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.