Solving Campus Communications Challenges at South Plains College
- By Chris Hurst
- December 01, 2022
There has been no shortage of risks facing college campuses today, from severe weather and power outages to protests and active assailants. The strain put on the teams and infrastructure responsible for the safety and security of faculty and students has never been greater.
These factors, coupled with a significant increase in spam texts and calls—as well as school “swatting”—are creating significant barriers to detecting risks and communicating critical information to faculty.
Additionally, schools, colleges and universities, especially those with large student bodies or multiple campuses, have complicated communications requirements and siloed processes for communicating information. Administrators also face the challenge of effectively getting the attention of busy students and faculty for both routine reminders and emergency notifications.
“Communication is one of the most important things we can do as a college to improve our student experience,” said Nikolis Castillo, the Executive Director of Administrative Services at South Plains College, a community college that enrolls more than 10,000 students across five campuses in Levelland, Texas.
For Castillo, being able to make meaningful connections with every student and staff member is a key element in the day-to-day operations of the college. From personalized FAFSA reminders to dorm-specific emergency alerts, getting the right notifications to the right people at the right time is central to his job.
South Plains College faced a tri-fold challenge. First, they needed to successfully reach stakeholders for day-to-day and critical communications. Second, they needed to make those messages memorable enough to stand out from the inundation of notifications that are a part of modern life. And third, as a hub of their community, they needed to be able to expand their alerts to reach local residents during emergencies.
A Two-Pronged Approach to Campus Communications
Like most colleges, South Plains previously used two separate communications systems: One for emergencies and another for routine messages to students and staff. Neither met the college’s needs for effectively reaching stakeholders.
When a severe weather event struck the area, Castillo, then South Plains College’s Chief of Police, needed to send an alert to 11,000 students and faculty members. Unfortunately, the college’s existing notification system became overburdened and was unable to reach many stakeholders in a timely manner.
While that particular incident wasn’t life-threatening, it served as a wake-up call.
“Although that situation was not an immediate emergency, we realized that we had to come up with something else,” said Castillo. “We needed a platform that was very fast, that could be accessed in an instant by a number of administrators and was very mobile and scalable.”
He recognized the need not only for effective communication in emergency circumstances, but also for routine college messages. Even something as simple as a reminder to reapply for financial aid plays an important role in student retention and satisfaction.
A system that could send critical notifications just as readily as day-to-day communications topped Castillo’s list of priorities.
Making Messages Personal
Students are deeply connected to their devices, and with spam texts and calls at an all-time high, the constant influx of notifications often results in critical messages getting lost in the flow of social media updates, junk emails and spam texts. Administrators need to take an extra step to personalize notifications to get them to stand out.
Returning to the example above, if someone receives a generic message to update their financial aid, odds are high they’ll simply ignore it. On the other hand, sending notifications to only a list of students who have not completed their applications, and addressing them by name, greatly increases the chances of grabbing their attention.
Likewise, if a dorm building needs maintenance, administrators don’t need to alert all 10,000 students on every campus. Recipients will quickly tune out constant, non-relevant messages, ultimately skipping the ones that might impact them personally.
In his search for a better communications platform, Castillo found that targeted, personalized messaging was an important feature.
“If I can send those students a message by name, which may not sound like a big deal, they are much more likely to respond to that than an email that’s gone to everybody,” he said. “Not only are we able to reach specific groups of students, but we can really tailor the notifications to that individual.”
In addition, he wanted a system that interacted with the college’s existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, which managed the student database. Any changes to student records should automatically cross-populate, eliminating the need for time-consuming manual updates.
Including the “Community” in Community College
One of the things that makes South Plains College special is its connection to the community. Its five campuses often host local events, and Castillo has close connections with emergency management coordinators throughout the county.
During severe weather events, South Plains College facilities serve as refuges, housing facilities and coordination centers. In those instances, it was equally critical for Castillo to be able to send multichannel notifications to community members, as well as students and faculty.
“If it’s an extreme emergency or critical incident, we want to send an email, a text or even a phone call,” he said. “We also push notifications to our social media sites so anyone looking at our Twitter or Facebook will be able to see the latest information.”
Castillo looked for an emergency communications system that would enable him to coordinate with local officials and easily upload spreadsheets with additional contact information. The college also needed the ability to quickly expand their contact list in a crisis so that the broader community could stay informed and safe.
A Comprehensive Critical Communications Solution
At first, Castillo thought South Plains College’s communications requirements could only be met through a combination of different systems.
“We were trying to meet needs for different departments using our communications tools for various critical information-sharing purposes. Originally, we thought we would need several different platforms,” he said. “Then we came across OnSolve, and it really checked all the boxes.”
OnSolve Critical Communications gives South Plains College administrators the tools they need to send important messages in an instant, whether they’re personalized reminders to select groups of students or mass emergency alerts to the broader community. Multichannel alerts sent via phone, email, text and social media ensure critical information reaches recipients where they’re most likely to see it.
Implementation was quick and seamless. Despite the fact they were transitioning from two communications systems to one, the onboarding process went smoothly across campus. Administrators were quickly sending messages—and, more importantly, getting responses.
Castillo has used the platform to perform specialized tasks like active assailant training. He was able to send targeted alerts to selected students who participated, allowing them to become familiar with the system that will be used in times of real crisis without alarming those uninvolved in the program.
When the COVID-19 vaccine became available, South Plains College health officials wanted to offer pop-up clinics. Administrators sent two-way messages to students, gauging interest and determining where the clinics would reach the most people.
Enabling Effective Communications During an Emergency
Perhaps the most striking use of the system was during the Texas Freeze of 2021. A severe snowstorm in February 2021 put Texan infrastructure and response management to the ultimate test. Most of the state lost electricity and water, but South Plains College maintained power.
Coordinating with emergency responders, South Plains College set up a Warming Station and communicated with local residents via text, calls and email to keep them safe. Castillo uploaded community contacts into the system in just a few minutes to keep everyone aware of the situation.
“Being able to help not only our students and faculty, but also the rest of the community, in a time when they needed us was a great feeling,” he said. “It brought me huge peace of mind to know that we are able to create a sense of trust between us and the community.”
Coordinated Communications for Campus Life and Safety
Although South Plains College is certainly a success story when it comes to campus communications, its needs are not unique. Colleges across the country need ways to effectively reach their students, faculty and community to keep them informed and safe.
Patchwork communications systems and broad, non-specific alerts increase the chances that important information gets lost in a sea of notifications. Targeted, personalized messages are far more likely to grab their attention, saving everything from students’ GPAs to their lives.
This article originally appeared in the November / December 2022 issue of Campus Security Today.