Surviving the College Tours

It wasn't easy, writes Andrew Flagel.

September 9, 2019
 
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After nearly 30 years in higher education leadership, much of it in enrollment management, I have the through-the-looking-glass experience of being the parent of a rising high school senior. I find myself a somewhat inconveniently over-informed participant in dozens of campus tours and information sessions. I filled notebooks with my suggestions for improving the experience -- but it is my role at the Association of American Colleges and Universities that drives me to beg your attention to a particular area of concern.

Much of my advice won't be surprising. We all need to remind our teams, for instance, that speaking ill of other colleges is both unprofessional and likely to have the opposite of the desired effect on your audience. It is also readily apparent that many team members would benefit from a refresher course on public speaking to improve stance, tone and pace. A deeper dive into communications and marketing theory prompts two further suggestions.

It seems a rare treat to sit through a video or power point that adds any new information relevant to a visit. Far too often the video, tour and information session content are nearly identical. Electronic messages, including but not limited to PowerPoint, videos and podcasts should have a message and add information to the general presentation and tour. Why show your audience something entirely redundant, or worse, something that distracts from your message? Likewise, the presentation and tour should complement, not repeat verbatim, one another.

On a related and perhaps more crucial subject, it is far past time for those who design our presentations and tours to learn that recitation of facts and features are far less effective than descriptions of benefits. It is unlikely any student was ever persuaded by the number of majors or student clubs you offer (Most likely your representatives, regardless of campus size or offerings, suggest that the number is LARGE!). It is far more persuasive to suggest how the quality of curricular and co-curricular offerings impact students. If we want to argue that college selection is more about fit than rankings, then our presentations need to reflect that mindset!

Such communications issues seem to me easy to resolve -- and a few campuses stood out for managing those issues quite wonderfully.

Two additional communication pet peeves: describing things as "groundbreaking" or "new models" when they are available on almost every campus, and using jargon that can be exclusionary in that it is rarely widely understood.

It has been so commonplace for admissions sessions to include brags about the same things on every campus that I saw several prospective families playing "admissions bingo." I understand we have to mention some, but just a few of the snarky questions I really wanted to ask were:

  • Is there anything at all unusual or special about your options for multiple majors, minors, and designing your own major?
  • Do you actually find it that impressive that your campus has food courts, coffee outlets, and late-night dining, points systems AND meals, or that your dining addresses allergens? (Side note -- please can we take a pass on ever again spending time on a tour or info session explaining the complexity of a meal swipe for points transaction?)
  • Is your library borrowing consortium agreement, printing access or computer lab somehow distinctive? (Maybe instead a note about cell phone service and wifi strength?)
  • Not a question but -- thanks to every tour guide for mentioning that you have never heard of anyone actually using the Blue Lights on your campus and for knowing that it is far more likely you will use your cell phone in an emergency than run toward the blue light.

Of course, the admissions sessions and tours were by and large much improved over what I saw a few years ago -- except when it came to making the content accessible to diverse audiences. Despite all the work many of us have done seeking to make our campuses more inclusive, admissions sessions continue to be not-so-subtle in reinforcing that college admissions favors those who already know the system. We continue to use terms that are not accessible, poorly explained and especially difficult for first-generation students.

Some should be really easy to resolve, like adding a brief explanation of what we mean when we say you will have a "major," especially that this is often not tightly linked to students' future careers. More complex is getting the language right when our admissions representatives brag about "research opportunities." To be clear, every campus we visited bragged about research opportunities. Few, however, explained that research has a very (VERY!) broad definition. I listened in dismay as one student and her mom tried to understand why the school would push research given her interest in the arts. They were both quite surprised when I mentioned that research didn't have to be in a lab -- and that the campus we were all visiting had wonderful opportunities for working with faculty in the arts outside of the classroom.

Of all of the topics covered, however, none is so poorly explained as the liberal arts and general education programs. Please -- PLEASE -- stop saying that the reason for your program, or open curriculum or menu of options, is exclusively about exploration. Over and over again we heard that the best reason to take the liberal arts core, no matter how structured or unstructured, was so that the student can take whatever he or she wants.

Wrong.

Let's set aside indicators that a large proportion of the incoming generation of students faces increased choices with the kind of dread previously reserved for standardized tests. Let's instead turn to the vast wealth of research that indicates that liberal education has specific outcomes that are EXACTLY what employers most want.

We miss a tremendous opportunity not only to share the strength of our higher education system, but also to give students agency in their choices when they understand that there are useful and incredibly important outcomes intended from courses outside their majors: Increasing critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, teamwork and problem solving, just to name a few. Best of all, at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, we have wonderful data that indicates these are the outcomes that employers most want in who they hire, in who they promote -- and how to verify that your curriculum produces those outcomes!

I can't fathom why this information hasn't penetrated into admissions presentations -- but let's turn that around! From here on out, let your prospective students know there are terrific reasons to take your general ed/liberal arts/core or open curriculum: that they can, if they want, explore their interests, but that it will also increase the skills they will need to be successful in their careers and contributing members of our society.

Then you can go back to discussing how you review their applications holistically and really get to know your applicants before you decide which ones you deny. Sigh.

 

Bio

Andrew Flagel is vice president for advancement and member engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. He previously held chief enrollment positions at Brandeis University and George Mason University.

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