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Prowling for Cash

May 10, 2006

For many colleges, the proliferation of admissions guidebooks has become a fact of life, and offices find themselves providing information to more and more publishers each year.

But a new and growing guidebook series -- College Prowler -- has been the subject of much discussion and anger among college officials in the past few weeks over an ad-sales technique that is viewed by institutions as unfair and unprofessional. College Prowler is telling colleges that they have the opportunity -- for $4,995 -- to have eight pages of advertorial in the guidebooks about their institutions.

That money also provides colleges with the right to fact check the material going in on their institutions (something many other guidebooks offer, for no charge). If you don't buy the ad, the book will contain eight blank pages with a statement that the institution "did not respond to our request to include its opinions in this chapter." The language -- which was sent to colleges with a pitch for advertising -- will not tell readers of the guide that colleges had to pay to provide the information.

The tactic -- which stands out even in the dog-eat-dog world of admissions -- has many institutions steaming. "What a great marketing thing. You hire a kid to write up a college. You print something full of errors, and you charge the college to correct it," said an administrator at a Southern university that has decided not to pay the fee.

Luke Skurman, the chief executive officer of College Prowler, said he was surprised by the criticism because the new ad campaign was developed at the request of colleges that, he said, "wanted to add their voice" to the guides. "We aren't trying to pressure anyone," he said.

College Prowler is a relatively new entrant into the guidebook business, starting in 2002. It operates as a print-on-demand operation and sells separate books on each of 211 colleges, rather than the standard approach of grouping colleges together in a single book. The Prowler approach differentiates itself as well by being student written. Authors are recruited at institutions, and surveys are also used. The result is more information about individual institutions, and information of the sort that might not have been in guidebooks of previous generations (best places for hookups, percentage of students with sexually transmitted diseases, etc.). The informal tone is in some ways an outgrowth of the model pioneered by The Insider's Guide to Colleges and Princeton Review guides, but perhaps taken to another level.

While College Prowler officials declined to release sales statistics, they said that business is growing rapidly, and positive articles about the guides in The New York Times, Business Week and elsewhere have given the company good buzz.

Many college guides -- most notably U.S. News & World Report -- sell advertising space. But institutions that don't take out ads do not have blank space as a result. And there is no suggestion that the colleges didn't cooperate with the information gathering.

Colleges said that they didn't object to advertising, but to the way they are being approached. "It seems to me that any publication that says 'we're going to publish stuff about your institution and for $5,000 we'll make sure it's correct,' that's a little troubling," said Scott Hood, vice president for public affairs at Bowdoin College.

Hood said that on his book shelf, he had nine college guides -- including others that take the subjective approach used by Prowler -- and not a single one has an advertising policy like the one Prowler is pushing. Bowdoin won't advertise there, he said.

Jim Tranquada, director of communications at Occidental College, called the Prowler approach "unorthodox" and said his institution would not participate. Aside from the issue of the way the company is "trying to incentivize colleges to participate," Tranquada said he thought the information might hurt the very image Prowler has created for itself.

"The whole purpose of these guides is to provide students with an unfiltered series of opinions. To insert a chapter at the very end -- a house ad essentially -- how effective will that be in a guide that is designed for students who want to avoid those kinds of messages?" he asked. While Tranquada said that he thought students were gravitating toward "peer network" types of college guides, like Prowler, the college decided "it wouldn't be a good investment" to advertise there.

Pete Mackey, chief communications officer at Bucknell University, had a similar reaction, saying that he liked what Prowler was saying about Bucknell and didn't see any reason to pay -- when all the information that would be added is available free on the university's Web site. Mackey said he was bothered by the language planned for use on colleges that are passing on the ads, as his is. "I would hope that they would indicate that they were charging $5,000," he said.

Skurman, the Prowler CEO, said that he has heard some concern from colleges about a view that they would be buying the right to correct errors in their books. He said that wasn't the case and that errors could be corrected for institutions that buy ads and those that don't. But he did acknowledge that those purchasing the ads would be able to see advance copies and point out errors before any books are sold. Other institutions would have to buy a book when others are buying as well.

While some universities don't like the advertising approach, he said that others were "very excited" about participating. "We built the program because they wanted it," he said. "If universities are feeling blackmailed or not feeling good about the program, I have not received that feeling expressed directly to me," he said.

As for why colleges that don't advertise will get blank pages with a short note, he said: "We can't have readers asking us why School X and Y had this chapter and others did not."

 

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