Published on 2012/11/09
Being generous with free branded gifts will keep your institution top of mind for adult learners when they consider their continuing education options.

FREE: it’s a word even non-tightwads can appreciate.

It’s also misnomer—there is no such thing as a free lunch. Yet, each week I feed dozens of hungry non-credit continuing education students a free steak lunch. At least the students think it’s free. Deep down, we both know their course registration fee (called tuition to sound more academic) has the cost of the lunch, beverage service, and all related marketing items built in.

The fee also covers a gift during each class session. The gifts are nice—something the students want to keep, re-gift, or display on their desks at work. And that’s the point of all this: to keep the university and department name top of mind with our target audience.

Each Thursday of a one-week, daytime non-credit class, I visit all student classrooms wearing a red polo shirt with our university logo, department name, and program URL on the sleeve. As our campus is near a large military base, we have many veterans and military-related students in our courses, which makes support of Red Shirt Friday (www.redshirtfridays.org) dually symbolic for both our school colors and supporting the troops.

I give each student their own red polo shirt with university logo, based on the size they requested on the first day of class, and tell them not only about Red Shirt Friday, but also about school pride and spirit for our university athletic teams. I encourage the students to wear the shirts the next day, and when they do, another small gift is provided to them—much like the experiment Pavlov performed on his dog.

The University of Arizona South gives each of its students a red shirt for Red Shirt Friday, generating school and community spirit as well as brand loyalty.

As we’re in a relatively small community (population 50,000 ), I often see former continuing education students wearing the shirts in the community, and I make a point of going over and saying hi—even if I don’t know or remember their name—and giving them a card to redeem for another free item next time they are on campus.

Although the cost of the shirt, about $9/student, and the cost of the second item (range from $3-12) might seem high when multiplied by hundreds of students, the loyalty and connection it brings to our student population—and prospective student population— pays dividends in return enrollments and affinity for the university.

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2012/11/09 at 9:29 am

A small gift is a great way to promote your university brand, reinforce it with your existing students and extend its reach (if the gift is a t-shirt they wear, or a mug they put on their desk). It is important that these kind of efforts are directed at the adult learners of continuing education programs. Mr. DeLalla mentions encouraging school pride and involvement when he visits continuing ed classes; too often, this effort to engage learners in the life of the campus is not made with the non-traditional students of a continuing education unit, and I think it is a shame. True, they are for the most part non-traditional students, not looking for a “traditional” college experience. But everyone wants to feel not only welcome on their school’s campus, but also a part of that school. A school can be a very strong, supportive and positive community, and it may fill a gap for some learners whose careers or life outside school do not provide such community.

Eileen Peters 2012/11/09 at 2:58 pm

I understand the “gift as incentive” here, and I think in small doses it is very effective. Giving students a small token that will remind them of the university, hosting a nice lunch, these are things that make new students feel important. But I think you must be careful not to go overboard with this kind of effort or let it replace other, perhaps more involved, but still effective, engagement strategies. For example, Mr. DeLalla says that if he sees a former continuing ed student wearing the school’s red polo, he will go over to them and “give them a card to redeem for a free item.” I understand this as a way to draw them back to campus, but I don’t think it is an entirely effective way of making them believe that the university cares about them.

In a one-on-one situation like that, the red polo should just act as a handy tool to identify former continuing ed students so that a dean or school official or professor, what have you, can approach and not give them some swag but ask them, face-to-face, how are you doing? Are you still happy with the program/course you took at UAS, and did it have positive results for you? Are you considering further education upgrades? This kind of more substantial and personalized follow-up is equally as important as “shiny things,” and striking a balance between the two is very important.

    Yvonne Laperriere 2012/11/11 at 7:59 am

    I agree with you on one hand, but I also think that would be a bit of an aggressive action.

    Giving the student a reason to come back to the college, where you can talk to them in the school surroundings about their experience, is far more acceptable than accosting people on the street, I think

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