Wading through the Viewbooks: Graduating seniors have weighed their college options carefully and selected a school. How have institutional efforts influenced that process?
June 5, 2007
Howard and Matthew Greene
A SOON-TO-BE-HIGH school senior recently entered our office with a large shopping bag from a popular clothing outlet. She wasn't bringing a special present, but rather hauling around a mass of unsolicited college paraphernalia. "Can you help me sort through this?" she asked. "This" consisted of every imaginable form of viewbook, catalogue, flashy index card, pamphlet, and creatively packaged CD and DVD.
"Actually, no," we responded. "Let's start with your strengths and interests and then figure out some appropriate colleges and universities to begin researching and visiting. Oh, and you might want to consider a trip to the recycling center."
As we talked with graduating seniors this spring during their final college selection process, we were struck by notions of what has and hasn't mattered in their searches. What did not matter included fancy, fancier, and fanciest college mailings. Students were amused by solicitations from far away colleges they had never heard of and couldn't imagine entering.
Many students became enamored by personalized campaigns to win them over, including handwritten notes from admissions officers and faculty, e-mails from students and alums, and hats, T-shirts, and pennants. But most items from the deluge of college mailings ended up directly in the trash. (Try to find a town that makes recycling glossy catalogs easy!)
So why bother? Consider the expense of elaborate brochures, viewbooks, cards, and CDs. Consider the hours spent creating them. Consider the mailing costs. Probably every school needs some kind of print brochure, but it's worth exploring whether resources would be better spent elsewhere, especially in place of mass mailings of multiple versions of brochures early in the process.
We know these students are not typically random; enrollment management consultants and software applications guide institutions to select groups of individuals most likely to be receptive to a college's message. But from this side of the post office, the messages seem simultaneously jumbled, similar, overwhelming, and not of interest. What's the point of all the mailings? To get students-the right students, we hope-to enroll.
Let's work backward from where we sit now, with the seniors having made their decisions. What mattered most? What could have been done differently?
Once you have admitted a student, an essential task is to get a visit, or perhaps revisit, scheduled prior to the May 1 decision date. If that student is on a waiting list a list that has likely grown beyond all bounds of understanding or utility in recent years you will be unlikely to offer or earn an April visit. And, in our experience, you will not have a good chance of having the student matriculate in the fall.
As we have noted in the past, a well planned, comprehensive set of visiting days or an ongoing revisiting program can be invaluable to your institution in convincing the right students to make a commitment. How do you get there?
To get to a revisit, students must be admitted. How that's done can affect students' views of your institution. We have become dismayed by the proliferation of all kinds of admission strategies. Beyond the complexities of Early Decision, Early Action, Rolling, Modified Rolling, Early Notification, Instant Decision, and other plans (which have their own issues), let's concentrate on the "likely letters" and similar forms of communication that accomplish everything except their stated intentions.
During the winter and early spring we receive numerous phone calls from students asking for help in deciphering a recent e-mail or letter from a college. "It doesn't say I'm admitted," they say. Or, "It says I'm likely to be admitted, but then it says this isn't an admission offer. Actually, it says I'm not admitted yet."
Here's a message for colleges from students, parents, and counselors: If you have admitted students and are inclined to tell them about it, tell them they're admitted.
Even the Ivies have been increasing the practice of early notifications outside of the athletic recruits who are traditionally recipients of formal likely letters. Students don't appreciate half measures or veiled references. In fact, they're usually confused and turned off by them. Conversely, if you admit a student early in the process, you will earn a lot of goodwill and, we believe, increase your odds of a campus visit or revisit, and we know what that means.
In order to admit students, you must convince them to apply. Colleges go to all kinds of lengths to attract applications, often from inappropriate students. Free online applications? Applications prefilled with personal information? No application necessary? "Dean's Choice" or "Priority" or "Presidential Scholarship" applications? You name it, students are receiving it.
Such measures might be seen as attractive, annoying, creepy, or novel by different students. Enrollment management consultants and admission officers have confided in us that, if you want to increase applications by X amount, all you need is an investment of dollars and you can buy all the applications you want. But from whom? Is the goal just to deny admission to a larger group, or to admit more who are highly unlikely to enroll?
In late junior or early senior year before students have received prefilled applications but after they have been inundated by PSAT-based mass mailings-what is going to influence a student to consider a college, plan an initial visit, and perhaps apply? A personal connection.
Surveys show that parents remain the number one influence on a student's choice of college. Parents are shocked when they hear this, since most feel the last thing their son or daughter wants to discuss with them is the college decision. Still, a student who has a parent who graduated from a particular college, or a family member or other acquaintance who went to, works at, knows someone at, or is familiar with an institution, will often recognize that school in a mailing or guidebook and ask us about it. Sometimes the school is appropriate, and other times it is far from the right place to pursue. Beyond the random connections, students often learn about colleges from such informed sources as teachers and guidance counselors, as well as (more or less informed) peers.
We don't feel it is contradictory to state this: Administrators should communicate more personally with teachers and guidance counselors, despite our past contentions that colleges need to relate directly to students and their parents.
Connecting to appropriate students is important; using the institution's website and then directed letters, phone calls, and interviews with students who have expressed an interest in the college will help. These kinds of open and personalized communications resonate favorably with families. But to get to stage one, the expression of interest, we are more convinced than ever that students react to advice from advisers, counselors, and teachers.
Witness what's happening at the schools of Achievement First, a nonprofit that supports charter schools such as the Amistad Academy in New Haven, Conn. In these schools, which are focused on supporting underrepresented minorities and lower income students, teachers not only talk about college but list their degrees and the institutions they graduated from on the doors of their classrooms.
Successful students in any school usually connect to one or more role models. These role models often get to know students well and will write recommendation letters for them. They often start students on the college road by suggesting they look at certain schools they believe would be a good fit. Such references are invaluable to a college's marketing efforts.
We suggest redirecting some of the funds now being mailed and subsequently deposited in the dustbin toward communicating directly and personally with high school teachers and counselors.
Visit schools in your primary enrollment markets regularly (overworked counseling offices experience high turnover). Provide good, substantive information about your school, and offer to meet personally with students who might be appropriate for your institution. Bring along some faculty, and perhaps current students or alumni. Be a presence at college fairs. Talk at libraries in small towns.
Partner with peer schools to use resources wisely. Members of the Colleges That Change Lives (www.ctcl.com) network speak across the country about the benefits of small liberal arts colleges. Duke, Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania conduct popular local seminars together, too.
We receive annual mailings from such colleges as Kenyon (Ohio), Hobart and William Smith (N.Y.), and Muhlenberg (Pa.) that include an extensive profile of the entering class, news of new construction and programs on campus, contact information for regional admissions representatives, and so on. We keep a file of such detailed profiles to educate students about the general college admissions process and specific schools that might be a match for them, and we know that many other counselors, both school-based and independent, do the same. The information might not be the shiniest or most glamorous, but it sure helps us guide students in the right direction.