A father’s plea to the college administration

I’m shopping for a college. Actually, my son is looking at colleges; I’m inspecting them. I’m an undercover agent, a secret shopper, an admission counselor’s advocate, and the marketing committee’s inquisitor. I am the informed buyer the president should meet.

Together, my son and I are testing what, up to now, has only been a personal, well researched, thoroughly documented 27-year theory: the theory that branding and integrated marketing are the answers to two key questions. How does a student, a family, choose a college? What distinguishes certain schools during the college search?

History, Theory, and Reality

Historically, college operating expenses have depended heavily upon tuition-driven revenue. Today, when returns on endowment investments tend to fall short of expectations and the push for excellence and increased enrollments continues to escalate, the pressure to meet enrollment goals is becoming more and more intense. Colleges and universities nationwide are investing huge amounts of university resources into identifying their institution’s brand, with the goal of melding the institutional identity into the minds of prospective students, families, and potential donors.

The theory and process of marketing an institution is important work. Committees form, and together their members speak The Language of Marketing, spending countless hours discussing the theory of integrated marketing and the process of branding. They labor over the precise wording in the college tagline. They pore over the intricate language in the admissions publications. They devote brainpower and energy to organize a campus photo shoot. They persuade the IT department to work with them on a marketing-oriented initiative. New technology is purchased to streamline communications. All this effort is expended with the expectation that future enrollment goals will be met.

All of these processes are important in achieving that goal. But while you’re working to perfect your brand and your marketing materials, remember to put yourself in the place of your audience. Parents and students have no awareness of the huge financial and staffing resources that undergird a university’s marketing program. What’s important to them, as they set foot on campus, is that critically important first impression. Parents are asking, “Will this place love and nurture my child?” “Will this school be an acceptable substitute for my parenting?” “Is this college worthy of the gifts my child will bring?” The kids want to know, “Are the people friendly?” “Do the students like me?” “What do the dorms (excuse me — residence halls) look like?”

These are NOT typically the questions being contemplated by the marketing committee. And granted, in the great scheme of university life and planning, they may seem rather small. But they are important to address and answer correctly.

Campus-wide, folks should realize that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested to get the students and family to visit the campus — but all these hours of committee meetings and dollar investment are wasted if the family’s basic needs aren’t met when first impressions are being developed. The admission staff understands this concept, but I’ve discovered, during nearly 30 years in admissions marketing, that most college administrations fail to invest adequate amounts of time and money in the front line of the admissions war.

A View From the Outside, Looking In

Recently, my son and I visited one of the colleges he’s considering. As we neared the front door of the admissions office, one of the school’s top administrators was leaving through the same doorway. Having met this person before, I know that he is instrumental in leading the college’s marketing program. As he passed what were obviously a prospective student and a parent, did he extend a welcome? No.

When we entered the admissions area for our prearranged appointment, I felt as though I was intruding upon the receptionist’s private time. She greeted us with a rather cold, “Yes?” Hmmm. Second opportunity missed…was a recurring theme developing?

Our tour guide was a college sophomore who had been trained to point out buildings and provide a glimpse into the campus history as we talked. Here she was, selling a very expensive “commodity,” but lacking the training to do so effectively. She spoke of the beautiful campus, nice students, friendly faculty, but she did not address any of the benefits of the low student-faculty ratio or small class sizes. She told us what, but not why. The most important opportunity had been missed.

Back in the admissions office, my negative impression really took hold when the receptionist left us standing awkwardly while she spoke with a colleague. I wasn’t sure if we should leave or wait for an admissions counselor. Thankfully, as I turned to walk out of the office, an admissions counselor introduced himself. Although I asked not to be included in the interview, he failed to engage me in any meaningful conversation after his interview with my son. A fourth opportunity missed.

With my own admissions background, I knew this whole process could have been executed much better; however, an uninitiated family might think this impersonal approach normal. In fact, the experience I related above was not isolated to one campus. There seems to be a perception on many campuses that if enough time is spent on marketing strategy, the positive messages will trickle down to students and families. Strategy is important. But communicating the message actively and effectively is the key that unlocks the door to full enrollment.

If It Were Me…

If I were a college president for a day, I would implement the following strategies, with the goal of increasing enrollment:

• Stop searching for the “silver bullet” that will solve admissions and marketing challenges. There is no one solution. Technology alone won’t do it, killing the viewbook would be a terrible error, deep discounting certainly won’t do it, and the marketing “flavor of the month” is not the answer. Success in enrollment is just like success in life…a process of using wisdom through experience to achieve goals.

• Realize that the word “brand” has, in essence, branded itself. Many people are enamored with the term, but to really establish an effective marketing plan, you have to “get under the skin” and learn about the true culture of an institution. Don’t concentrate on how you can simplify that culture into a branded tagline. Find the best means possible to communicate that culture to your prospective audiences.

• Understand the difference between integrated marketing and integrated communications marketing. An integrated marketing campaign will take years to bear fruit. It is, for the most part, a theory that many in academe see as the holistic answer to reaching many goals. And unless you have a few million dollars and 10 or 15 years to devote to the effort, it’s virtually unattainable. Integrated communications marketing (ICM), on the other hand, is the goal most administrators have in mind when they express the desire to “speak with one voice.” An effective ICM plan involves print communications, electronic media, public relations and advertising.

• Spend one-third of the marketing effort communicating to parents of prospective students. Require senior staff to read Millennials Go to College, and then they’d understand that parents are co-purchasers in the decision. So far, my son has received marketing materials from 156 colleges. Only two have communicated directly with me.

• Require each admissions counselor, tour guide, faculty member, and janitorial staff member to read the college viewbook. The marketing messages in this publication should resonate through the campus. And these messages should be in a language that easily communicates what the benefits are to the student.

• Provide adequate staffing, superior training, and competitive compensation to the admissions staff. The institution has invested enormous resources in the marketing message, admissions counselors are one of the three most important factors in affecting a college decision, the people charged with personally communicating the message, have an average tenure of 2.1 years. Why dedicate large amounts of energy and money to “discover” a marketing message if your front line isn’t properly trained for battle?

A Father’s Plea

So here I am, the father of a college-bound high school senior. Like every father who visits your campus, I am searching for the “right” college. I want you to see my son as someone special. I want to know you’ll recognize his unique gifts, educate him in a way that not only ensures he’ll make a living, but make a life. I want his experiences with the faculty to reinforce the values that have been instilled within our home. I want to hear about those values when I speak to people on campus. They don’t have to be exact phrases, but I do want to sense them as I meet the admissions staff, take the tour, and interact with faculty.

But wait, as I walk onto campus for our admissions interview and tour, what do I hear coming from the senior administrative offices? Is that the sound of a fiddle?

This article was originally written for the 2006 SACAC Southern Scope magazine