By Kate Kirkpatrick, Reno-Tahoe AMA, VP Communications

One of the largest barriers to students attending college is the cost of the tuition and fees, and Truckee Meadows Community College offers financial aid and scholarships to assist with these expenses. But a lot of students don’t file their federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which would open many doors to financial aid. So last year, the TMCC Marketing and Communications team dug in to this issue, to promote FAFSA completion as well as offer assistance to students who needed it.

To be fair, this is an issue that is national in scope, not just in northern Nevada. So in 2018-19, TMCC was selected as a grant recipient from the National College Access Network (NCAN) to increase FAFSA completion in our region at large. This informational campaign was meant to educate the community about the FAFSA in general, as well as the financial aid experts at TMCC specifically.

Setting a Goal, and Finding Audiences

NCAN’s goal was to raise community awareness of the FAFSA process and deadlines; as such, high school and college students in the Reno-Sparks community became the primary audience. Influencers (such as high school counselors) and supporters (such as parents/families of the students) made up the secondary audience.

Knowing that we were embarking on a year-long campaign, the next step was to identify the best times of the year to promote these ideas, and the audiences who needed the information. We knew the annual FAFSA application opens each year on October 1, but needed to find a way to keep students aware of the resources year-round. Grant funds were used to promote four different messages throughout the academic year, including:

–      Community-wide FAFSA awareness messaging, Sept. and Oct. 2018

–      Promotion of the TMCC FASTOBER event, held Oct. 6, 2018

–      Community-wide promotion of Financial Aid Awareness Month (Feb. 2019) and the FAFSA Fiesta event, held Feb. 28, 2019

–      Community influencer awareness messaging, targeting High School Counselors for FAFSA verification messaging, March-April 2019

TMCC’s goals were to increase FAFSA completion by 2%, increase engagement and participation in two events (Oct. 2018 and Feb. 2019) to students/prospective students; and to promote verification and provide support (March-April 2019) to influencers and counselors. We also sought to assist with NCAN’s stated goals of raising FAFSA completion in our region, by inviting to TMCC prospective students who had not yet selected TMCC as their school of choice.

Strategies and Tactics

Each message had its own audience and a variety of media in use, including video and static digital ads via social media, print, and on-campus messaging. English and Spanish language media were both in use in order to reach as many students and influencers/supporters as possible throughout the region.

TMCC held three flagship events throughout the campaign, including:

  • FAFSA Completion Kick Off Event, held Oct. 1, 2018, which invited elected officials, board members, and advisory board members to TMCC to mingle with faculty/staff to encourage enthusiasm about FAFSA Completion. Reno Mayor, Hillary Schieve, sent a proclamation and the event kicked off the national FAFSA availability for the year. Social media was used to distribute a PSA video ad featuring council members from Reno and Sparks along with TMCC’s Director of Financial Aid. A media release garnered interest from both English and Spanish language local media outlets.

  • The FASTOBER event, held on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, is an annual event for current and prospective students to get assistance from TMCC experts to complete their FAFSA. Using geofencing for our five locations and all regional high schools, static digital ads were placed in browsers and apps. The event was advertised on-campus via printed flyers, posters, powerpoint slides, and faculty messaging. For high school seniors, we mailed postcards to their homes. We used social media to distribute video ads.
  • The FAFSA Fiesta, held Feb. 28, 2019, was a brand-new event structured similarly to FASTOBER but held mid-week. It capped off the Financial Aid Awareness Month, where smaller events were held for current student all month long to encourage FAFSA completion, scholarship applications, and financial aid assistance. We used the same strategies for current students as for FASTOBER, and a community-wide effort which expanded geofencing using YouTube English and YouTube Spanish, as well as digital ads placed on apps and in social media.

In February 2019, we launched a Spanish-language traditional media campaign, aimed at family members who support prospective students, which garnered four interviews, including TV, radio and print.

Finally, TMCC used geofencing to run FAFSA-awareness ads via digital platforms throughout Feb. 2019 (for students and prospective students) and in March-April 2019 (for high school influencers and supporters). 

Results and Outcomes

Our institutional goal for FAFSA Completion was an increase of 2%, and we completed a 4% increase over 2017. (As a side note, the NCAN 5% increase goal for the state of Nevada was not met; this number reflects the entire state, including Las Vegas, and does not reflect the Reno-Sparks region alone.)

TMCC also had success with the event attendance, doubling FASTOBER attendance from approximately 200 participants in 2017, to 400 in 2018. The brand-new FAFSA Fiesta event had 25 participants, considered a success for a new, mid-week event in February (well outside the “FAFSA Craze” month of October).

Digital ads also provided insight into the prevalence of this type of community-wide messaging:

–      In the three months using geofencing to deploy digital ads, we captured 599,641 impressions and 1,000 ad clicks on display ads

–      For the expanded February community YouTube ads, we captured 30,611 impressions (English) and 30,643 impressions (Spanish)

–      The social media paid ads in Facebook and Instagram drove over 1,600 visits to the TMCC website for more information about our Financial Aid experts

Due to the success of our digital media ads, TMCC was invited to present our preliminary fall and early spring results in a national NCAN webinar in March 2019, prior to the completion of the campaign, as well as at the NCAN annual conference in July. The campaign also won a Gold Medallion award as a “Communication Success Story” from the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, district 6, in September. Most importantly, TMCC was thrilled to assist so many prospective students with their applications and get the financial aid they needed to succeed. 

Kate Kirkpatrick is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Truckee Meadows Community College. In her spare time, she plays trombone, knits, and makes a great lasagna.