Sunday, January 22, 2017


The Pile

The Boy is a high school sophomore.  He took the first round of the PSAT’s and scored pretty well.  (Apparently, now it’s common practice to take the PSAT more than once.  In my day, the “P” stood for practice.  Also, in my day, we wrote with lumps of coal on papyrus and rode dinosaurs to school, so what do I know?)  Which means that over the last several weeks, he has received approximately two metric tons of mail from colleges trying to recruit him.

The marketing blitz looks different from the parental side.  

The fact that it starts in sophomore year took me aback.  I remember it starting in the junior year.  And it’s not just a few; he’s averaging three or four colleges a day.  

Since higher ed is my industry, I use the barrage as a sort of daily geography quiz.  “St. Somebody U -- where’s that?”  So far I’ve only missed one, which isn’t bad, though I dread the day that the multiple “Trinity” and “Wesleyan” schools start pouring in.  They’re hard to keep straight.  

I’ll admit enjoying counterintuitive college names.  Washington University doesn’t sound like it would be in St. Louis, but it is.  Miami of Ohio is sort of jarring.  California University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania raise obvious questions.  East Carolina University confused me the first time I heard it, because there’s no such state as East Carolina.  But my new favorite, recently discovered, has to be Washington State Community College, which is in...wait for it...Ohio.  I file that one under “now they’re just messing with us.”

I’ve been careful not to be too outspoken about any of them, other than trying to place them geographically.  (True example: “Kenyon College?  Where’s that?”  “Ohio.”  “Oh.”)  The Boy’s preferences at this point are relatively shallow, but they’re his.  He’s the one who will have to go, so I try not to push too hard one way or the other.  But I do pay attention to what he says about them.

Although it has only been a few weeks, he’s proving an astute reader of marketing materials.  For example, he’s already noticed that most of them include the same multifold pamphlet encouraging him to log on to their website to pick a major.  Even the colors on the pamphlet are often the same from school to school.

Other than location and (occasionally) size, if you only went by the materials, you’d be hard-pressed to tell any school from any other.  They mostly consist of a flattering cover letter, a pamphlet directing you to a website on which you’re supposed to enter all manner of personal information, and often a business reply envelope with a tear-off slip for, I assume, students whose parents handle this for them and aren’t very tech-savvy.

What isn’t included?  Cost, of course.  Anything that would distinguish a given college from any other.  Any sense of the school’s identity, other than geography.   The materials are so anodyne that they’re essentially interchangeable.  The “inoffensively upbeat” approach may have made sense when options were few and 18 year olds plentiful, but it doesn’t make sense now.  In the absence of any distinguishing characteristics, he falls back on word of mouth.  As much as I try to avoid sharing opinions, when he asks directly, I answer.  

So, a bit of collegial advice from one higher ed nerd to his counterparts at four year schools everywhere: do something to stand out from the pile.  Because the pile is already huge, and he’s only halfway through his sophomore year.  He has already told me, eyes rolling, that he has no intention of logging on to every single site in every single letter, and I agree.  It’s too much, and they’re too similar.  What makes your school different?  What’s its signature strength?

Community colleges are largely exempt from this issue, since they mostly draw locally, where word of mouth is strong.  But for four-year schools trying to recruit across state lines,

I understand the internal politics of that.  If you focus on one department or program as your niche, other departments on campus are likely to feel slighted.  I get that.  But from the perspective of a parent of the kind of kid that most colleges would love to land, “blandly inoffensive” is a non-starter.  Stand out from the pile, or get buried in it.

We had the huge pile four years ago, when my son was a junior. We decided that many of the brochures must have been made by the same company, as they had identical designs (same layout, same fonts, almost the same text). Having a generic brochure was a sure sign that the school was desperately trolling for applicant and had no real interest in my son. Most of them were also ones that would have been a terrible fit for him (he is a bright computer-science guy with an interest in acting—a liberal arts school with almost no CS and only average students was an obvious non-starter, but that was where most of the brochures came from).

Colleges using the College Board mailing lists are interested in getting numbers of applicants, without much care about fit or quality. It is actually a sign that a college is on a downward trend, if they are sending out mass mailings like that.
When my wife taught at Miami of Ohio, the bookstore sold t-shirts with the slogan, "Miami was a university before Florida was a state." (It's true, too; MU was founded in 1809, though it took 15 years for classes to begin!) The name comes from the Myaamiaki nation, Anglicized as "Miami," not the Mayaimi people who gave their name to the lake, river, and city in Florida.

I used to wonder about Indiana and California in Pennsylvania. They're named for a county and a town, respectively.
Where the real sell seems to come is when you get in. That's when they start to show a little more distinction. Geeky Girl got a piece of stained glass from one place. She's gotten into all 4 of her Early Action/rolling admissions places and will now wait to hear from the other places she's applied. The tours are also similar, though a really good tour guide can make or break a school. We almost always look at cost and endowment (more endowment usually means better possibility of funding).

Get ready for an interesting ride!
Ask about FT/PT ratio in gen ed classes. Seriously. Do you want a part-time instructor who doesn't even have an office teaching your kids? A teacher who has to pay the bills by serving beer to students? It should matter to all parents, and all universities.
It will be interesting to learn if any of the top tier private schools offer any money. I'll bet they will want to use your income to offer a discount to a less well-off student. You might learn a lot from that also.

You triggered some fond memories of my pile. Unfortunately, I lacked the social capital (or Google) to discover just how famous some of those "unknown" schools on the west coast actually were. I had only heard of the big ones that played football or had a national brand.
How on earth are all these colleges getting the age and address of a minor?

Sounds like some marketing company is laughing all the way to the bank.

Students who take the PSAT (or SAT or ACT) put in their high school and address. Presumably those testing organizations sell the list to college admissions offices and that's where/how it happens.
Ah, the testing brochure deluge. Back in the day, I took the SAT in 7th grade as part of one of those gifted kid programs. I still remember my first college brochure (which was from Mary Baldwin, as they had some kind of hybrid highly supervised high school/college boarding school program that I would have hated immensely - my mother assured me that plenty of other colleges would be interested in me once I was older than 12 and I wasn't missing my chance to go to college by not applying).

I think I didn't ever actually look through the pile the year I was applying - I just applied to places I knew of for other reasons (local reputation, places my parents went to college, recruiting visits to my high school, places I'd visited through the gifted kid programs or other academic trips, and so on). The pile was just sort of overwhelming and scattershot.
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