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University uses infomercials to get kids to graduate on time

By Rick Armon

Akron Beacon Journal / (MCT)

AKRON, Ohio – The University of Akron is joining the ranks of the Snuggie, OxiClean and Ronco Spray-on Hair.

Yes, UA has entered the fast-talking, quirky world of infomercials.

And it’s hoping funny videos urging students to graduate on time are just as effective as selling off-beat products.

So far, it is.

The cheesy videos, being shared with students via email and crafted like low-budget infomercials, are part of the university’s larger Finish In Time (F.I.T.) effort.

UA is urging students to take at least 15 credit hours each semester, noting that it’s the same price as taking 12 and leads to on-time graduation. On top of that, students save money.

In the second UA video hitting campus recently, co-hosts Chris Stimler and William “Willy” Kollman channel their best Billy Mays and Ron Popeil as they dance awkwardly, raise their voices and make goofy comments while drilling home the serious message about the benefits of graduating on time.

Or as the infomercial puts it:

“You’ll experience, over time, side effects such as …” says Kollman, UA’s associate director of alumni relations.

“More cash in your pocket. Less college debt,” interjects Stimler, assistant director of admissions.

“And a craving for an extremely large burrito,” Kollman finishes as a large burrito wrapped in foil magically appears in front of them. “So join the masses and schedule your classes today.”

They say all this while standing in front of what look like cereal boxes plastered with the F.I.T. brand and, of course, the phrase “As Seen on TV.”

The infomercial lasts a mere 1 minute, 30 seconds. (You can watch both videos here: http://tinyurl.com/nyajcn2 and http://tinyurl.com/pljo5yr.)

Chelsi King, a senior and president of the Undergraduate Student Government, praised the F.I.T. campaign.

“I’m ecstatic that they are pushing it,” she said, adding that students should take at least 15 credit hours if they can handle it.

Wayne Hill, UA’s associate vice president of marketing, said the university chose the infomercial approach hoping that it would connect better with students.

“It’s a serious topic, but we wanted to do something to get the attention of the audience we were going to,” he said. “We went for cheeky, not preachy.”

There are obvious benefits for the university if the program succeeds because state funding now is linked to six-year graduation rates. It’s also better for UA’s academic reputation. UA has posted poor graduation rates in recent years, hovering around 40 percent or below.

The marketing campaign, which began last school year, includes posters and the videos playing on internal message boards. It’s also backed by advisers who are recommending the same idea with students.

“We really pushed that heavily last (school) year,” said Stacey Moore, UA associate vice president for student success. “We presented it at every new student orientation. We talked to all the parents. We showed them very specifically to the penny how much money they will save  _ both now and at the end. We show them exactly the lost salary potential.”

It appears the approach is working.

There was a 28 percent increase in first-time, full-time freshmen taking at least 15 credit hours this fall compared to the same period last school year.

Today, more than 50 percent of UA freshman are on track to graduate on time.

A survey released last year by Complete College America, an Indianapolis nonprofit, concluded that 52 percent of full-time students nationwide were taking fewer than 15 hours, the standard that would lead to graduating in four years.

“The University of Akron is on track to be a national leader when it comes to increasing the number of students taking 15-plus credits a semester,” said Blake Johnson, spokesman for Complete College America. “By the progress you’re seeing in your first-time freshmen, you are taking big steps to change culture. Most of your freshman are on track to graduate on time. That’s a big deal.”

He added that universities and colleges in about 20 states have some sort of Finish In Time program.

But he said the humorous infomercial approach employed at UA is unusual.

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(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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