The Marketing of the Colleges

As enrollments dwindle and competition for tuition-paying students intensifies, more and more colleges and universities are resorting to hard-sell strategies which in some cases impinge upon the traditional standards and canons of higher education  

Two years ago Adrian College, a small Methodist institution located in the southeastern corner of Michigan, was in deep trouble. The academic program was stagnant. A messy battle between the faculty and the administration over unionization had put the college in newspaper stories across the state. Freshman enrollment was down to 248 students from a 1970 high of 550.

Then Adrian called in Stuart Weiner, a Chicago-based consultant who specializes in taking marketing principles developed by industry and applying them to problems of small colleges. He brought along his "semantic differential scale," which allowed him to pinpoint the image that Adrian had among prospective students and others. He did a "feature benefit analysis" designed to bring Adrian's academic offerings into line with the student market waiting to be tapped. He decided that Adrian needed to overhaul its financial aid program, beef up its career counseling program, and project itself as both "personal" and "practical."

Administrators helped out by strengthening the business administration program and taking other steps to improve what Donald Stanton, Adrian's new president, terms "the reality" of the institution. To promote the new spruced-up Adrian, Weiner created the slogan "The Adrian Approach: A Personal Approach to a Better Life and Career" and suggested that it be incorporated into seventy pieces of promotional literature, such as "inquiry generating" wall posters extolling the virtues of Adrian's home economics program, complete with postpaid tear-off cards. "It starts out general and/or exciting and moves to more and more detail while connoting personalness throughout, hopefully," explained Kenneth B. Stark, Jr., Adrian's director of publications and information. Each piece of literature bears the symbolic "A" that Weiner recommended as the logo for "the Adrian Approach."

Adrian's freshman enrollment is up to 365 this fall, and it is confident that it can compete with such traditional rivals as Kalamazoo ("The Kalamazoo Plan") and Olivette ("The Olivette Experience").

Such was one approach to the most traumatic change now under way in American higher education: the shift from a seller's to a buyer's market. The demographic curve that has been playing havoc with elementary school enrollment for a decade and is now forcing consolidation at the high school level is about to hit the colleges, and panic is beginning to set in. Some colleges are turning to desperate new promotional techniques, such as handing out Frisbees on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale. Others are importing Iranians, Venezuelans, and Kuwaitis (and looking wistfully at mainland China) to fill their dwindling ranks. Still others are, like Adrian, turning to the business world for the techniques to keep themselves among the survivors of the academic squeeze to come, and a whole industry of admen, headhunters, direct mail experts, and marketers has popped up ready to meet their needs.

Some will argue that, at long last, non-profit colleges have joined the real world—one that computer, truck-driving, and other proprietary schools have inhabited for a long time. But many colleges now use promotional tactics that are downright dishonest. A number of students—especially foreigners—are being deceived and getting hurt. Before we reach the point where Harvard is advertising on matchbook covers, we should probably consider whether selling education is significantly different from selling cars or soap.

College recruitment and admissions is big business. The total costs are impossible to calculate under standard college accounting systems, since such expenses are not centralized in the salaries and other direct costs of the Admissions Office, but are spread across a variety of cost centers, from the Alumni Office to the publications budget. Most public universities spend from $200 to $500 to recruit every freshman who sets foot on campus, while private schools may invest from $500 to $800.

Robert Kirkpatrick, vice president of Wesleyan University, estimates, for example, that "we spend about $600 on every freshman, including the costs of publications." For colleges with enrollment problems, these costs can go much higher. Theodore Marchese of Barat College in Chicago notes that many high school seniors get 200-300 pieces of direct mail from colleges, each of which can cost the sending institution as much as a dollar.

Thus, a school enrolling as many as 1000 freshmen might easily spend $500,000 to acquire its entering class. Overall, college admissions is a $500 million-a-year enterprise.

The threat of declining enrollment is real. The Bureau of the Census estimates that between 1979 and 1992 the number of eighteen-year-olds will drop from 4.3 to 3.2 million, a decline of one quarter in the group that comprises the bulk of entering freshmen. Ominously, college enrollment has dropped from 11.5 to 11.1 million during the last year, even before the effects of the population decline have been felt. With roughly 3000 colleges and universities in the country, and, allowing for the fact that much of the contraction will take the form of consolidation rather than closings, as many as 300 to 500 institutions may have to close their doors before the population again turns upward.

Faced with these prospects, some colleges have turned to sheer gimmickry. Viterbo College in Wisconsin sponsors a television quiz show for high school students with scholarships as the prizes; other colleges run free bus trips to the campus or stage songfests, magic shows, and juggling acts in shopping centers. One midwestern college sends unsolicited letters to high school seniors which begin, "Congratulations! You've been accepted." At the last minute Northern Kentucky University canceled plans to release hundreds of balloons in a park in downtown Cincinnati, some containing scholarship offers which totaled $26,000.

Colleges have advertised their educational wares at least since 1643, when Harvard issued a promotional tract entitled "New England's First Fruit," which has been described as having all of the charm of "an invitation to attend reform school." Today's equivalents are much more sophisticated.

Like the makers of breakfast cereals, colleges have discovered the benefits of backing up advertising with tangible come-ons. The University of Mississippi, which conducted an "image survey" and discovered that a lot of natives thought of Ole Miss as "not a very friendly place," countered by giving out "Ole Miss Motor Fitness and Skills Awards" to students who completed a list of recommended physical exercises. Milligan College in Tennessee offers a $50 rebate each semester to every student who persuades a friend to enroll—so long as both stay on and a student's total bonus doesn't surpass his or her tuition. Rod Irvin, Milligan's information director, reports that one entering student, from an orphanage, earned rebates totaling $450 per semester.

Perhaps the most popular come-on is the so-called "no-need" scholarship, designed to lure academically able students. At West Texas State College in Canyon, funds are raised among private sources to subsidize "lead student" scholarships. "It's like the lead cow or goat or sheep," explained Keith Winter, the director of development. "You get the sharp student, and others will rally around and come to your school." The University of California at Los Angeles has come up with a "college honors" program that lures honor students with such attractions as the waiver of certain graduation requirements and a "special suite of rooms." "The whole educational process is upgraded with top students in the classroom," explained E. Bradford Burns, the dean in charge of the program. "Class discussions, for instance, take on a new dimension of excitement when you've got a corps of live-wire students enrolled. Faculty enjoy it, too. After all, good students give you an academic 'high'!"

Perhaps the most farsighted appeal comes from Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. Through the generosity of a wealthy alumnus, RIT has set up 150 "postnatal" scholarships, each worth $1500, for babies born on June 12, 1979, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the institution.

There was a time when admissions directors would send out acceptance letters and then sit back and watch their freshman class fill up. Now the sending out of decisions signals the beginning of the most competitive two or three weeks of all. Even the selective Ivy League institutions have begun conducting a new ritual, which is variously known as "keeping," "holding," or "yield" parties, and is designed to persuade successful applicants to come to Old Sidewash rather than defect to one of the other six colleges that also accepted them.

Accepted students from major population areas are invited to receptions—typically in the lavish home of a wealthy alumnus—where they meet other potential freshmen and are wooed by students, representatives of the admissions office, and sometimes even the president of the college. "You've got to do it," said Charles Deacon, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University. "If you don't, it means that Georgetown doesn't want you as bad as Yale does." Many colleges also invite students to come to the campus and take another look before making the Big Decision, and these weekends can become quite elaborate. Vassar, for example, regularly draws 600 potential freshmen to its weekend and treats them to festivities ranging from barbershop quartet singing to Ultimate Frisbee contests.

Colleges with more traditional advertising tastes are turning to agencies to help them out. Barnard College in Manhattan, for example, went to a graphic design firm, for help in changing its Morningside Heights location from a liability to an asset. Borrowing a leaf from Harvard's "First Fruit" approach, the designers decided to promote the virtues of New York City by putting a red apple, symbolic of "The Big Apple," on all of Barnard's literature, including an eye-catching poster with a return mail card.

One result of the new professionalism in college advertising is that promotional brochures are beginning to look like cigarette ads. A College of St. Elizabeth brochure, for example, shows a girl with long blond hair lying in a field of flowers and holding one gently in her hand while staring wistfully into the camera's eye. "Especially for women," reads the italic caption underneath, "because women are creative, intelligent and beautiful, resourceful and sweet and generally different from men."

Marchese, of Barat College, says that, in advertising, colleges have crossed the line from promoting education as the route to the good life to selling themselves as the good life. "Colleges are buying the advertising ethic," he says. "Everything is couples holding hands under trees. The ads are full of latent sexuality—water images and circles with couples. Come to us and be beautiful and successful." Perhaps the ultimate in this approach is the college prospectus whose cover shows boys and girls sitting around the shore of a small lake. Three of them can be seen sharing what is apparently a joint of marijuana.

Appealing brochures, of course, are of no use if you don't know where to send them. Dakota Wesleyan solved this problem once by raffling off bicycles at state fairs to get names and addresses of high school students, but fortunately a better way is now available.

The Student Search Service of the College Entrance Examination Board has become an indispensable promotional tool for roughly 1000 colleges a year. Several years ago the CEEB was selling information about colleges to students. Now, in a buyer's market, it's the other way around. For a $100 general fee and eleven cents a name, colleges can purchase the names of high school seniors broken down into virtually any category they want, from test scores or ZIP codes to ethnic background or expected major. The names come from the 2 million students a year who check a box on their College Board tests indicating they'd like to receive literature from colleges. Last year the CEEB sent out 15 million of these names, and grossed over $2.1 million.

For colleges that have lists of names but don't know what to do with them, direct mail houses are ready to come to the rescue. Epsilon Data Management, Inc. outside Boston, for example, works with eighteen admissions offices around the country and uses sophisticated new word-processing systems to send out thousands of "personalized" letters at twelve to fifty cents apiece. "The whole point is to try to present the institution as one that will treat the student as an individual," said Gene Henderson, Epsilon's group marketing manager. "It sounds ironic, but it's true. Large computers can be more personal."

Still other entrepreneurs dont pussyfoot around with such indirect approaches. If freshmen are what you want, then that's what they deliver—at $250 a head and up.

Two years ago, for example, Daniel Rosenfield, former prep school teacher and admissions officer, sat down with a stack of college guides and wrote to just about every college listed offering to recruit students. His American Educational Guidance Center in Johnstown, New York, now has thirty colleges and an equal number of prep schools as clients, and Rosenfield claims to have placed about 650 students, Americans and foreigners.

Rosenfield asks American students to fill out a one-page questionnaire sketching their career and educational goals, test scores, and outside interests. He then decides which of his clients would be most suitable for the student and asks one or more of them to send information and an application form. He gets $250 for every student who enrolls.

Much more elaborate is an operation entitled REACH, which is run by Phillip Schreier out of Tampa, Florida, with offices in New Jersey, New York, and Illinois. REACH boasts that it represents "23 of America's great colleges and universities," including Alliance College in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, Pikeville College in Pikeville, Kentucky, and Westmar College in Le Mars, Iowa.

Whereas Rosenfield stays close to home and relies on direct mailings to guidance counselors to attract students, Schreier and his eighteen professional staff members go right into high schools in Florida and elsewhere and make presentations to prospective applicants. "Armed with audiovisual presentations, our own publications, and the ability to educate and motivate students, we have had almost universal acceptance from high school administrators," his promotional flyers declare. Students who show interest receive phone calls from both REACH and the colleges to which they apply. The client institutions must also agree to waive the initial application fee for REACH students and to offer them "generous" financial terms. "Every study I've ever read says that the best way to a kid's heart is through money," commented Schreier.

Instead of relying on a per capita fee, Schreier signs contracts with client colleges to recruit a certain number of students. "We can usually attract fifty kids to a healthy college for $15,400," he said, "and I have one 100-student contract for $38,000 plus a car. If we recruit one student and he stays four years, that's a gross of $26,000 for the college, and they have paid us about $300. That's a hell of an investment!" One of Schreier's happy clients is Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which paid him $11,000 to bring in thirty-five to forty students last year. Kent Duesing, the director of admissions, said that Schreier's key to success is that "he can get into the high schools and get an audience we can't." "He uses the candy store a window approach," he continued. "Here's all the candy. Tell me what you want."

Not all of REACH's clients are that happy. One small Catholic women's college with serious enrollment problems paid out $4000 on a $7700 contract to recruit twenty-five students, but has yet to see a single one. "In conversation they talked about personal contact with students, and this seemed to fit in with our way of recruiting," said the director of admissions. "They also had very impressive statistics about retention. We've gotten a lot of leads, but so far no students. I'm very upset about it." Schreier predicted that eight to twelve students would appear this fall, but confesses, "I didn't do a good job there. It was my only miss."

Gerald Sussman, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University, says that colleges, like private businesses, go through a fixed cycle in promoting their wares. First, he says, there is the "product concept," which assumes that if you have a superior product, customers will beat a path to your door. Then there is the "sales concept," which assumes that goods and services are not bought but sold. Finally, they come around to a "marketing" orientation. "Marketing begins and ends with the consumer," he writes. "The organization's task is to identify the needs and wants of a particular market target and satisfy those needs and wants. The premise here is that of balancing clients' needs and desires with the institution's ability to serve."

The trick, of course, is to do enough "market research" to figure out what students are out there, adjust academic programs accordingly, and then promote the new academic scheme effectively. This is where the marketers enter the picture.

The best known is Dennis Johnson, president of Dennis Johnson Associates of Chicago, who pushes what he calls "TMC"—the "total marketing concept." Johnson started his career in the admissions office of his alma mater, Parsons College in Iowa, which eventually closed after losing its accreditation. Johnson, who left in 1967 before the debacle, was asked by several colleges to consult with them on admissions policy, and within several years he was running a $1 million-a-year business with forty-five full-time employees. The large gross resulted from the fact that, in addition to doing market research, he contracted to run the admissions offices of client institutions. Two years ago, however, he decided that this was a no-win situation. "If you succeeded, the college figured that it didn't have any long-term marketing problems," he said. "If you didn't, you became the scapegoat."

Today Johnson has scaled his activities down to a $90,000-a-year operation that makes use of fourteen part-time consultants around the country. For $2500 to $3000, he visits colleges and conducts two-day training sessions on marketing for faculty, administration, and staff members. He also has longer-term consulting contracts with four or five colleges at a time at fees of $350 a day plus expenses.

While Johnson has probably done more than anyone else to popularize marketing among colleges, the most successful practitioner of the art at the moment is Stuart Weiner. A former Johnson staffer who decided he could "do better on his own," Weiner has a staff of eight and works with about a dozen colleges at a time on twelve- to fourteen-month contracts worth about $30,000 apiece. He described his gross income as roughly $350,000 a year.

As at Adrian, Weiner's service is to collect data from "lost acceptances" and other sources on what they think about the college, define the potential student market, suggest program changes to accommodate the market, then overhaul the institution's communications and, if necessary, admissions operations.

In 1975, for example, Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, decided to reshape its traditional image as a two-year finishing school for young ladies. Weiner discovered that there was a sizable market of "indecisive women who knew they wanted a career but weren't sure whether they wanted to go for two years or four." As a result of his advice, the college added four-year and career programs and rewrote its promotional materials to include its "two/four-year option." Richard Huss, the enthusiastic young admissions director, said that the key to subsequent success was finding out what a certain type of student within Centenary's geographical pulling area really needed. Or, as he put it, "the point was to benefitize what Centenary could do for her."

At Alfred College in upstate New York, Weiner faced the problem of a rural setting which, his research told him, "could be seen as either out-of-the-way or quaint." "We went the refined route," he recalled. "We developed a new promotional package that projected quality and the 'educational village' atmosphere. We put a watercolor of the village on the cover. Last year there were 365 freshmen; this year they will have over 450."

Colleges plainly have to adjust their programs to meet changing student needs. But some serious problems are becoming apparent in the headlong rush to embrace the latest marketing strategies of the corporate world.

The most obvious problem is the abuse of simple truth, a virtue with which colleges have often presumed to identify themselves in the past. Many recruiters of foreign students routinely mislead about the programs, reputation, and even the geographical climate of the institutions they represent; but not all such incidents occur across the seas. One Indiana school put out a catalogue picturing a boy and a girl strolling hand in hand past a waterfall, though no waterfall of that sort can be found within miles of the campus. Numerous colleges promote nursing or forestry programs which are available via transfer only after two or more years of regular college work.

The cost of the increased promotional and marketing activities is staggering and often self-defeating. Gimmicks such as "no-need" scholarships, for example, may work to the advantage of individual institutions in the short run, but from the point of view of higher education as a whole they are simply a waste of valuable financial aid funds. "Once everyone does it," observed one official of the College Entrance Examination Board, "you end up giving money to students who would come anyway."

An obvious danger is sacrificing quality in the all-out effort to maintain enrollments and adjust programs to meet a perceived academic need—or at least a market. John Sawhill, the president of New York University, wonders whether colleges will ever flunk students in whose recruitment they have invested so much time, effort, and money. "You have to remember that the end result of education is a degree or a certificate, and that awarding this is a selective process," he commented. "You do have to evaluate students. If you engage in too big a selling effort to get them in, it makes it difficult to evaluate them when you're ready to give the degree."

There is also the danger that the new marketing fad could backfire and lead to greater governmental regulation. "If colleges begin to act like businesses, they will be treated as businesses," observed Arthur Levine, who recently shepherded an eighty-six-page report for the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education which criticized, among other things, "inflated and misleading advertising" among colleges and universities today. "If they act as hucksters, they will be treated as hucksters.... Neither businesses, nor hucksters, can successfully wear the mantle of academic freedom or autonomy from social control."

The consumer movement in higher education is welcome—in many ways. It has led to substantial improvements in the accuracy and usefulness of information in college catalogues. But it has the potential of pushing the "buyer-seller" analogy too far. The likelihood of this is substantially increased if colleges submit uncritically to the promotional and marketing mentality now in vogue.

Inherent in the marketing approach to institutional survival is the assumption that whatever will sell is right. Colleges bought this assumption as recently as the late 1960s, when faculties abandoned their authority in matters of curriculum in the face of student demands for "relevance" and free choice. The result was that a general education became gravely undervalued at many American universities.

Harvard and other institutions are now struggling to reassert the controversial premise that somewhere in the collective wisdom of faculties and academic traditions are insights that eighteen-year-old students do not intuitively possess. The gains being made by the resurgence of more structured curricula, though, are in danger of being washed away by a new wave of consultants who promise survival on just the opposite premise.

The fact is that, in a time when there will be a quarter fewer eighteen-year-olds, some colleges should fold. No one—least of all the student who is calling the shots through the market researcher—is honestly or well served by colleges willing to sacrifice traditions, standards, and ethical principles in exchange for the requisite number of tuition checks.

What some colleges need is not another piece of market research but another look at the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted."

Edward B. Fiske, formerly the Education Editor of The New York Times, is the author of The Fiske Guide to Colleges, an annual publication of Sourcebooks, Inc.