four students standing in front of a white background and smiling at their cell phones

The Keys to Communicating with Modern Learners: 3 Lessons from College Executives

The news is out: Text messaging is not just a nice-to-have way of advertising events to students and building relationships through emojis. The right texting strategy can directly benefit a college or university’s most essential goals and bottom line.

Research from Peak Education found that texting can improve student GPA, and the CollegeBound Foundation discovered that texting can reduce Summer Melt, increasing accepted students' likelihood of enrolling by up to 46%.

We wanted to know more. What do institutional leaders think about the future of communication between students and staff? 

To that end, Modern Campus recently partnered with The Chronicle of Higher Education to host Resourcing the Modern College to Serve Modern Learners—a webinar featuring two community college presidents who have seen recent changes in communication at their institutions, including more departments embracing text messaging.

Meet the panelists: 
  • Thomas Stith, President of North Carolina Community College System 
  • Dr. Brenda Hellyer, Chancellor of San Jacinto Community College 

Here are three lessons of their biggest lessons about communication.

1. Start with genuine curiosity.

Learners of all ages—but especially Gen Z and Millennials—love the information and social connections they can get right from their cell phones. But text messages that are clearly sent in bulk and don’t speak to the recipient’s needs and interest will elicit groans, not responses. 

Both webinar panelists agree that communication should be personalized. Information sent from the institution must be relevant and applicable to the learner’s goals, showcasing that the institution understands and values its students’ individuality. Just as academic programs and course instruction shouldn’t be one-type-fits all, neither should communication.

Additionally, Dr. Hellyer stressed that communication should go beyond the transactional. Texting students when you’d like them to take a certain action—such as registering for a course, attending a co-curricular program or scheduling an advising session—is great, but institutions should also reach out to offer custom support. 

Dr. Hellyer recommends starting with genuine curiosity. Seek to understand the student’s needs and interests. During the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Jacinto College developed an outreach campaign they called San Jac Cares. Staff from all across the college, including Dr. Hellyer herself, reached out to around 49,000 students. 

“It was just checking on you— what do you need?” Dr. Hellyer said of the campaign. “And then helping to get them the resources that they need, letting them know that our food pantry was open. And so I think it's a combination of technology and that personal touch.” 

2. Diversify your communication.

The greater variety of communication channels, the better. Just as students have different learning styles, so too do they have different communication preferences. 

“You gotta listen to the different age groups of your students and the different demographics of your students to figure out what kind of communication works with them,” said Dr. Hellyer. “And so, we are doing some texting, we are doing some emails, we're working on a portal.”

Dr. Stith had a similar takeaway. Rather than expecting your learners to conform to your institution’s preset communication styles, modern colleges and universities must seek to understand and adapt to their students’ preferred communication methods. 

“I had the honor of attending several of our graduation ceremonies,” Stith said. “Our graduates ranged in age from 14 years old to 77 years old. And that just kind of reinforced that while we consider ourselves the community college family, our students are very diverse. Our students come from multiple generations and therefore our strategy has to be very comprehensive.”

3. Keep learning from the pandemic.

All 58 colleges within the ​​North Carolina Community College System, as well as San Jacinto Community College, did the same thing during the first few semesters of the pandemic: they changed. They pivoted internal goals, expanded certain student services and took in-person classes online.  

Dr. Hellyer and President Stith agree that institutions should consider keeping many of these innovative changes long term. 

Community colleges may especially have an advantage here. 

That's the benefit of the community college system; we are able to be flexible and nimble— not only for business and industry but for our students as well,” Stith said. “During the pandemic, we had to pivot … We had to show that innovation, we had to utilize various mediums of technology to ensure that we were meeting the needs of our students in that environment for student success.”

Those lessons are huge for the future of educational technology, including texting.

“As we look at our communication strategies, we realize we have to use all tools available because of the depth and breadth of our student population,” Stith said.

Understanding the unique demographics, lifestyles and personalities of your students—beyond what you know about the broader landscape of today’s modern learners—is also key.

“As we look forward to the future to ensure that we are meeting our students, as we say in North Carolina, we meet our students where they are and we take them as far as they can go,” said Stith. “But we have to understand where they are along that continuum, so that we can properly address their needs from a communications perspective.”


Resourcing the Modern College to Serve Modern Learners

Watch the free webinar

screenshot of the webinar with the host and two guests on a video call


Student Experience

Last updated: June 17, 2022


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