive and only are interesting to the usual suspects - people who would take courses anyway. You need to develop a real marketing strategy which includes targeted mailing and an RSS feed that people can subscribe to, so that when the college starts a new program or offers a class in an area that's popular you can get the word out in a less random way. I also think you could develop communities of interested people and pitch courses to them from the faculty before they make it into the schedule - get all the ameture astronomers on a listserv or subscribed to an RSS feed and then pitch "Life on other planets" or some other thing and see what their interest would be.

I know this would cost money but I wonder if you could get more enrollment and spend less on marketing if you targeted the right group - and of course, e-mail is almost free, I think that could be used to greater effect for most schools.
I might not be where I am today had a course schedule for my local cc not arrived in the mail the August after I graduated from high school. I had no plans to go to college, then the course schedule arrived with the pitch: It's not too late to register for Fall classes!

That was in 1981, and I'm a tenured prof at a community college today. The institution I teach at now abandoned mass mailings of the course schedule for a semester--enrollment went down and faculty complained mightily. It's back.
Ours is up there but I can't ever find it so I'm always bugging for hard copies when I speak with students. My husband is in a state school and everything is online and impossible to understand or even access.

Personally I prefer to be able to hold it in my hands and look at it.
I am unaware of any mass mailings in the community. Even our schedule of courses is pretty bulky. AFAIK, we use other means to reach potential students.

Once they are enrolled, however, the system is now almost entirely electronic. I think all financial aid notices will be managed electronically by the end of this year. Can you spell "portal"?

The catalog is printed and handed to every newly oriented student. This covers the basic policy that they graduate under the catalog they enter under unless they choose to fall under the requirements of a newer one. Those catalog requirements are reflected in the on-line electronic grad check, by the way. Paper catalogs, like paper syllabi, are for CYA legal reasons.
Well, my CC went to the strange policy of a printed catalog that was never ever available (to save money), not even to new students. This tended to result in confusion, and my having to educate people about what was going on; which I had to discover myself by trundling through long online crud. Very annoying.

The thing about holding it in your hand, is that the information is delimited. It's all 'in the book' and it is much easier to overlook things online. I've discovered from going through other school's websites that a PDF catalog is probably the best online compromise, even if I hate the PDF format.

['Still slightly harder to use.']
"Professor Staff" would be a great name for an adjunct's blog.
Sorry this is so late, but I had an unusually busy week!

At the school I most recently attended, when I first started, the materials describing the student health plan and enrollment were paper based. The brochure may have also been available as a .PDF downlad at that time, but I'm not sure. Perhaps the next year there was definitely a .PDF version and you could also enroll online as opposed to having to mail your enrollment back to the school.

Then, one year, they went to an entirely online process. Again I'm fuzzy on the exact details, but I think they may have only sent an email alerting you to the fact that it was time to enroll with a link to the site or they may have just sent a postcard to this effect, but the brochure and enrollment was entirely online.

I am guessing that there were problems with this approach, as the following year they reintroduced the choice of print and online formats.

I guess in the end it will depend on who you are trying to target and the particular preferences they have for receiving information.
...oh yeah, as quiet as it's kept, there are a few folk out there who still have dial-up connections (all 10 of us!), so huge .PDF's can be a big PITA to open or download.

I avoid them whenever possible.
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