I used to believe that the best marketing approach for our college was to highlight high quality academic programs to parents, but the market told me I was wrong. That doesn't mean strong academics aren't important. It just means that parents don't listen to my other messages until they are satisfied that the most important people in their world will be safe if they entrust them to me.
The parents of our students gave me a refresher class from PSYC 101. Among human needs, safety and security come before any concerns about class size, academic quality, access to resources, opportunities to get involved, and making new friends. Parents will give you that same lesson well before they will give you their child to enroll. Unless a parent is sure your campus is safe from predators, drugs, criminal activity, bullying, stalking and sexual jeers, your college isn't going to be on that parent's list.
Four years ago, many of my students and staff members didn't feel safe at our institution. Women couldn't walk in certain areas on the campus without experiencing catcalls and rude behavior. These "students" congregated and blocked sidewalks and entrances to facilities. Litter, graffiti, vandalism, theft and car burglaries put our reputation in sharp decline while our crime statistics were rising.
As the new College president, I wondered whether this was part of being at a large institution with a very active student life and nearly 1200 students living on campus. I authorized an undercover drug sting and all but one of the arrestees were non students. That one "student" was enrolled in only one class and never attended.
Checking our campus police data more closely, we discovered there were many people on campus with backpacks who looked like students but when they made contact with campus police, were found not to be enrolled.
A college once known as "the friendliest college in Texas" was friendly no more toward good students, but far too welcoming toward people without an educational purpose.
I appointed a civility task force and gave them the charge to change our college into one that we would all want our own families to attend as their first choice. I envisioned what I wanted our college to look and feel like, and I asked for their recommendations. They now continue to meet weekly, and have helped initiate hundreds of things, large and small, that have transformed the college. We installed cameras, put police on bicycles, banned smoking, trimmed landscaping, adopted a student creed, installed decorative wrought iron in places that invited loitering, improved lighting, required the wearing of student I.D.s, created outdoor study areas, utilized retirees as "Ambassadors" who stroll the campus as greeters while assisting campus police, and much more.
People with no reason for being here now stand out. People who tested our system were criminally trespassed for their first offense and then jailed for any subsequent visits. Now, the word is out to wrongdoers that there are easier and better places to go, while the welcome sign for prospective students has never shown brighter.
You may be thinking that our college had problems that are not found at other institutions of higher education. Not so. Most colleges probably have no real idea about who inhabits their campuses -- but they would be surprised if they did.
Initially, I worried that our mandatory student I.D. policy might draw accusations of profiling. The fact is, no one likes to be bullied or harassed and our students, faculty and staff appreciate the efforts we have taken to ensure their safety and a civil environment.
Campus crime data reveal significant drops in all categories and our campus is as safe as any place could be.
If you are a parent and you want a safe environment for your son or daughter, be sure to ask the right questions of the college or university you are considering: Are students and employees required to wear an identification card? Do officers patrol on foot and bike during class time? Is the volume of security cameras sufficient, and are they monitored regularly? Is there a creed for student and employee conduct? Is there an anonymous "text a crime tip" program? What were the college's crime statistics last year? And, does the college have a working and effective relationship with other local law enforcement agencies?
If you work in higher education and you have a safety problem, you have a serious issue to consider. Form a task force and involve a cross-section of your campus. Identify problem areas, security risks and gather input from parents, employees and students.
Until you can be assured the environment is safe, you can't expect your college to be a top choice for parents of prospective students.