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Complaints about college marketing are tiresome & ignore we are all in sales and marketing. #admissions #highered #emchat

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I am member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) and for the last ten days the organization’s listseve has run amuck with complaints about the evils of marketing in college admissions. Most often these complaint are aimed at colleges that use aggressive direct mail search campaigns and/or “fast application” programs (a.k.a. crap application in the college counseling community).

These complaints blame college administrators, bond raters and the evil college marketing staffs. I guess these complaints are directed at me since I use some of the so-called aggressive—albeit in a quite targeted manner—search and applications tactics. I posted a blog around this time last year discussing this same topic, which you can read here.

I feel like I need to seek therapy and take a shower each time I read one of these persistent complaints about my profession and what I do. (If you are interested in providing some therapy, let me know).

The past few days as I read through these very public exchanges I was reminder of an essay I wrote several years ago after sitting through a NACAC session where all things marketing-oriented were lambasted. You can read “Souls for sale,” which appeared in Inside Higher Ed to get a better sense of from where I am coming on all this.

After you’ve read the essay mentioned above, you can confirm that it’s naïve to think that we are not all selling and marketing all the time by reading Daniel Pink’s very fine book, To sell is human: The surprising truth about moving others.”

Now, for all those who complain about modern day college admissions and marketing tactics that have emerged, I invite you to consider the points below.

Have you ever considered?

We actually believe in the institutions we represent! We don’t invest in marketing efforts—search, applications, publications advertising—because we are slick snake-oil salespeople. We don’t. We want to reach as many students as possible because we believe in the institution where we work. That’s the truth, friends. We engage in marketing not to trick students, but to introduce our institution and try to gain mindshare in a very competitive environment. In a day when information is more available than ever before, this is as noble as the good old day of attending every college fair possible to introduce our college to prospective students. This is the new norm.

We are keenly aware of changes in behavior, demographics and values and are reacting to them. We are investing more in strategic marketing because the data are scary. Prospective students are scared of college costs, visiting fewer colleges, searching more online, relying more on word-of-mouth from peers, participating in the commodification culture, which views all college educations equally and without distinctions. It would be professional malpractice to know of these trends and do nothing about them. We are paid to get the name of our college in front of prospective students. And, yes, marketing and advertising has taken over for the high school visit and college fair or old. This is not exclusively because of colleges either—the effectiveness of visits and fairs is on the decline and virtually every admissions officer I know would say exactly the same thing.

We really like being on lists—especially good ones like the ones in high school guidance offices. Colleges like being on lists, but not the ones you might be thinking about like US News. Nope. We like being on the lists high schools provide as part of their profile (their primary marketing and positioning material), which they provide to decision-makers and families to demonstrate how great they are at preparing students for admission to all the right colleges. Yes, there is pressure to be on those lists and we respond to that pressure.

The following points are realities to which we’ve had to respond and more aggressive marketing has been the answer:

Travel is expensive and becoming more expensive and advertising has filled a void. In an effort to cut back on increased travel costs many of us have direct resources to advertising and marketing efforts. This has become particularly true in instances where we’ve been forced because of demographics to look beyond our core recruitment territories. Advertising and marketing in needed to introduce our colleges before traveling and engaging in more traditional recruitment and admissions activities. We can’t be blamed for reaching further afield in an effort to keep our colleges vibrant and fully enrolled. For the pure economists out there who think we should sit idly and watch only the strong survive, I don’t know what planet you are living on.

Lunchroom visits, block scheduling and increased emphasis on challenging course loads results in seeing fewer students during high school visits. Traditional recruiting and admissions methods are nowhere near as effective as they were ten and twenty years ago because of changes (mostly good) in high schools. However, these changes have also had an impact on admissions staff productivity. Many colleges have weigh the pros and cons and have determined that the worth of traditional outreach is not once it once was and have opted to try to reach everyone in a region who is in their prospect pool through direct-marking efforts.

Decreasing access to college counselors has forced us to spend more (and do more) on direct marketing to students.  Across the nation there are fewer dedicated college counselors and as a result the special partnership between admissions and college counseling personnel is not what it once was. Many colleges have determined its more effective to reach out to students directly, rather work directly through counselors who are too frequently over-worked. This results in more aggressive tactics to get the attention of a student, since the benefit of the student to guidance counselor conversation is waning at too many places because a shortage of resources (this is a sad reality). Colleges are left to “fend for themselves” in the absence of their historical partners.

Finally, I’ll offer some more personal observations from my seat at Augustana College.

I know one universal truth about college admissions and that is that 100% of students who do not apply will not accepted and will not enroll. I believe in my institution and want as many qualified students as possible to have the benefit of working with our first-rate faculty and students and participating in the many transformative experienced offered here. However, I know we don’t always enjoy the name recognition to get great, qualified students who are a great match to apply. Sometimes we have to be more assertive to get them into our pool just to have a conversation and to convince them that we are the right place for them. I know that if I can’t get them to apply, I don’t have a chance. I do know that if they do apply, my chance of introducing them to this great place increases considerably.

The athletic teams for my institution do not appear on television, but many of our competitors do. We advertise and market heavily for a whole host of reasons, but one of the primary reasons is because my institution does not enjoy the TV time that so many of its primary competitors do. Whether in the fall when the University of Iowa, the University of Illinois and Northwestern University are playing football on TV (and showing their cool PSA’s that invite the world to apply—talk about broad, un-targeted marketing), or it’s the lead up to March Madness when DePaul University, Loyola University in Chicago, Butler University, Bradley University and Marquette University (all in the top 15 overlap institutions for my institution) are on the airways battling for an invitation to the tournament. TV appearances, PSAs, and name recognition really matter and make a difference in college admissions whether we want to admit it. In my seat, I can’t ignore it and advertising and marketing is our way to “get in the game.”

My institution’s alumni are passionate and want more students to know about us and ultimately attend and have the same kind of experience. There is pressure from passionate alums who have gone on to do great things who expect my institution to be in “the national conversation” because they’ve become national leaders in their professions. I have to respond to this pressure by doing my best to get my institution into the national conversation. We work our tails off to do this because of the passion our alums have for this place. Their passion is genuine and deserving of our best effort to market their successes and the college, in general. Simply put, I have a professional obligation to explore every method possible to build on this passion and introduce it to prospective students in a very crowed marketplace. This isn’t slick; this is the challenge of today’s work.

I called for a “truce” in “Souls for Sale,” but am not so sure the truce will ever be honored. Perhaps it’s better to just ask for a little respect for the work we do, the challenges we face, and the benefit of the doubt that our marketing is done with the best of intentions, rather than the worst.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmissions

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2 Comments

  1. Awesome article, Kent. It really grinds my gears when people look down on sales and act like marketers are sleazy snake oil salesmen.

    When you run a business you really care about, and when you believe that you are providing an amazing service that’s really going to benefit the customer, how is telling people about it wrong. If you truly believe that your product will serve your customer better than your competition’s, then it’s all done out of the interest of the customer.

    Business isn’t some board game that you play from 9 to 5 and then pack up. It’s an active process of creating and demonstrating value in the lives of those around you. I’d hate to go on a date with the naysayers; they’d probably sit there and condemn any attempt at conversation or interaction as an intrusion into their sovereign space of isolation.

    My question to you is what is your opinion about the growing use of marketing and advertising to offset the rising costs of running a higher education institution? Many say that it’s inappropriate and an intrusion, but when the options are to run a second-rate service in a vacuum or run a first-rate service by interacting with the outside world I would say it’s a pretty easy choice. Thoughts?

  2. bowtieadmission says:

    Thanks for your comments. I think marketing is mission-centered and market-smart (Zemsky). If we don’t have students to teach, we are not fulfilling our mission. I view the investment as “stimulus.” We’ve decided to make the investment in outreach, rather than let simply sit by and witness what occurs when market forces take over exclusively (survival of the so-called fittest). An interesting way to look at the concerns about diverting resources from the core enterprise is to consider research. Research that involves undergraduate students is directly tied to mission, right. However, although I acknowledge that faculty research advances knowledge and is also realed to the mission, it is also about marketing and reputation building. One could argue that course release and promoting research findings are investments in institutional marketing, too.

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