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New blog post: Is social media is the new cocktail party for parents engaged in the college search? #emchat #admissions #highered

At Augustana College we use a number of tools to track what people are saying, writing and blogging about the college. It’s helpful to know what’s out there, to track trends and celebrate good news or prepare for bad news. These tools track all sorts of things, and an alert I received today really got me thinking.

Yesterday one of the alert services provided a link to a parent’s Facebook page on which Augustana was included. The parent had listed several other colleges and universities, too. The post, which I will paraphrase, includes a list of colleges this parent’s student is considering. Plus the post includes the academic and co-curricular interests of the student.

It’s a fascinating list of colleges—ranging from the super-selective to the local public university. The list includes 20 colleges in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin. Colleges range in size from 800 to 5,000.

What is most interesting to me about the post, though, is that the parent asks for advice on how to decide, compare and even negotiate with colleges.

Presumably, this parent is asking for advice from people who he trusts to be informed and have the best interest of his student in mind. However, the replies are what you might expect – both biased and anecdotally based.

I am very tempted to follow the parent, so I could continue to monitor the post. I am curious to see if anyone makes a good case for Augie among those who post.

I guess this really shouldn’t surprise me at all, considering how people use social media. But, this particular post may suggest a new way to gather information about colleges and the college search.

It seems to me that discussions on comparing and negotiating with colleges were once reserved for the cocktail party circuit. These questions were reserved for close friends or those who one knew had recently navigated the process. These questions were held in reserve—somewhat like one’s voting preferences. However, this post suggests otherwise.

While I know plenty of people who have queried their Facebook friends for dating, dining, vacation and voting advice, what do you think? Are you ready to ask for advice via Facebook about important issues, like your student’s college choice?

Please complete the poll below:

Let me know what you think? Is social media the new cocktail party?

W. Kent Barnds aka @bowtieadmission

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

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

Is that “your best and final offer?” Yes, it is. #admissions #emcat #highered

For the first time in my enrollment career just days ago I had a father of a prospective student ask me “is this your best and final?” He was asking about his daughter’s financial aid package of course. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard countless contortions of this question over the past 20 years, but never as straightforward and never in the same language I hear used on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing. (Yes, I’ve watched Million Dollar Listing).

I mean really, best and final offer!!!

Most frequently this question or similar questions are not from families with demonstrated financial need, but instead are from families that view this “negotiation” as part of the process. In fact, last year I even saw eerily similar letters/emails from families requesting additional financial assistance. (The requests were so similar, in fact, I thought I might need to consult our Honors Council to determine if academic integrity had been breached and plagiarism was at hand).

While I am at it, this conversation almost always includes a reference to “we know another student at XXXX college who got a better award.” The comment is so forced it feels a little like Anthony Michael Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club describing his Canadian girlfriend. This line about knowing another student is about as believable. If you’ve never seen the clip before you can watch it here. You might picture this clip the next time you hear a similar comment from a parent.

What I’ve concluded (and should come as no surprise) is that there are consultants and services that are making a business of coaching and advising parents and students about how to go about the process of asking for more aid. (I suspect it’s all pitched at the level of “How to negotiate the best possible financial aid package”).

I understand it and have become increasingly comfortable with all of this.

But, I know it’s not good for higher education.

Over the years, I’ve responded to a number of the requests “for more aid” or for “a best and final offer.” I put a few of the responses together into one and offer it below. I’ve done everything I can to protect the innocent, but have used various “no” responses is the model below and tried to keep the tone. (My file folder on this one is titled “Mean no more money responses).

Dear XXXXX,

Your recent e-mail regarding your daughter was sent to me as a member of the scholarship committee at XXXX College. Your daughter is a very qualified candidate and we are very pleased that she is still considering XXXX College.  I am writing to address your e-mail concerning our offer of financial aid.  

First, there is nothing further that can be done in the area of merit scholarship–XXXX has earned a very fair award and in comparison to the rest of our admitted pool we cannot and will not make any further adjustment.  If my memory serves me correctly we discussed your daughter’s award previously and I explained the context for the financial assistance package that we offered. That context has not changed.

I know that this letter will come as a disappointment to you and to your daughter; however, there is nothing more that we can do unless there has been a dramatic change in your family’s financial circumstance. We do not “negotiate” a financial aid offer or package and it is my understanding that our merit scholarship offer has exceeded any demonstrated financial need.

As mentioned in your e-mail, I am aware that two of our coaches have expressed interest in your daughter, and I have no doubt that she can contribute much to our athletic program. However, her athletic ability is not factored into any equation since we abide by all guidelines governing Division III athletics. Our awards are based on need and merit and that is all.

As you and your daughter weigh final choice, I would urge you both to very carefully consider the opportunity that she has been presented with by being offered admission to XXXXXX College.  There are many things to consider when choosing a college–and cost is one. But, we sincerely hope that you will consider the qualities of and QUALITY of each of the colleges your daughter has as potential options. 

Not all colleges are equal–in cost or in quality–and it is my belief that your daughter’s financial aid offer is more than fair for the value of the educational and co-curricular options she will have if she chooses XXXXX College.  

In closing, I want to note that I don’t think the comparisons you and your daughter are making are particularly comparative when it comes down to results and outcomes, which are the aspect that are most meaningful in the end when it comes time to make a wise college choice.  Each of the colleges that your daughter has as options are very different places and offer decidedly different experiences. Please keep this in mind in the coming weeks. College is like with any other product or service; it is typical to pay more for a better product, experience or service.

If you have further questions please feel free to contact me directly. I sincerely do hope that your daughter will be a part of our student body–she has much to offer.

Yours very sincerely,

W. Kent Barnds

It’s probably not all that mean really, but I am interested in your impressions and whether or not you have or have seen similar response. I’ve become more courageous over the years in sending letters like this, but I am sure I still don’t send it enough.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Thanks for reading.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

New blog post: Doubling down in our core market: A Chicagoland Office of Admissions:

The demographics in the upper Midwest stink! And, that makes things challenging for a college like Augustana College, which enrolls many of its students from the Upper Midwest—especially from Chicago and its “collar counties.”

Historically, as many as 60% of Augustana’s students have come from Chicago and the collar counties. Why? We are a perfect distance for many of these students at 2 ½ to 3 hours from home and we enjoy a very strong reputation in the area, which is filled with many successful and loyal alumni. However, changing/shrinking demographics, aggressive outreach from out-of-state colleges (The Chicago Regional Representatives [CARR] has 90+ members) and an increasing number of students leaving the state for higher education have threatened Augustana’s favorable position in the Chicagoland Region.

We can’t lose our core market and recently doubled down to protect, defend and expand our core market.

We’ve opened a satellite Office of Admissions 2 ½ hours from our campus. This decision has its origin in a position paper written in 2010 and gained momentum during a recent strategic planning process.

The following paragraphs are taken from an announcement shared with the Augustana community recently:

 “Strategic Imperative 2 of Affirm, Assure and Assess—Innovate recruitment and retention—describes the following strategic initiative: Sustain market share in our primary market by increasing multicultural recruitment and strengthening our presence and reputation in the Chicago area.

On Sunday, December 2, Augustana College took an important step forward in fulfilling one of the objectives when we host our first official event (an opening event for prospective students and families) in our new Chicagoland Office of Admissions in Lombard, Illinois..

The office’s origin can be traced to Affirm, Assure, Assess and the success measure of “opening a regional Office of Admissions in the Chicago area,” which is directly connected to our goal of maintaining 56–58% of our total enrollment from Chicago and the Chicago “collar” counties. This is particularly important given demographic trends in the upper Midwest and the increasing number of students from Illinois opting to attend college out of state. You may have seen this article from today’s Chicago Tribune.”

The Chicagoland Office is located at 377 Butterfield, Suite 201E in Lombard. The location is ideal. The office is easily accessible from I-88 and I-355. The office has two private offices, a small reception space, and a multipurpose meeting room that can accommodate meetings of six to 30 people. In addition, we have access to a large meeting room, which can accommodate up to 70 people. The office is staffed by two excellent admissions officers, Courtney Wallace and Jenna Muench (see “New Faces on Campus” in the September issue of Acknowledge), who will provide many of the same services to prospective students that are offered on campus. We’ve already experienced an increasing number of admissions interview requests from students who visited campus and had their interest piqued sufficiently to schedule an admissions interview “in their own backyard.” (I’ve included some photos at the bottom of this post).

While the primary purpose of the Chicagoland Office is to serve prospective students in a manner similar to the Office of Admissions on campus, many others have expressed interest. Already, athletics has scheduled a number of events as well as personal meetings; career services and the internships office have plans to use the office for an information session; and the Office of Admissions will be hosting various outside groups including alumni and guidance counselors. We hope many on campus will think about ways the office can serve your needs and help serve our students. Given its ideal location and what it offers, the Chicagoland Office is an excellent option for focus groups, meetings with alumni, information sessions or meetings of colleagues from other regional colleges. The space could serve as an occasional class setting for a field trip to the area, too.

In addition to doubling down in our core market, this strategic move has enabled us to reduce the number of staff managing and recruiting the Chicagloand area from 7 to 4, which provides staff with significantly more time to expand recruit of students from secondary and tertiary markets. This is one of the goals we had in mind from the beginning; we wanted to “shore up” our primary market by increasing the level of service and outreach offered by cutting back on travel time for counselors and prospects, and expand into new markets.

Obviously I am very excited about this effort and will continue to keep you posted on what works and what doesn’t.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

 

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New blog post: Tough questions about #tuition cuts and freezes. #highered #college #admissions

In the last few weeks there have been several reports of colleges that are cutting or freezing tuition. Here’s a pretty neat announcement from Belmont Abbey College and here and here are announcements from Wittenberg and Mount Holyoke about tuition freezes. Given the growth in tuition (and the media attention surrounding the high cost of higher education) these reports have been met with a great deal of praise (as they should be).

However, I have to admit to being very curious about what these colleges are doing (or stopping) in order to freeze or cut their tuition?

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So far, I’ve not read much “inside higher education” commentary about these practices. I think the silence is because so many higher ed. administrators are hesitant to heap on too much praise or criticism.

In this case, too much praise could elicit calls to do the same; and, too much criticism is pretty dangerous because we all may need to follow.

I am hesitant to write about it myself because my “crystal ball” is so cloudy about the vexing problem surrounding the perception of high cost in higher education.

However, I offer a couple of questions I’d like to have answers to so I can be more thoughtful in responding to those who are asking when we will follow the lead of the freezers and the cutters.

If I were a journalist covering all of this (which I am not), I’d ask the following questions?

  • Will the net-cost to attend change or remain the same for students?
  • Will you be reducing institutional financial aid? If so, by how much?
  • Do you expect to net more revenue per student (or overall)? If so, how and why?
  • Is this a short- or long-term plan?
  • Will this reduce a student’s need to borrow for college?
  • Can you project future increases?

If I were a student or parent of a student considering one of these college (which I am not), I’d ask the following questions?

  • Are you making cuts to any programs or services in order to do this? If so, which programs?
  • How will my experience be different from the experience of a student five years ago who was paying more to attend?
  • Are you cutting financial aid in order to do this?
  • What will future increases be?

As a college administrator, I want to ask.

  • Does your plan entail growing enrollment and therefore making up for lost revenue by attracting more students? (Do you have the resources and facilities to accommodate growth without adding to your expenses?)
  • How will you continue to offer financial aid to increasingly financially needy students?
  • How will you continue to offer pay raises to faculty, staff and administrators?
  • How will you meet inflationary demands on operating budgets and operating expenses—particularly benefits, health care and energy?
  • How will you maintain your physical plant without increasing revenues to address plant depreciation?

I know higher ed. is competitive, but it would serve us all to know how the cutters and freezers are doing what they are doing. They probably know something the rest of us don’t. I want in on it.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a @bowtieadmission

Liberal arts education is skills-based education. #highered #edu

Last week I had the chance to listen to four very thoughtful commentaries on the future of the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges.  Each speaker did an excellent job of making the case for the liberal arts and for colleges like my alma mater and my employer, Augustana College. I was impressed with the depth of analysis and thought each put into their comments.

I do think it’s worth nothing, though, that the speakers again affirmed that it’s very difficult to easily describe the liberal arts and the outcomes of a liberal arts education. This is not to say that it is impossible to describe the outcomes; in fact, I thought each speaker explained the outcomes and benefits quite well. My observation is that it’s not easy and it takes a lot of time to get the explanation right.

Following the speakers there was a brief Q & A during which the following question was asked: How do you market the liberal arts to prospective students?

I braced myself for the “killer answer”…and waited.

Each panelist did a fine job answering this tough question. But, I found myself thinking to myself that there has to be a better way to easily answer this question.

Should begin thinking about liberal arts education as a skills- and experience-based education?

Could describing what we do this will help us reframe the idea that liberal arts is education is about art and liberal political views? Or, that liberal arts = expensive and small (i.e. if you are expensive and small you are a liberal arts college)

Typically, it is thought that skills-based training is reserved for professional, technical, or vocational training. Virginia Postrel’s article in Bloomberg “How art history majors power the U.S. economy” helped begin to think a little clear about this. However, I feel like her reference to “Learning to learn” is the sort of thing that continue to confuse or confound people. So, I’ve taken my own stab at answering the question.

When I think about liberal arts education, I am compelled to think about skill acquisition and intentional experiences being at the center of what we do. Admittedly, the skills we develop and foster as more sophisticated (I’d argue more important) than traditional trade skill development, like teaching someone how to place widgets.

At the center of an effective general education program is skill development, right?

Perhaps it is time for us to seize the term skills-based as our own and do a more effective job describing why and how the skills a liberal arts education develops are so critical for employers and our nation.

Think about the skills we develop.

Do we not strive to develop the following skills: critical thinking, problem solving, creative thinking, communicating and analysis? Are these not critically important skills for employers? Isn’t this what we are trying to do? Isn’t this what we are great at doing? Don’t we do this more effectively than others? Should we be proud to say that we emphasize skill-development in these areas?

Furthermore, isn’t it though the types of experiences we offer that these skills are more fully developed? For example, an emphasis on writing, debate and dialog in class help to develop these skills, as does a commitment to strong advising, a residential environment and engaged co-curricular programming.

I don’t think we need to be fancy and long-winded about our explanation of what it is we do.

In my opinion…

  • Liberal arts education is a skills- and experience-based education.
  • Liberal arts education focuses on the right skills and the right experiences to make our graduates the leaders of tomorrow.
  • The skills and experiences provided by liberal arts college result in someone being better in their chosen career, rather than just being trained for their career.

Let’s enthusiastically embrace our brand of skills-based education. And, let’s tell the world that we provide our graduates with the skills they need and the world wants.

How do you react to the thought of describing to liberal arts education as skills-based?

How do you react to my contention that the skills we develop are more important over the long run than pre-professional skills?

 

W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission

What I would do if I were teaching in the humanities. #highered #admissions #.edu

As previously written, I believe in the value of the humanities and the liberal arts; they are at the core of preparing an individual for life-long learning. I hope my children study history, English, religion, foreign languages and maybe even the Classics, which might be one of the most valuable and sustaining liberal arts programs there is!

However, I do think it’s important for those who teach in these important programs to think in different ways about how they describe and relate their relevance and importance to an increasingly proof-driven audience.

This is not just the hope of a guy who is focused on recruiting student. On the contrary, I am simply pointing out the the reality of a public that needs more convincing than ever before about the value of higher education and the humanities/liberal arts.

With this in mind, I had an exchange with a faculty member in the humanities recently and offered the following suggestion about designing curriculum. Below is a portion of the exchange (with some minor editing so as not to disclose the major because I remain hopeful the advice might resonate and create something really cool).

I suggested the following:

More formally align each course offered within the major with the outcomes that employers/graduate schools seek. A department/major could successful specifically highlight the results from the 2012 Job Outlook survey of employers who cite the following as the top 5 skills they seek (see page 28) and demonstrate how the major is better preparation for these skills:

1. Ability to work in a team;
2. Verbal communication;
3. Ability to make decisions and solve problems;
4. Ability to obtain and process information; and
5. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work.

What if you promoted your department and the curriculum you offered as contributing more effectively than any other area/major in preparing your graduates for these things?

Explaining how you do this better than another major and connecting the outcome to your course work might be tricky, but not impossible. Be bold enough to show and tell that a XXXXXX major and the faculty in XXXXXXX (do) does all of these things better than anyone else.

Can you imagine the power of the major in the humanities that takes information about what employers want and connects it directly to what is accomplished in each class?

Please let me know your thoughts.

Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission