Shelia Balque, On Methods for Student Recruitment

We caught up with Shelia Balque, the Program Coordinator of Student Services for the Los Angeles Community Organizing Academy for a Q&A about student recruitment. This semester, 158 students enrolled across 6 CLP-affiliated courses in their fall economic development academy. “It’s been a matter of trial and error to get to our recruitment numbers to where they are now,” Shelia told us — which has involved shifting timing, increasing outreach, and employing a variety of methods to reach students. 

Can you explain what some of your recruitment strategies have been over the years and how you’ve adjusted them?

One of the most dramatic shifts we’ve made in our recruitment efforts was shifting our program into a cohort/Academy model every semester. The ComPlan program has an array of different courses and focuses (i.e. organizing, non-profit management, urban planning etc) so re-marketing our courses on a thematic basis made it much easier to communicate to community members what they could learn in our program. For example, last fall we decided to offer courses that primarily focused on skills needed to work in the non-profit sector, which birthed our very first Non-Profit Management Academy (flyer attached). Student who participated in the Academy could choose whichever courses they wanted but was encouraged to take at least 3 which would qualify them to receive a small skills certificate from the organization. We also made our academy model stackable, meaning if a student decided to continue to participate in the following semester’s academy (i,e. the Community Organizing Academy in spring) as a full time student they would be setting themselves up to be able to earn the full Community Planning certificate (21 units) by the end of the school year. Along with shifting our program to a more cohort model, we have also increased our staffing and employed other tactics such as hosting info sessions, more frequent phone banking, community flyer drops, email blasts and promoting at local community events.

What type of in-person outreach you do? And how do you decide where to target? 

A big part of our team’s recruitment efforts are our ‘Community flyer drops’ which we try to do at least 2-3 times/week during recruitment season. It’s pretty simple; depending on the theme of that semesters’ academy, we will focus dropping of flyers in locations that have a high concentration of residents (i.e. local libraries, direct service organizations, health centers, schools, churches, etc) and places where certain target populations frequent or work (i.e. Workforce Development department for the Economic Development Academy, or local parent organizing groups for our Organizing Academy). Overall though, we try to hit up between 75-100 locations during a season to ensure the word is really getting out to the immediate community. I’ll typically drive and have my coordinator drop stacks of flyers at the locations to be efficient with our time and will usually hit up about 10-15 locations per week over the course of 8-10 weeks.

We have also held open info sessions at our office and enrollment labs on campus for local residents and returning students. Partner organizations are also encouraged to request an on-site info session/enrollment lab so their staff/members can get one-on-one support during a time that is feasible for them.  

Can you talk about the timeline of outreach — when you start for each semester?

We typically give yourself a 3-4-month recruitment season before the start of each semester. How we use that time typically looks like this:

  • 4 months before the start of semester: Strategic planning phase, research, finalizing recruitment work plans and outreach targets

  • 3 months before the start of semester: finalize marketing materials, begin emailing out materials and making in-class announcement to current students

  • 3-2 months before semesters: Begin flyer drops, early enrollment for returning students, scheduling future info sessions with organizations, weekly postings to social media

  • 1 month before semester: host enrollment labs, continue flyer drops, phonebank returning and new prospective students about upcoming deadlines, start individual enrollment troubleshooting with student ready to start adding courses

  • 2 weeks before semester: continue troubleshooting enrollment issues with individual students, continue to email, call and post reminders of upcoming start of semester

  • 1 week before-2 weeks during semester: continue to work with students with enrollment needs, table on-campus to capture any active students needing courses, support in-class new adds and communicating with department about any pending enrollment issues, finalize student roster at the end of the 2nd week of class. 

You’ve mentioned that “Non-profit management” is the most popular course, but that might be because students don’t understand what other courses, like “economic development,” entail as readily. Any strategies you’re considering to tackle that problem?

So in regards to outreaching in the future, I would like us to provide better context and maybe even materials/videos that explain what the term  “Economic development” means and how our classes can support folks in getting into the field. I also found that many of the students that have joined our Economic Development Academy are already in the development field or have been exposed to it, so we may have to consider this academy as more advanced topic/cohort since there are some fundamental awareness you would need to already have any interest in it. Nonetheless, one thing I would do differently though is better highlight our individual courses more and reframing or renaming certain courses them in a way that is more accessible.

For example, one of our classes this term is called “Market Research Tools for the Economic Development Tools (super vague right?) but in reality the course really is just teaching students how small struggling businesses can better market themselves and engage residents using skills and local resources from organizations and the city. I feel like if we take a little more time to fine tune our messaging for each of our courses and communicate it in a way that is meaningful to our students, more folks will feel more confident joining the program. 

You’ve also said you hope to increase social media as a tool in recruitment — any ideas on how yet?

Not yet, but I definitely want to get more formal training for myself and our program coordinator on how to more strategically use social media in our recruitment    campaigns. Till then though, I have started using some formal tools (like the “Social Media Check-list” attached) to help us work plan out simple social media tasks like regularly uploading engaging content on our pages and responding to comments/inquiries in a timely manner. 

What have been the biggest lessons learned in recruitment that you think could help other programs?

 I have a few: 

Be clear of who your target audience is/who you would like in your classroom. I know it can be easy to say “well, our program is open to everyone” but in reality you really do want to make the effort to do targeted outreach so you get a good blend of students with different experiences and backgrounds to enrich your program. Think in terms of geography, racial/ethnic background, age/experience, religion, economic status, current or aspiring profession etc, and then build a plan on how to meet and outreach to those folks where there are. It can also be helpful to become well acquainted with any campus groups or programs that work with students who have similar interests as your program. For example, become acquainted with your on-campus AB540/Dreamers Center if you’re trying to attract already civically engaged undocumented students to your program

Create a plan with clear goals and milestones: I’ve found that by setting out clear weekly goals and milestones for both recruitment and enrollment had made our recruitment much energizing. Since my program is at a community college which takes open enrollment, I have much a much bigger student pool than say a minor program at 4 year, so it’s important to be mindful of how much time and effort will be needed to accomplish your recruitment in timely fashion. If anyone needs a sample tracker for how I’ve recruited for my program, just let me know and I’ll be happy to share it 🙂 

Recognize that recruitment is an entire job in of itself. If you don’t have dedicated staff for recruitment, please consider hiring a couple of folks, or at the very least leveraging any internship/student worker resources to ensure you have enough hands to help get the word out. If that’s not possible, then you will need to get really creative and perhaps focus on developing formal partnerships with local orgs, programs, groups etc to help pipeline students into your program during your recruitment season. 

Lastly, develop materials that are eye catching, clear and unique to other competing programs.