“Seven Years of College Down the Drain.”

We know it and we love it, but few of us knew that the 1978 National Lampoon hit Animal House could give us such serious insight into the world of nonprofit and higher education engagement. As our beloved alma maters like fictional Faber College from the movie continue to evolve in the 21st century, they continue to struggle with setting themselves apart and selling themselves, even to their own students.

Higher education engagement is absolutely crucial because engaged students are more likely to turn around and promote you. Engaged students proudly sport the collegiate sweatshirt. Engaged students retweet tweets. Engaged students help recruit new students. Finally, engaged students give back to the college financially, especially later on when they become (hopefully, fabulously wealthy) alumni.

Luckily, “COLLEGE”-sweatshirt cladded students are bringing home a lesson. It’s all about knowing your unique audience, your culture, and making that culture accessible. Follow these useful lessons in higher education student engagement and you’ll be well on your way.

“Knowledge is Good.”

It’s perhaps the best educational motto in the history of the universe, as well as the fabled quote inscribed upon the statue of Faber College’s legendary/forgettable founder in the opening scene of Animal House. The “knowledge is good” mantra may be a little simplistic, but it drives home an important point: Know your audience, namely, your students!

For as much as marketers try to decode the enigma that is the millennial generation and see what these students have in common, they sometimes neglect how unique college and university campuses are. Yes, college students will be college students, but students at a large university in Texas aren’t the same as those at a small liberal arts college in Ohio—which aren’t the same as those at another liberal arts college 20 minutes down the road.

Know your students. Are athletics and sporting events popular among your students? Are your students involved in the local community? Do they have traditions, causes? Are your students, on the whole, more conservative, or is yours a hippy-dippy student body? “Knowledge is good.”

“Toga! Toga! Toga!”

The problem with Faber College is that it’s a boring, uninspiring institution with practically no culture (that we can see.) Yes, the “animals” at the Delta house go a little too far, but to be honest with you, the Deltas are far more successful at engaging their members (through rambunctious, alcohol-fueled misadventures) than the evil Dean Wormer and Faber College could ever be.

Know your culture. If you examine your school and can’t describe your culture in a sentence, that’s a problem. How are you supposed to market yourself to students, let alone engage students, if you don’t have a culture?

This isn’t just about putting on events or hosting sporting events, although those help. This is about fostering a loyal community of learners and building a legacy around that. Have fantastic staff, enthusiastic professors, librarians, registrars and a career services team that stops at nothing to get ALL of your students great jobs after college.

Enthusiasm, engagement, and loyalty on your end will translate into enthusiasm, engagement, and loyalty on your students’ end.

“Every Halloween, the Trees are Filled with Underwear. Every Spring, the Toilets Explode.”

So you’ve got culture, now get creative and express it. For the Deltas, creativity is dumping a truckload of fizzies into the swimming pool, hosting Toga parties, starting food fights and “drinking heavily.” Our advice to you: do not start drinking heavily, but do get the creative juices flowing, (and if that includes an occasional brew or an entire bottle of wine, we won’t judge).

A website, social media, and events are great ways to get make your culture accessible to both students and community. Have a blog featuring stories from professors and/or students taking part in internships or immersion trips, post photos and live-tweet events. But don’t stop there. Always be thinking of new ways to communicate your culture. Illustrate the experience. Students will want to be a part of it.

“Nothing is Over Until We Decide it is! Was it Over When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell No!”

When the boys of Delta house got kicked off campus, they didn’t just lay down and quit, and neither should you! Instead, Bluto (John Belushi) rallied the troops with his infamous “Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech. “[What] happened to the Delta I used to know? Where’s the spirit? Where’s the guts, huh?” Colleges and universities should have just as much passion and guts as Delta house—perhaps just applied in more constructive ways.

Don’t become complacent. Engagement is not something you can do overnight. There is no secret to getting students to think you’re cool like some kind of sensational new blog or app. Colleges are colleges and students are students. They belong together like peas and carrots, so just build a college culture that is unique and accessible to your students. It sounds like a cop-out, but engage your community and students and they will return the favor.

Engaging students isn’t always a piece of cake. Students have a strange habit of often doing exactly what you don’t want them to do—like crashing an armored car into your homecoming parade. You can do it though! Know your students. Know your culture. Make that culture and experience accessible. Last, but not least, stick with it!

Image via Movpins.com