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.