HBCU Marketing in a Post-Pandemic World

COVID-19 and nationwide calls for racial justice continue to present unique challenges – and opportunities – for HBCUs.

66 minutes
By: Higher Voltage
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For almost two centuries, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have carried out their mission to empower, educate, and provide opportunities for black students. When the Covid- 19 pandemic and a cry for racial justice swept over America at the same time, HBCU higher education professionals were faced with a mountain of unique challenges.

On this episode of Higher Voltage, we sat down with Chelsea Holley, the interim director of admissions at Spelman College, and Eddie Francis, director of communications and marketing at Dillard University, to discuss those challenges, their solutions, and the future of HBCU marketing in a post-pandemic world. And our conversation is guided by the new host of Higher Voltage, Kevin Tyler, the director of communications at UCLA School of Nursing.

Read the full transcript

Kevin Tyler:

Welcome to Higher Voltage. I’m your new host, Kevin Tyler, and I’m the director of communications for UCLA’s School of Nursing. Each week I will explore the ins and outs of higher education marketing with industry thought leaders.

Kevin Tyler:

For today’s show, we sat down with two higher ed professionals to discuss how HBCU marketing has been impacted by two pandemics, a global health crisis and a cry for racial justice in America. Let’s get started.

Kevin Tyler:

Higher Voltage is brought to you by Salesforce. Today’s higher ed marketers are faced with new challenges and must expand beyond their traditional tactics to engage with constituents. Learn how Salesforce empowers institutions of all sizes to unify first-party data, build and measure targeted campaigns, and deliver personalized messaging across channels. Visit salesforce.org to learn more about how Salesforce can help your institution meet its goals.

Kevin Tyler:

So, Chelsea and Eddie, thank you so much for being here today. Before we get started in that conversation can each of you just introduce yourselves and your institutions? Chelsea, let’s start with you.

Chelsea Holley:

Certainly. My name is Chelsea Holley. I serve as the interim director of admissions at Spelman College, and I’m super happy to be having this conversation today.

Kevin Tyler:

Awesome. Can you tell us a little bit about Spelman, just a high-level kind of overview about Spelman and what it offers and for whom?

Chelsea Holley:

Absolutely. Spelman is an HBCU. It’s a women’s college as well as a liberal arts college. We’re here in Atlanta, Georgia. We’re part of the Atlanta Consortium, so we have Morehouse as a neighbor, we have Clark Atlanta as a neighbor, we have Morris Brown. There is a lot of history on the Spelman campus, so really just an integral part to what’s been going on in Atlanta for years.

Kevin Tyler:

Awesome. Thanks, Chelsea. Eddie?

Eddie Francis:

Hi. I’m Eddie Francis. I’m the director of communications and marketing at Dillard University. We’re actually Louisiana’s first HBCU born from the union of Straight University and New Orleans University. We are in a really great place, in which we actually have… We share New Orleans with two other great HPCU’s, Xavier University in Louisiana and Southern University at New Orleans.

Kevin Tyler:

Awesome. Can each of you explain… From your perspective just tell me the landscape of HBCUs, some of the obstacles that we’re facing in the segment in higher ed prior to the pandemic?

Chelsea Holley:

Yeah. I would say that HBCUs naturally have so much history and tradition, so we’ve been telling that story for some time. Some of the big obstacles pre-pandemic is just the population that we serve. It’s a value proposition that we’re making all of the time.

Chelsea Holley:

Our students are more likely to be first gen, more likely to be low income, and so while we’re giving them all of the information in wanting them to come here, also making sure they’re making a good financial decision for their families.

Chelsea Holley:

Historically we’re underfunded. We have much lower endowments than our peer institutions that are PWIs, so that plays out in a number of ways when we’re talking about attracting students.

Kevin Tyler:

Awesome. Eddie, do you have anything to add there?

Eddie Francis:

What she said. No, Chelsea really did cover a lot of issues that are prevalent among HBCUs. One of the issues that we’ve had to deal with here at Dillard is we’ve had to deal with enrollment challenges. One of the reasons is something, you know, going back to one of the things that Chelsea pointed, getting students, a lot of them are first gen students. They have to kind of figure out how to do college in the first place.

Eddie Francis:

Funding, though, also really became a big issue with a lot of students who just financially they would just run out of steam and they would get in these situations where they would just have to leave school.

Eddie Francis:

One of the things that we did at Dillard a few years back is President Walter Kimbrough put in place a fund called the safe fund. This safe fund was designed to help students stay in school. So a lot of our fundraising has been geared towards really beefing up that safe fund so that the students who are about to run out of gas, we can go ahead and give them that extra money so that they could stay in school.

Eddie Francis:

So enrollment is a big challenge that we’ve had to deal with, and one of the biggest reasons would be the fact that students have these financial challenges.

Kevin Tyler:

Awesome. Thank you for that. Chelsea, can you kind of touch on some of the obstacles that may have existed in the marketing space for Spelman before the pandemic?

Chelsea Holley:

Yeah. Absolutely. We were getting away from print materials in the mail. Everything was going digital. We started some digital marketing campaigns coming into the pandemic. Little did we know that there would be digital burnout. So a lot of the spaces we were getting into, now we’re seeing there’s still some novelty in in-person, the physical pieces that they can pick up and touch. So the pandemic… We pivoted, and then immediately after I think we’re looking back and trying to say okay, let’s reevaluate what we were doing before and make sure that we’re not counting it out too soon.

Eddie Francis:

Yeah. When you talk about some of the obstacles that we were facing there were two things that really stood out to me, and these are pretty much 30,000 foot level marketing issues. But one was the perception of the value of HBCUs in the college marketplace. There was this running conversation about whether or not HBCUs were really good schools because we might not have had the resources that one of our PWI neighbors, or all of our PWI neighbors, might have had. We might not have the facilities.

Eddie Francis:

So in some cases you would have these students that would tour a PWI and then they would come to Dillard and they’re saying, “Well, it’s not quite as shiny, so I’m not so sure if this is the place I need to be. I’m not so sure this is a good place to be.” Luckily though, one of the good things that happens is that once students do come to Dillard and they do take these tours they love the way they’re received here.

Eddie Francis:

But another marketing challenge I think is more of a societal challenge. There was this running conversation, and this is actually one of those conversations that kind of gets my blood boiling, but there was this running conversation that I saw that really bubbled up a lot on social media about whether or not college is even valuable in the first place.

Eddie Francis:

That started… I noticed that happen a lot in the black community. One of the things that I started to really notice is that once you got into these conversations about college and what you can do with the opportunity there would always be this one voice that would come into the conversation and say we know college ain’t for everybody, so do we really need to do this? They need to go learn a trade. You don’t need to go to college to get a job.

Eddie Francis:

There was this battle I think for a lot of black scholars who really understood higher education to go back into the community and say this is about more than a job. This is about much bigger things. This is about establishing a legacy for your family. This is about making sure you can build generational wealth, so we need you to look beyond this conversation about a job and look at some of the bigger pictures.

Eddie Francis:

When that happens, that conversation started to bubble up, I did notice with some of my friends are professors at HBCUs, or they might have been professors at PWIs, who would say I don’t know to get across to our people that this college ain’t for everybody thing is really a dangerous conversation. Maybe some folks can say that, but black folks, we got to watch it when we say that.

Eddie Francis:

So that was something that I think started to come into play and when you would talk to… Listen, it was a really, really intense conversation, where even though you were presenting an HBCU to them, where they could go and see their people, they’re still saying, “Oh, no. I don’t need to spend all of that money. I just need to go and get a job.” So to me that became a really big marketing challenge on a much bigger scale.

Kevin Tyler:

I love those points you raised and those comments Eddie. I think the first one that really resonated with me of the many that you made is this idea of the shininess of the campus, right, at the height of the kind of higher ed arms race, where you see these climbing walls and lazy rivers, those two things that people always point to in higher ed marketing material, those shiny things, an underfunded university or college is never going to be set up for success in that kind of conversation.

Kevin Tyler:

When the quality of a place is based so much on what is… The lazy rivers and the climbing walls, then places like HBCUs who are historically underfunded will not ever be able to participate in that kind of transaction.

Kevin Tyler:

Then the second piece that I think is really, really important that you raised is this conversation that was occurring before the pandemic even started about the benefit of college as an idea at all. When I first got into higher ed marketing our focus was come to X University, it’s great. But as time went on we were not only selling the brand, but we were selling the idea of an education at all, because there are so many competitors now.

Kevin Tyler:

What were some of the things you were trying to do to kind of stave off or change that conversation before the pandemic to express the value of a higher education for the audiences you serve?

Eddie Francis:

I think one of the things for me personally in having conversations just with people I know personally, it was always this idea of you can go to a college and you can fail safely there. If you go straight into the workforce and you fail, losing a job is losing a job, and you really don’t have much of anywhere to follow after that.

Eddie Francis:

But in college I think you have this environment where you can go in and things don’t work out, but there’s always a way for you to get back on the horse and keep on going. You have systems in place. You have organizations. You have all of these different tools that a college can have that can show you how to survive the workforce and all these different things, and how to build a career instead of depending on a job, so those are some of the conversations.

Eddie Francis:

But I think from a pure marketing standpoint, I think selling the idea of this being a place where you have a built-in network of people who can get you wherever you want to go in life, and it doesn’t matter where it is… Of course, and I know that this is something that Chelsea and the good folks at Spelman deal with, but this faulty perception that HBCUs are not diverse populations.

Eddie Francis:

My son is a rising senior in high school, so one of these conversations I’ve had with him is listen, if you go to Dillard you’re going to meet students from all over the country, you’re going to meet students from other parts of the world, but the biggest thing is they’re not all going to be like you. They’re going to all think differently from you, and they’re going to challenge you too to be your best self. So you could get it there or you could get it at another place, but you’re still going to get it there, or you’re going to get it at another HBCU.

Eddie Francis:

I think that was one of the big selling points for me, and it still is one of the big selling points for me.

Kevin Tyler:

Chelsea, any thoughts on that?

Chelsea Holley:

Yeah. So, Eddie, I love you bringing up kind of selling the value of college. This is a conversation that’s gone on, but now it has kind of a different look to it for this generation. They’ve watched their millennial parents, siblings, be in crippling loan debt and not really getting the promises that they thought that they would get from a college degree.

Chelsea Holley:

This is also our internet generation, so they’re seeing their peers that are making money on YouTube from the age of 12, so it’s a really interesting landscape where more students I think are having that thought independently, maybe there are some other options out here for me.

Chelsea Holley:

So, again, just letting them know and being able for us to communicate, especially for HBCUs, that this is kind of a transformational process. That’s how when we think about Spelman. When you come in, each year, each activity you participate in, studying abroad, this is a longer transformation that is more than just getting a education.

Kevin Tyler:

I love that. Can you explain some of your goals that you had in place for your institution, if you feel comfortable sharing them, for all who are listening in?

Eddie Francis:

One of the biggest goals that I had was really creating a clear, unifying language about Dillard and its value in the college marketplace. I say that because I think Dillard is one of the schools, among many other HBCUs, that for so long had been used to people just coming because they knew it was a good place to be, they just knew.

Eddie Francis:

But we’ve had to face this harsh reality, a lot of HBCUs, especially smaller HBCUs… We’ve had to face this really harsh reality that the PWI across town they got the cheat code. They figured out what they could do. They figured out that they could dangle some really nice gaudy scholarships and they could get those highly talented black students that would have gone to a Dillard or a Xavier or a SNHU or wherever, or a Spelman, Morehouse, Morris Brown, or Clark Atlanta. They figured that stuff out along the way.

Eddie Francis:

So what has happened in effect… And Dillard is the third HBCU where I’ve worked, and what has happened in effect, and I’ve seen this for a third time, is that there’s been this need to really come up with language that really galvanizes the folks on campus, it galvanizes the students, it galvanizes the alumni.

Eddie Francis:

I’ll give you a good example, because people might be asking what am I thinking about, but I remember I had this conversation early on. Someone said, “Well, I don’t think language is our big thing. We just need to get some better advertising. We just need promotional stuff.” I said, “Yeah. Well what do you think is going to go on that promotional stuff?”

Eddie Francis:

So they challenged me on this whole part of the language. I said, “Okay, listen. One of our great HBCUs in the country is Howard, and I have so many friends who went to Howard, and if you ever want Howard to sell itself all they have to say is, ‘The Mecca.’ Those two words are huge, unifying words.”

Eddie Francis:

I have cousins who graduated from Morehouse. You can tell a Morehouse man, but you can’t tell him much. So you have all of these different types of phrases, you have this language, and this is language that really binds people in these communities.

Eddie Francis:

So for me that was a marketing challenge that I was so ready to take on, and that was my big goal. My big goal was I’m going to figure out what this language is. I’m going to figure out how we can speak Dillard around here and how we can use that to really express to people what our value proposition is.

Kevin Tyler:

I love that idea Eddie. I think… So my sister went to an HBCU. She went to Hampton. I don’t know any other kind of higher ed brand that has the legacy and allegiance that HBCU brands tend to have, and it’s familial. It’s almost like Black Greek. It’s like we went to Hampton and this is our class. It’s very, very specific in the passion and love that alums from HBCUs have, and I’ve always been so curious about why that hasn’t translated into higher endowments and more students just because of the love that is always expressed in every conversation with an HBCU. I’m glad you brought that up.

Kevin Tyler:

I’m curious, Chelsea, if you could go over some of the goals that you have for Spelman as well?

Chelsea Holley:

Yeah. Of course meeting enrollment is always a goal, but really attracting the right types of students is a big goal for us all the time. To Eddie’s point, we are now, and were before the pandemic, but more so now, in direct competition with PWIs for our students.

Chelsea Holley:

These are… Especially as a selective HBCU, our students are looking at full rides from Harvard and Yale and USC, so that value proposition was incredibly different when they have the opportunity to go to a big name, elite PWI, and now we have to say why Spelman matters, why Xavier matters, right, so having that conversation with them.

Chelsea Holley:

It’s really been the same goals pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. How we get there looks a little different, but really just putting us on the main stage, not only in the HBCU box.

Kevin Tyler:

That’s a perfect segue, Chelsea, to move into the pandemic era. I want to be really clear here that we’re not just talking about the pandemic in the health global disease aspect. We’re also talking about the racial pandemic that happened in America last year too, because those are going to be drivers for your enrollments I would imagine as well.

Kevin Tyler:

But before we dive into some of that stuff, can you talk about some of the things you’ve learned over the these last 18 or so months about the institution and how you have to communicate when things go left the way that they did the last year?

Eddie Francis:

One of the things that I think we learned is that there is so much importance in empathy in messaging, and that’s something that we’ve really had to start focusing on with our current customers. One of my things is that when it comes down to internal communication, that’s something that I definitely want to treat as a PR strategy.

Eddie Francis:

So when we started messaging… President Kimbrough, one of the great things about him is that he has no hesitation about calling a group of students together and using them as a focus group to really figure some things out about the campus.

Eddie Francis:

The summer of ’20, he did that several times, and our students told us two things. One, they wanted to see empathy in the messages because they were already tired before even getting to school. So we’re talking about June, July, and they’re already saying that they’re tired. We haven’t even gotten to the first class yet.

Eddie Francis:

The other thing was is they really wanted us to stop trying to pretty up our messages. They said just be direct. Just tell us what you have to tell us. You don’t have to give us a long introductory paragraph in the emails saying we know that you’ve been through a lot and all this. They said just tell us what’s going on and we’ll be fine, but at the same time please be empathetic about what it is that you’re saying.

Eddie Francis:

They also told us… I have to say this goes along with the empathy message, when there were cases on the campus they wanted to make sure that those students felt seen still and they were treated as if they had to get cast off to the leper colony.

Eddie Francis:

So the students were pretty clear about those two things, so because they were so clear about it that’s something that we learned. We learned that those two things are really important besides one of the basic things that you want to do is get your messaging out as quickly as possible when situations are happening.

Eddie Francis:

But I think we really learned that empathy was a real value that we had to dive into and had to really think about when we were messaging to our population.

Kevin Tyler:

Chelsea, what did Spelman do, or learn? I’m sorry.

Chelsea Holley:

I would say a unifying voice between our departments that can often be siloed on campus. So if we’re sending out messaging from the President’s Office we want to make sure we echoing that sentiment in Admissions and Housing and Career Services, so certainly being empathetic on the large scale, but being empathetic one-on-one, me having a short conversation with a parent just saying I hear you. I know you’re getting emails, I know you haven’t talked to anyone, I know you’re not on campus, but we hear you.

Chelsea Holley:

So I think kind of going back to that familial legacy of HBCUs, even though we’re at home, we’re not able to connect in person, I really tried my hardest to have those one off touches just as pulse checks with our community.

Kevin Tyler:

What are some of the things that you maybe have changed about your communication strategy or approach over the pandemic, things you stopped doing, things that you started doing, et cetera?

Chelsea Holley:

Yeah. So social media has always been really big for us. I think it absolutely exploded during the pandemic. We have different social media pages that would connect, and maybe we would cross-promote an Instagram Live takeover. That was really helpful, because not only is it messaging to our prospective students, it’s reaching out to alumnae, it’s reaching out to corporate constituents that may be following us. So I feel like social media was a very personal way of us getting our story out there in the pandemic.

Chelsea Holley:

Of course virtual events. We’ve adopted virtual event platforms, so we’ve adopted virtual event platforms. We did a 360 virtual tour, so a number of things to really catch us up to frankly some things that probably should have already been in place pre-pandemic. But it was a wake-up call to tell us that everything that they’re experiencing on campus, we have to do the best to model that digitally.

Eddie Francis:

And for us it was about being more intentional in those spaces, being more intentional about our social media and really thinking about what that strategy looked like. My biggest question was we have this pandemic, we have all this virtual stuff happening, there’s got to be a way to leverage it.

Eddie Francis:

The way that I found that we could leverage it is we started posting like crazy the virtual panel discussions that the different areas of the campus were having. As a matter of fact, our Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center did a great series of panel discussions about COVID-19 and comorbidities in the African-American community and health disparities in the African-American community.

Eddie Francis:

So we started posting that stuff on our YouTube channel, because that became a big focus for us, how do we really, really use this YouTube channel? How do we maximize it? We’re not even there yet. We’re not even close, but as we started to post these events we did find that we were able to leverage that stuff on our YouTube channel very well.

Eddie Francis:

As a matter of fact, from June of 2020 to December of 2020 we saw an 8% increase in YouTube views, or subscribers I should say. From January of this year to this month, June, we had a 13% increase in subscribers. So I attribute that directly to really leveraging the virtual environment, the panel discussions, the lectures. Last year we did a virtual degree conferral from the class of ’20 and that went over really well. So really leveraging those pieces during the pandemic were some things that I found were helpful to us.

Kevin Tyler:

That’s great. I want to like just shift gears just a touch, because obviously last year, around this time actually, we were experiencing kind of the world on fire, right? There were demonstrations, the death of George Floyd at the end of a long string of other police brutality and unarmed shooting deaths.

Kevin Tyler:

I’m curious what those events did or meant for your universities and what kind of response did you execute against it? What kind of conversations did you start, activities, et cetera?

Eddie Francis:

Well, for us at Dillard, our immediate response to it was to create the Center for Racial Justice. It is something that one of our board members felt very strongly about. As a matter of fact, the board members… Our board chair, Michael Jones, who was actually the lead counsel for the Maryland HBCU case… Chairman Jones felt very strongly that this should be our response, especially with his dealing with the Maryland case.

Eddie Francis:

Actually with the founding of the Center for Racial Justice, they are actually one of the big contributors to our YouTube subscriber increase that I just talked about a second ago.

Eddie Francis:

That actually has enabled us as an institution to have some robust conversations about what exactly does justice look like when it comes to making adjustments in how policing is done. But then also it started to filter into other conversations at the Center for Racial Justice as far as equity in education.

Eddie Francis:

These conversations really expanded. We started to also bring a lot of other folks into the conversation. There was a recent panel discussion that we did with the New Orleans Public Defender’s Office, and they gave some great feedback and some great information about knowing people’s rights when they are dealing with law enforcement.

Eddie Francis:

But at the same time, I think also it’s really enabled us to take a look at what a relationship with law enforcement looks like from an institutional level. That’s something that the Center for Racial Justice is still working on, wanting to really make that a really great relationship and continue a great relationship.

Eddie Francis:

But I do have to give props to NOPD, because they’ve been responsive, New Orleans Police Department. But that was our biggest answer to what was going on.

Kevin Tyler:

Chelsea, would you like to share any thoughts on that?

Chelsea Holley:

Yeah. I would say as a liberal arts institution we are always having those conversations about what this looks like, but it was a perfect storm, for lack of a better term. As the pandemic hit this happened. Our world has always been on fire, right? But I think that last summer everyone’s world was on fire, and you couldn’t look away.

Chelsea Holley:

So our immediate conversations were with corporate America reaching out to us and what can we do? How can we contribute to HBCUs? So it was a… It’s a very special moment. I think we’re still in it. It is the year, and now the second year of the HBCU, and I think just telling these donors how they can help us in a meaningful way, because we know that they are benefiting off of being connected and giving money to HBCUs, but making sure it’s going the right places.

Chelsea Holley:

Are we building pipelines to actually influence the organization at meaningful levels? We need to have partnerships with Morgan Stanley this past year, Netflix, a number of big companies, but it’s kind of like what’s next? What does this turn into and how can we sustain this partnership between HBCUs and corporate America?

Kevin Tyler:

I love that. I think it was such a focal point for another conversation to rise up in American in the context of a pandemic. There were so many things being like uncovered, quote-unquote uncovered, which we always knew were there, the inequalities in education and healthcare, et cetera, but kind of they all surfaced at once.

Kevin Tyler:

I’m curious about how the leadership of your institutions may have been shifted into another role because of the things that have happened in the past 18 months? Did they step forward into the light? Was there more hands on? What did leadership look like at your school during this difficult time?

Eddie Francis:

The HipHopPrez, Walter Kimbrough, he struck. One thing I love about President Kimbrough is he doesn’t shy away from having hard public conversations. He wrote… I don’t want to say it was a scathing editorial, but it was certainly an editorial that called a lot of people to the carpet and really challenged them on statements.

Eddie Francis:

If I remember correctly, the title of the editorial was No More Statements. So in the wake of all of this his challenge to people was don’t just make a statement when you see injustice. Do something. If all you have is a statement save it. Save it. Just don’t say it. Don’t worry about it, because it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you do.

Eddie Francis:

There’s one point I want to expand on very quickly. When Chelsea talked about engaging private donors, this really got us to a point where we started to have some real conversations with prospective donors. There were some folks who came along and said, “Hey, I got some money and I’m going to give it to you,” and we’re sitting here saying, “Okay. Why? What’s going on? We want it obviously, but what’s this about?”

Eddie Francis:

In some cases we found out that the intentions may not necessarily have been the most genuine intentions, so we really wound up getting to this place where our leaders said if we’re going to have a conversation about racial justice or about any social justice it can’t just be a conversation. It can’t be a performative gesture. It has to be something that’s going to lead to sustainable change, real change.

Eddie Francis:

We have students who elected not to come to campus in 2021 because they didn’t want to be at risk of catching COVID-19, so their sitting at home doing school virtually, but the problem is their internet connection is horrible. They live in an area where they can’t get great internet access. They’re in a two-bedroom home, they have three brothers and sisters, they’re all cramped. How was your giving going to change that?

Eddie Francis:

Instead of making these statement, what are we going to do as far as making real policy changes, which, again, that brings forward the purpose of the Center for Racial Justice, to really have these conversations, but to make the conversations are going to lead to action.

Eddie Francis:

So that’s what our leadership did. They really decided to buckle down and challenge a lot of what was happening to find out whether or not people were actually trying to use their philanthropy for sustainable change, or if it was just something performative.

Kevin Tyler:

Thoughts on that Chelsea?

Chelsea Holley:

I agree completely with everything that Eddie said. The same conversations were being had at Spelman almost immediately as some of these companies came in and a lot of our donors that we were engaged with before. There were some good partnerships that expanded through this conversation.

Chelsea Holley:

Microsoft did something really wonderful for Morehouse students. They sent out laptops to every incoming freshman. So little things like that that made changes in the home on the day-to-day level I think are just as impactful as hearing some big number was given to the institution.

Kevin Tyler:

I love that. I’m curious about your perspective on a couple of things that have been going on in the media lately, MacKenzie Scott gifts, these folks who are coming to announce the wiping out of student debt. Wilberforce just did it from the school perspective just recently.

Kevin Tyler:

Do you think that the combination of the things that came to the nation’s recognition last year plus these kinds of wiping away debts, et cetera, are starting to introduce a new conversation about HBCUs and black students the cohort of people in their backgrounds?

Kevin Tyler:

Do you think that there is more information or a story that is now out in the world that helps HBCUs in a way because of what’s been going on in the last several months? Does that make sense?

Eddie Francis:

It makes perfect sense to me. I have to say, Kevin, when Robert F. Smith did his gift to the class of 2019 at Morehouse, I listened to that commencement speech three times, and the thing I wanted to know was why. Why this class? Why right now? Why Morehouse?

Eddie Francis:

There were some things that he… And I recommend everyone listen very closely to that speech, because there was something that he said in his speech… He went through this thing where he talked about there was always somebody who was there for him in Denver when he was growing up, and there was always somebody who helped him get from point A to point B.

Eddie Francis:

By the end of the speech, right before he made the announcement, he made the point that you’re going to be dealing with a lot. You’re the next leaders. You’re the next group of leaders. I want to give you a head start so that you won’t be saddled with this extra big bill hanging over your head. I’m going to give you a head start so that you can pay it forward and you can get your career going sooner than later.

Eddie Francis:

So along with that speech there was this message of legacy, because that was another thing he brought up in his speech. It was that how important it was to have his family legacy, and somebody had to start that legacy somewhere.

Eddie Francis:

To me, what Smith was telling the class of 2019 at Morehouse was if you don’t have a legacy I’m going to help you start right now. This is the beginning of it, this gesture. It’s not money. It’s legacy. I think that was his really, really big message to them.

Eddie Francis:

I think with a lot of philanthropists… And what MacKenzie Scott did, to me, again, it’s more than money. People were asking questions, why did she pick this one? Why did she pick that one? Why did she pick these places? I have kind of a cheat code. I’m married to a fundraiser, so I was able to kind of get in her head. I started asking her, “Why do you think she did this stuff?”

Eddie Francis:

One of the things she brought up was, “Well, you never know who’s doing homework on you, and you never know who’s visiting your websites, and you never know who’s digging into your programs. You never know who’s doing that stuff.”

Eddie Francis:

So as soon as I got to Dillard, one of the first things I started doing was I started reorganizing the website. I was like okay, how do we make this thing more user friendly?

Eddie Francis:

When people ask why did she give to these certain school, my guess is that she probably had some researchers who went in and said, “You know, this institution is doing something very interesting, and I think a little help is going to help them go a long way.”

Eddie Francis:

Now the question is how the institutions are stewards of those gifts. That’s the real question. How do they leverage that so that they can make some great plans for the next five to 10 to 20 years?

Eddie Francis:

But I do see something in the giving. I think the conversation though is two way. Number one is what kind of intention does the philanthropist or the giver have, but then number two, how is the HBCU going to be a good steward of that gift that they receive?

Kevin Tyler:

Excellent. Excellent point.

Chelsea Holley:

There’s also a conversation that happens with our current students and prospective students about what the giving means for them. So my office, every day they’re asking what about this money? What about this? Where did this go to?

Chelsea Holley:

So I think it’s a good moment to appreciate the year that we have, but really realize that we’re playing catch up here of years and years of not having this type of funding coming into our institutions. So yes, where is the gift going and how far is it really stretching and what’s impactful?

Chelsea Holley:

To your point about legacy, I think really allowing students who otherwise would either not be able to come or have crippling debt upon them leaving, that’s a real game changer for generational wealth and for the wealth gap between blacks and whites. If we have 20 students now that can have a full ride for four years, that’s meaningful. That’s 20 families that may feel very different in 10 years or 20 years.

Chelsea Holley:

So there’s impact there, but we are looking at what is just the beginning of many years of us getting to a financial standing that we all deserve to have as HBCUs.

Eddie Francis:

I think there’s a really big message in what Chelsea said for students and alumni. I think that one of the things that people really need to understand, this court case that happened in Maryland, that is not because a bunch of black folks got mad one day and decided they wanted their money. It was because the HBCUs in Maryland, like in so many other states, were just flat-out cheated, just cheated systematically, legislatively, policy related cheated.

Eddie Francis:

So all that case was about is give us what you owe us. We’re not the group of people who can’t pull up our boot straps. We’ve been pulling up our boot straps real hard for a long time and the straps are broken, okay? But we’re still pulling up the boots, but you owe us. You owe us, and that’s according to policy. That’s not just people coming for a handout.

Eddie Francis:

So what Chelsea is pointing out there that is so important for people to understand is that MacKenzie Scott, bless her heart, and everybody else, the Robert F. Smiths who really make these big gifts and these great gestures, they are wonderful, they are great. The problem is they are a drop in a very big bucket, and that big bucket is what Chelsea just brought up, a wealth gap, a huge, huge wealth gap.

Eddie Francis:

So if you imagine a wealth gap like this, we are still building these planes while we’re flying them. We’re doing a good job flying them. We’re doing a really good job, but there is a lot of frustration in having to build while flying.

Kevin Tyler:

Totally. Last question in this bucket of our conversation and the pandemic. We’re a little over time. I want to be super respectful days, but have the events, including the pandemic, also obviously the demonstrations for racial justice in the country, changed the perception or awareness of HBCUs? If so, how has that affected the goals that you have during this time?

Chelsea Holley:

Absolutely. I know we talked a little bit about it changing the perception on a larger scale, but what I’m really fascinated by is what it’s done for black students who may have not have been really considering an HBCU before this.

Chelsea Holley:

This year we received a record breaking amount of applications, and in those applications the narratives were the same. The narratives were them reflecting on the past year, and what that year meant to them, and why Spelman or any other HBCU is the only place that they should have this next step at.

Chelsea Holley:

So I saw it at a very granular level with our students, and then also conversations in the community. I think that our people have also had poor ideas about what the value of HBCUs really look like as well, so allowing us… Giving ourselves the grace to have that conversation and us to return back to loving HBCUs and seeing them as just as good, if not better, than the PWI down the street. So I think it’s been a great moment for our community.

Eddie Francis:

Yeah. And one of the things it’s done for us is that the moment that we’ve had… Whether you’re talking about the pandemic or you’re talking about the health pandemic or the racial pandemic, I mean what that’s really done for us, it’s really forced us into thorough examination of what our value really is, not just in the college marketplace, but to our community.

Eddie Francis:

What’s our value to the civic sector? Where are we in this conversation and how are we really, really affecting change? Or is it our job to affect change? Where are we in this thing?

Eddie Francis:

We’ve really engaged in that conversation from a marketing standpoint, just really defining the value proposition and really figuring what that looks like. For me, as a marketing director, it’s really forced me to take a look at the basics of marketing, to look right back at that stuff, the four Ps. What is our product? What’s the place, the price, and what’s the promotion?

Eddie Francis:

It’s really forced me to take a look at that stuff and answer the basic questions so that we can get to that bigger question, because I think that’s one thing in our environment that we really forget to do. I think we forget fundamentals a lot of times. People want the sexy stuff, right?

Eddie Francis:

I always joke with folks, and some people, they might not like it when I say this, but the unfortunate thing about being in marketing and communications, that a lot of people look at us as the arts and crafts shop. They need a flyer, fine. They want to complain about the website, well it’s your fault.

Eddie Francis:

So they come to us, and one of the things that we’re saying is but before we can get to that we need to answer some critical questions. I can tell you, my colleagues get upset with me when they want a change made on a website and I call them up and I say, “Hey, so what’s the point of this? What are we doing? Who are you going after? Who is this message meant for? There’s a lot of text on this landing page. Do we really need all of this?”

Eddie Francis:

So I think really making… And helping people to realize that those small things, those small annoying questions, that’s what leads to the bigger message, and that’s what really helps us evolve and show the evolution, or I should says the evolution of our brand and our brand identity and our value proposition.

Kevin Tyler:

I love that. That’s exactly right. So now we are seeing kind of the light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccinations are rolling out into people’s arms. I’m curious how things have changed for your institution, or if you think that some of the obstacles that we talked about at the beginning of this for HBCUs as a segment have evolved because of the events of the past year and a half or so?

Eddie Francis:

For me, I really hate to be the one to say I think things are kind of the same, but here’s why I’m thinking this. If you look at the issue of HBCUs, things come in waves, and history has a weird way of repeating itself.

Eddie Francis:

I’m a ’70s baby, so I remember coming out of the ’70s when I was a little kid and all of my relatives and parents’ friends with these proud Dillard alumni, Xavier alumni, Southern alumni, Grambling alumni, Jackson State, Alcorn. Seeing all of these folks… My dad graduated from Xavier as a matter of fact.

Eddie Francis:

But then going into the ’80s, when you started to have people who said, “Well, I don’t have to go to an HBCU. You know what? I really want to go to Tulane and I want to conquer the world from Tulane.” Unfortunately, what that caused is that it caused some people in the black community to become kind of dated toward the HBCUs because you have some folks who got to Tulane or wherever they went and they… You know, like we like to say, they started to feel kind of brand new. They started feeling themselves.

Eddie Francis:

But then we get to the ’90s and there’s this awakening, HipHop, Public Enemy and NWA, and they start getting folks in that conscious space and then a different world comes along. Boom, ’90s, HBCU is all the rage again.

Eddie Francis:

The we get into the early 2000s, and then we’re kind of going back. Now we’re at this point of racial reckoning, and now we’re back at the inflection point. So to me, the thing that I am afraid of right now, and it is really a concern for me, is that nationally we have seen these increases in HBCU applications. I love the social media posts where there is a picture of a high school graduate and they have all the logos behind them of all the schools that they got accepted and you see some big PWIs, and they say, “Nope. I’m going to go to Albany State,” and you’re sitting there going, “Yes.”

Eddie Francis:

But I am afraid of that cycle coming when people start saying okay we’ve done the racial reckoning thing. All right, HBCUs are nice, that’s fine, and now we got to wait another 10 years or 20 years before everybody gets hip to HBCUs again.

Eddie Francis:

So to me that’s the thing I’m kind of keeping my eye on, and unfortunately… And I really hate to be cynical about this. I really want to be the eternal optimist about this, but I do see some of the same challenges only because of the cyclical nature of these things.

Eddie Francis:

I want to be wrong, believe me, and it’s my job to fight being wrong on this, by the way. I need to… You know, that’s where I come in. But that’s where I’m kind of concerned about society and that’s why I’m thinking we might see some of this stuff.

Kevin Tyler:

Excellent points. Chelsea?

Chelsea Holley:

I definitely agree on the cyclical information.

Eddie Francis:

Oh, Chelsea, I can’t thank you enough.

Chelsea Holley:

I know.

Eddie Francis:

I wanted you to save me-

Chelsea Holley:

I’m a realist. Yeah. I’m not coming to save you. I absolutely agree, but I do think there are some things that we can do to make sure that the conversation, at least in our community, does not die down, that we’re all seeing ourselves as ambassadors of HBCUs in general.

Chelsea Holley:

When I get to have those conversations with students or with families I’m talking really generally about why this really matters and why it matters right now. I think there’s good work and good conversations to be had, but once this blows over, if you will, what does this look like for everyone else? Are we still talking about it? Are they still giving to HBCUs in the same ways, very public ways, that we saw this past year? So I agree.

Kevin Tyler:

Those are great points. Those are great points Chelsea.

Eddie Francis:

For the record, that doesn’t mean we’re not doing our jobs. We are definitely doing our jobs.

Kevin Tyler:

Definitely. No question at all. No question at all about that. One of the things I keep thinking about in this conversation is before all this even started higher ed as an industry was facing some significant obstacles in the demographic share and in giving and all these other things, and now throw in a pandemic and police brutality and all these other items.

Kevin Tyler:

What does the future look like for your institutions do you think? What are the things that keep schools like yours alive? Is it a focus on adult learners? Is it coming back to get some additional degree offerings? What is it that’s going to get all of us through, all of us being higher ed, through the storm that’s planned not yet here?

Chelsea Holley:

I think you mentioned a couple alternate revenue streams, right? I think institutions across the board realized that we needed to get creative about what other things that we could generate income other than tuition, so you see the degree completion, you see online learning, which are all great things to kind of add to that drop in the bucket as we’re talking about funding.

Chelsea Holley:

That allows us to support more of our undergraduate students with scholarships, so really good stuff. I’ll also throw into the hat the collapse of standardized testing, which is huge in my world, and it will be huge for application numbers, admit rates, student profiles. That entire landscape looks very different, because there’s one less barrier for students in this process.

Chelsea Holley:

So in some ways that’s helpful, as we were seeing a decline in birth, right? So that makes more students eligible to apply and a larger prospect pool to recruit from. But in other ways it’s complicated. We have two years of data that’s not going to tell us anything, so where do we pick up to plan forward and how can we predict how all of these moving pieces will really affect us in the long run? I think we’re all just… A wait and see approach for a lot of us. We don’t know what’s going to be in front of us.

Eddie Francis:

The thing that really keeps me energized about our future is that people are paying more attention to our past now. There was this conversation I had recently internally about the importance of really talking about the history of Dillard and how people are really paying attention to that sort of thing.

Eddie Francis:

One of the things that I said during the conversation is HBCUs have always been an engine of equity, always. HBCUs have always been the intellectual center of black America, and that’s not going to change. There is a lot of runway on that and we are continuing that, because I think with the new public focus that we have on diversity, equity and inclusion, I think HBCUs fit perfectly into that conversation, because that’s what we have always done.

Eddie Francis:

So many HBCUs have produced the first this, the first that, the first this, the first that, or the first black this, or the first black that. Going back to what I said earlier about things being cyclical, a few years back I remember people being pretty cynical and saying we already have the first black this, the first black that. It doesn’t even matter anymore.

Eddie Francis:

Well, here comes racial reckoning and here comes this conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion, and people are saying wait a minute, that is important. That is really important that HBCUs were able to produce the nation’s first black Supreme Court Justice, the nation’s first black and the first female Vice-President of the United States of America. That is important.

Eddie Francis:

So to me, I think this is… And this is where my job gets a lot of fun. I think really digging into our history and our narrative and going to the public and saying, “Hey, you missed something. Check this out. And, oh, by the way, I have another thing to tell you, and while you’re being cynical we happened to do these other things,” that’s why I have a lot of hope. That’s why I have a lot of energy. That’s why my job really excites me, and that’s where I really think that HBCUs can take advantage of the moment and continue to really do some great stuff in higher education, and continue… By the way, to continue to build the black middle class and the black upper class, and to really continue to produce these game changers and these legacy builders. That work has not stopped, and it is definitely continuing.

Kevin Tyler:

I love that. I love that. Just a couple more questions. I’m curious about how the last year and a half has maybe informed or encouraged HBCUs and otherwise the responsibility of an institution has broadened or expands because of the needs that you’ve identified throughout the pandemic, and how you aim to address those in the future?

Kevin Tyler:

I think about things like mental health and like you mentioned before, Eddie, about access to wifi. Does anything of the things you’ve learned over the last several months inform how you move into the future in terms of what you’re offering in terms of support?

Chelsea Holley:

I would say that being proactive about those conversations. Students are having those conversations independently now. I remember 15 years ago no one was asking about disability services or health service or mental health. Now that may be the third question that a student is interested in when they’re looking at an institution.

Chelsea Holley:

So I think knowing how important that is to our consumers and making sure that it is given that same attention in the ways that we talk about our institution on our website, in our student programming, all of those things. So yes, it is incredibly important, and like I said earlier, I think HBCUs are even held to a higher standard of supporting our students through all facets of their life.

Eddie Francis:

And to piggyback off of what Chelsea is saying, it’s really about listening to them very, very closely. Again, President Kimbrough and these focus groups that he likes to do with students are so helpful, because we get to hear them, and the thing that I think is most important is accepting the things that they say that we might not really understand because of our age, or we grew up in a different time, or I should say we grew up with a different set of values. Maybe they’re growing up in a type of family that we didn’t grow up in.

Eddie Francis:

So the students will give us these pieces of feedback that will make us say, “I didn’t know that was that much of a problem.” To give a solid, clear example, again the amount of text on a landing page on the website, we’re sitting here thinking that we’re doing something so great when we splatter all of the information we can possibly splatter onto one page, but the student is saying, “That’s too much reading. I spent about a half second on that page and I moved on,” and we have people who are getting upset, going, “Yeah, but that’s where all the information is. Ever question they asked was right there. They didn’t read it.”

Eddie Francis:

I think what we really have to do is we have to get more in the habit of listening to students when they say that and not judging their answers and saying, “Well, if that’s where the information is we’re going to keep the website nice, long, and text heavy, and if they don’t read the information that’s their problem.”

Eddie Francis:

We can’t do that, because what they’re telling us is you’re losing an audience member. So I think for us that is one of those things that we really have to listen to.

Eddie Francis:

The other thing I really would like us to really think about, and this is something I folded into really thinking about marketing too, you brought up mental health, and I think that is a huge issue, a huge issue that we have got to continue to listen to, especially with black students.

Eddie Francis:

If a student transfers from a PWI to a HBCU and they go from one environment where they have to deal with micro-aggressions to another environment where somebody is saying, “Stop complaining. Everything is going to be okay,” then we haven’t done our jobs, and we have not really taken into account that this is our most important resource.

Eddie Francis:

We don’t have an institution if we don’t have a student, so if this student is saying, “I’m dealing with these micro-aggressions and right now you all are treating me as if I’m kind of kid, and blah, blah, blah, and you don’t want to listen to me,” then we have to figure out how to meet that student halfway, if nothing else. How do we meet that student halfway? Mental health is at the center of that conversation.

Eddie Francis:

One of the things that I said, and it was a joke at the time, but it quickly moved on from being a joke to something else. But in the first semester in the fall of ’20 the students at Dillard, they had some issues. They voiced those issues loudly on social media and I started to say, “Uh-oh, they’re getting cabin fever.” Well that is what was happening.

Eddie Francis:

They had been cooped up in their residence halls for a couple of months. They were doing virtual learning, online learning, and they were tired of it. They were just mentally beaten down. They were tired. So we were very happy that the semester was coming to an end, but it really forced us to think about going back to internal communication.

Eddie Francis:

It did force us to think about how we communicated with them internally. It forced us to think about how can we do some programming where the could be in person, but be safe? How can we move to that from the virtual stuff? So those are definitely a couple of things that were teaching moments for us as an institution throughout the pandemic.

Kevin Tyler:

Awesome. How has the last year and a half informed how you will move your marketing and communication strategy in the future? Is it changing in any way? Are you going to be more analog now that you’ve learned, as Chelsea mentioned, that people have digital fatigue? What does it look like from a marketing perspective moving forward now?

Eddie Francis:

I mean we got to keep it mixed up, one way or the other. I taught a freshman year seminar class, and one of the things I told the students, much to their chagrin, is that online learning is not gone. As a matter of fact, this is the beginning of it.

Eddie Francis:

They’re going to have to learn how to use Campus. They’re going to have to learn how to use learning management systems. So I think for us it’s maintaining that mix, because while people do have digital fatigue, one of the benefits of the virtual environment is that for Dillard we were able to get guest speaker that we probably would not have been able to get for another two to three years, but we were able to pop them onto a virtual environment, do a virtual lecture. The students were elated to be able to ask so-and-so a question.

Eddie Francis:

These were some big name people that were able to bring us, Stacey Abrams being one of them. So that really kind of leveled the playing field as far as exposing students to some big names or people who have something to say, some really big things to say.

Eddie Francis:

But I will say that the one marketing thing that I’m paying more attention to going forward, I’m taking as deep a dive as I can right now into market research. One of the unfortunate things, and I mentioned this before about being at an HBCU, we always have this building the plane while it’s at flying altitude.

Eddie Francis:

In marketing, unfortunately what people tend to look for, they tend to look for band-aid solutions. They want lightning to strike when that press release goes out. They want lightning to strike and they want that viral tweet. Everybody wants it.

Eddie Francis:

But those are band-aids. That’s a part of the marketing mix. In order for us to really develop an authentic, strong, consistent brand identity we have to do research, so at some point we have to be satisfied with the fact that we’re not going to get lightning in a bottle. We really have to create a slow burn, and it’s not going to be sexy. It’s going to be a grind. But by the time we’re done we’re going to have a sustainable solution, a sustainable brand, a sustainable identity. So that’s my big focus for the rest of 2021, is really digging into market research.

Kevin Tyler:

I love that. One of the things I hope for the entire segment coming out of these challenging days is a recognition that every single thing that happens with your brand is marketing, whether you like it or not.

Eddie Francis:

Yeah.

Kevin Tyler:

So the way that you talk about how you’re caring for students during a pandemic, how often you communicate with them, what that looks and feels like, what your president is saying, all of those things go into a decision that’s being made, whether you know it or not or like it or not.

Kevin Tyler:

I think that’s one of the things I’m really hoping that the segment really understands, is that just because you say one thing in your view book and all this other stuff is happening on social, on Reddit and all these other places, that has power too, so understand that, and understand where your brand is being talked to, or talked about. I think that’s great.

Kevin Tyler:

Chelsea, what about you? What about the future of your messaging and communications practices?

Chelsea Holley:

Yeah. I think exposure is something that has taken on a new face. I mean we were always doing virtual events or virtual meetings in some capacity, but now when it seems incredibly viable to have in person events, also have a virtual event going on. If we’re not able to get on a plane and go to a college fair there’s virtual options.

Chelsea Holley:

I think we’re just a lot more flexible in how we’re reaching students, and students are willing to be reached virtually in a different way now. All of our events saw numbers that we would have never seen on campus. So it really allowed us the opportunity to get creative, try and put together engaging virtual content, and reach as many folks as possible.

Chelsea Holley:

We also have a lot of assets that came out of this year, recordings, videos of events, different soundbites that we’re able to run through our social, put on YouTube, and continue using that content. Those are things that I don’t think would have been around if we were just on campus and doing everything as we have.

Chelsea Holley:

So, again, diversifying all of our communication, but social media for us still continues to be at the forefront. We’re working on an admissions podcast now, so I’m very excited about that. Beefing up YouTube, which is the most popular social media app for young folks, so really tapping into that. TikTok was new for us this year, so really leveraging all of our social media connections, and that’s where those conversations about HBCUs are really, really being had.

Kevin Tyler:

Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate both of you. Are there any last thoughts you’d like to share that we make sure that we include at the end here?

Eddie Francis:

The one thing I would say, and this is a call to all of my colleagues, but then also to leadership at HBCUs, is… And this is going to sound so basic and so nutty, but by all means please pay attention to the importance of your website.

Eddie Francis:

The reason I say that is when… All the HBCUs I’ve been to, my biggest thing has been like okay, the website, we’ve got to do something with the website. People will say, “But people don’t go to the website,” and I’ll say, “Yeah. There’s a reason they don’t go to the website,” so I get in this circular conversation with people.

Eddie Francis:

But the reason I say it though is that marketing is about the product. Your website is your primary communicator of your product and its value, so you really have to pay close attention to it.

Eddie Francis:

One of the things I forgot to mention that is another priority of mine is beefing up our search engine optimization. That is something that we work very closely on, because one of the responses I had gotten was… It was like, “Well, yeah, yeah. The website, that’s fine, but we need some really great advertising. We need to go viral. We need some great press releases.”

Eddie Francis:

My response would be, “Okay, that’s great. So they click a link, go to the website, it’s outdated, and then what?” So please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please website.

Kevin Tyler:

Say it again for the people in the back. That is so true. That is so true. Chelsea, last thoughts?

Chelsea Holley:

I don’t know if I have any last thoughts. I’m still stuck on website and some ideas are going on in my head about our personal website.

Kevin Tyler:

Yes. Website is a… I agree with all of your thoughts on that Eddie. Thank you both for your time. I really appreciate it. Thank you for this first conversation. It was exciting. I hope to chat with you all again, and have a great day.

Chelsea Holley:

Thanks so much Kevin.

Eddie Francis:

Thanks Kevin. Thank you so much.

Kevin Tyler:

Thank you. Take care.

Kevin Tyler:

That’s it for this week’s episode of Higher Voltage, but I’m looking forward to having more great conversations with higher ed thought leaders. If you’d like to learn more about higher education marketing be sure to check us out on Twitter @volthighered, and follow me on Twitter @kevinctyler2. Until next time.

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage is the podcast of Volt, a publication that covers all aspects of higher ed marketing.

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