Campus programming is part art and part science mixed with some luck. While programming efforts vary from institution to institution, there’s no denying that many veteran student affairs professionals agree that attracting the attention (and attendance) of college students has become increasingly difficult. With the advent of Facebook, Netflix, smart phones, and an ever growing catalog of video games and entertainment options, campus programming can easily be perceived as passé by someone out of the realm of Student Life.
Please understand that I myself am a programming “purist” and wholeheartedly believe that student programming efforts add to the extracurricular personal development of our students. However, programming without a strategic plan can lead to poor results, including a waste of time, resources, and the creation of disillusioned staffers and students alike. Having over 20 years of experience in campus programming, I would like to share some thoughts on why your programming sucks and what to do about it:
1. Your Programming is a Mainly a Means to an End: If your activities are simply there because it’s required of you, you’re probably not putting your heart and soul into program development. This is going to be obvious as you won’t be inspiring your staff or your students into putting forth innovative and quality work. If you don’t want to be there, your students certainly won’t want to be there either (i.e., circular causality). Furthermore, if you are programming simply for programming’s sake without any formal goals or student learning outcomes in mind, there’s a good chance your programming will become stale because there’s nothing to challenge you to push past mediocrity.
Resolve: Whether you’re an RA, hall coordinator, assistant director of student activities, or director of a student affairs department, if you find programming a chore and something you have to do for the paycheck, it’s time to refocus and recharge or simply get out. You can refocus by finding out what colleagues are doing across the country. Suggestions include subscribing to Student Affairs blogs, reading tweets from other college and university departments, participating in webinars, and attending regional and national conferences. Get out of your own department and find other colleagues at your institution who inspire you and achieve great results with their own programs. Additionally, ASK FOR HELP if you find yourself struggling.
2. You Concentrate Solely on Attendance: While numbers are certainly good, they shouldn’t be the sole reason for why you program. Rather than focusing on worthwhile activities that students will appreciate and find worth their time, programmers can easily fall into the trap of offering gimmicks and prizes to attract attendees. Of course pizza, gift cards, and t-shirts are awesome, but don’t create a situation in which students only come to grab the free stuff and bolt.
Resolve: Refer to your department and university’s mission and vision when developing your programs for the semester and year. Determine the purpose behind your programming and plan accordingly. If success is only determined by numbers at your institution, I challenge you to illustrate the student learning outcomes you achieve to your superiors rather than following status quo. It is hard to argue against programs that foster student development and education. (It’s even better if you can do this without spending a lot of money to achieve those results!)
3. Your Marketing is Lacking: Throwing up a few flyers and sending out an email and a tweet isn’t going to cut it. Students are inundated with loads of information and a lackluster advertising effort will go unnoticed. In large part, the bulk of students don’t care about what you’re doing. Furthermore, if they don’t see your message, they can’t make plans to attend.
Resolve: For all intents and purposes, your marketing campaign should be as well planned as the program itself. Try to make the marketing fun as well. A message that sets itself apart from all of the other “noise” of departments hawking their events will have a better chance of getting noticed. Don’t simply use one avenue of marketing, such as only using Facebook, but use all of the tools you have, including social media, email, handwritten personal invites, flyers, announcements at organization meetings, sidewalk chalk, and even guerilla marketing techniques.
4. You’re Trying Too Hard or Not Trying Hard Enough: We’re not going to compete with the likes of Playstation, Netflix, and off-campus parties so don’t try to. You’ll quickly burn yourself out on multiple half-assed programs that little if nobody will attend. On the other hand, if you’re hosting programs that you yourself wouldn’t want to attend, why would you think your students would come? Programming takes creativity, and most importantly, hard work.
Resolve: Sometimes simple can be better. In large part, students want the opportunity to interact with one another and do something fun. If you can add in some education in there, all the better. Yet, you can’t just throw a pizza in the study lounge and expect 100 people to show up. Float some ideas by a bunch of students prior to rolling out a program. You’ll get a quick sense whether or not an idea is decent or not. Also, consider giving some program types a rest while bringing old ones back that haven’t been done in awhile. What’s new is old, and what’s old is new.
Good coordinated and creative programming is challenging, but should be fun for you, your staff, and your students. Spend the time to develop a programming and marketing plan to ensure better success. And if something doesn’t work, get rid of it. Don’t hang onto traditions just because that’s the way it’s always been done. Programming needs to stay fresh, innovative, and fun.
For further information regarding programming, I encourage you to read Developing Activities (Free 650+ Activities Handout) as well as What is Your Programming GPA? (***free handout***)