They’re full of photographs and stories about sports teams and cheerleaders and bands, fraternities and sororities and other campus organizations, classmates and professors and visiting celebrities — and a host of other memories and milestones from any particular year at any particular college. But in places, what they don’t have is popularity.
“Yearbooks are more popular than newspapers at the high school level,” says Ed Sullivan, director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association at Columbia University in New York. “At the college level, it appears to be just the opposite with more of an interest in newspapers than in yearbooks.”
Kenneth Dean — student media coordinator of Alabama State’s newspaper, The Hornet Tribune, and yearbook, The Hornet — concurs: “Yearbooks don’t hold the same appeal that they did 10 to 20 years ago. Because our society has become so computer literate and media sensationalized, people are not that interested in looking at bound things any more. They’ll get on a computer and look at multimedia packages, things that are visual and easy.”
Vickie Suggs, Howard University’s assistant director of student activities, adds: “I worked at Georgia State University and I can tell you that the yearbook was not something that the campus embraced. It was a struggle to get a staff and to get it printed. They were seriously looking at not having a yearbook at Georgia State.”
But she only agrees to a certain degree.
“[Howard] is still a traditional campus as regards to a yearbook,” says Suggs, who has a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism from North Carolina Central University and a master’s in mass communication from Old Dominion University. “A lot of campuses are moving with the technology toward the CDs and video yearbooks. But that printed documentation stands the test of time at this university.
“It’s nice to see that the yearbook is valued here,” she continues. “Students want to see themselves and their campus and the events that they worked on while they were here.”
However, despite the enthusiasm for yearbooks at institutions like Howard, Alabama State, Grambling State, Florida A&M and other historically Black universities, many schools — including many HBCUs — have decided that the cost and aggravation are not worth the effort.
The Price Isn’t Right
The Columbia Scholastic Press Association is made up of secondary and postsecondary institutions that publish school newspapers and yearbooks. He says the decrease in the number of colleges that produce yearbooks is an increasing trend, although he has no statistics to support his claim: “If anybody tells you they know [exactly how many colleges produce yearbooks each year], they’re lying,” he says. “Nationally, college yearbooks have been in decline for the past 15 years.”
And the reason?
“Of course, money plays an important part in all this,” Sullivan says. “Many of the smaller institutions can’t afford the costs of producing a yearbook. Student papers tend to be supported by advertising dollars. That’s not the case with yearbooks.”
“It’s a lot of expense and [there is] very little money” to support them, says Jim Cleveland, director of public relations at Central State University.
At many schools, Suggs says, the institution will pick up the tab for all of the printing costs of the yearbook. However, the money for all the other expenses involved — like salaries and, sometimes, office space — must be raised with advertising revenues, promotions and other means of solicitation.
Sullivan adds the decline in yearbook production is also happening at the larger institutions: “People who want to buy these books want to see pictures of themselves in them. One of the defining hallmarks of these books has been that they provide [students] with a picture of themselves and a record of life at that particular institution. Sometimes a large college or university can’t accommodate all the logistics involved with that.
“Some campuses have thousands of students and getting all their pictures … could prove to be a daunting task,” he explains. “And the colleges that produce [the yearbooks] have to be all-inclusive. You’ve got to get all the sports teams, the chess club, the booster clubs, maybe even the ultimate frisbee club. Administrators have to ask themselves, ‘How do we cover the people and the atmosphere of the campus in a way that makes people want to buy the yearbook?'”
At most schools, yearbook costs are taken out of student-activities fees, according to Suggs. As a result, most yearbooks are produced by the office of student affairs or student activities. Suggs says most of the larger schools that produce yearbooks print 5,000 copies — whether the institution has a 10,000-student campus like Howard or a 25,000-student campus like Georgia State. The reason for the small number is because not everybody wants a copy — even when the price has already been paid, as is the case at Howard.
“The people who tend to pick up their yearbooks are seniors,” Suggs says.
At schools that also charge for the yearbook in addition to the student activities-fee contribution, there is even less interest.
At Alabama State, Dean says, the yearbook is not paid for with student-activities fees. The university prints 500 copies of The Hornet for its 5,000-student population. The 1998 edition of the yearbook was priced at $30.
Dean, who worked for the Herff Jones Yearbook Company before coming to Alabama State, believes yearbooks offer something that technology can’t.
“The printed copy will last forever. You can lose a CD. You can lose a disc. But it’s hard to lose a yearbook,” Dean says. “People aren’t going to read that kind of information on a computer. They’ll look at the pictures, but they won’t sit down at the computer and read all that information. But in book form, they will.”
And they serve an additional purpose.
“A well-done yearbook [should] have a fantastic student perspective of an institution that can be used by admission officers, athletic coaches and others to promote and sell that institution to incoming freshmen, business partners and the surrounding community,” Sullivan says.
“The most immediate benefit the university receives from [a yearbook] is as a public relation tool,” Dean adds. “When our recruiters show it, people look at our yearbook and say, ‘Wow! I didn’t know you had all those things at Alabama State.’ It provides more information than a brochure.”
Additionally, some administrators believe that having students produce a yearbook helps improve their performance in other areas — both on and off campus.
“We’re planning on doing a summer workshop where we can bring high school students from all over the state of Alabama,” Dean says. “We [want to] do this journalism kind of camp where we teach them yearbook and newspaper production. Then, we can identify who would be interested in doing this kind of thing when they get here.
“Students will get a chance to understand the publication process while they are still in school. They’ll learn printing terms like halftones and scanners, so they will become familiar with some bit of technology,” he adds. “These type of activities enhance discipline with students. You have to proofread and make sure the copy is correct. It instills pride and gives you the confidence to want to do other things. So, they are wonderful activities for students.”
Going the Way of the Dinosaur
Despite the enthusiasm of people like Dean, yearbooks are in decline. At Albany State University, “the students generally vote in the spring [as to] whether they want a yearbook the following year,” Stephanie Harris, assistant vice president for student affairs at Albany State, says.
According to Harris, the practice began three or four years ago because “the students were not supporting it and we ended up spending thousands of dollars on books that ended up in the student activities office.”
Sullivan says a couple of factors other than money are contributing to the free fall. He notes that the turnover rate on yearbook staffs can sometimes have a devastating effect on a yearbook’s continued viability. Combined with the “coverage conundrum” — his term for the dilemma posed trying to represent every aspect of campus life — that can prove to be fatal for some yearbooks.
“Sometimes it only takes one or two years of a [yearbook] staff to fail to get their hands around that coverage conundrum, then the whole thing falls apart,” he says. “If it’s not inclusive and no one buys it, the administration may pull the plug on it.”
And, Sullivan says faculty and staff advisors are critical to continued yearbook viability.
“In high schools, there is usually a motivated advisor that provides continuity,” he says. “Finding such a faculty advisor at the college level is rare.”
Last year, Central State President John Garland was one of those rare administrators.
“You know we’ve been through a lot of financial turmoil here and they almost closed down the place,” Cleveland says. “Last year, we weren’t going to have [a yearbook] but then late in the year, the president said that we should. … The senior class went to the administration [to ask for one] and the president said that the students have been through … tough times and that they stuck by us and they deserve one.”
As a result, Ohio’s historically Black public university hustled to put one together for senior-class members only. Still, Cleveland believes that yearbooks are going the way of the dinosaur even at Central State.
“I don’t think we are going to be able to [continue producing yearbooks] unless we come up with a better way to do it,” he says. “Money is a real issue.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com