U.S. University Admissions in the Good Old Days

When I first worked in university admissions more than 30 years ago the word “marketing” was completely taboo.

July 1, 2013

Yes, times change and I certainly would not like to be seen as an anachronism but that does not preclude indulging in a little nostalgia. 

When I first worked in university admissions more than 30 years ago the word “marketing” was completely taboo. This is not to imply that admissions officers didn’t promote their institution.  Admissions officers have been visiting high schools and making presentations in hotels for decades; it just wasn’t considered “marketing.” “Marketing” was considered much too commercial, too crass for higher education.  Today, most admissions offices have a marketing plan, marketing strategy, marketing budget, and marketing staff.  Many hire public relations firms to define and distinguish their “brand” and to gain the preference of specific market segments.  Today higher education has assimilated all of the words—and often the style— of the corporate sector.  After all, the admissions effort is all about vying for students in a competitive market, right? 

Once upon a time the job of an admissions office was simply to determine whether applicants were qualified for the academic requirements of an institution.  Maybe that’s a bit too simplistic, but not so far off.  In one of my early training sessions I was told that I was ethically obligated to advise students as to whether they might be a good match for my institution—in other words, my title — admissions counselor —had an element of “counseling” in it. 

The shift was already beginning when I accepted my first job in admissions.  There was a subtle move to encouraging as many applications as possible since that increased the selectivity profile (and hence, prestige and position in rankings) of the institution.  There was a growing emphasis on promoting your school and that came to mean not only highlighting your academic programs but the comfort and amenities of dorm rooms, exceptional food, health-club-quality gym facilities, and endless extra-curricular activities that insure that students have fun.  Colleges began producing slicker and slicker “viewbooks” that were magazines with limited text but lots of expensive photos taken by professional photographers featuring happy (usually preppy white kids with an occasional person of color who otherwise looked like everyone else).  The subtext was “four happy years” at our place. 

Academic programs are often a sideshow in the marketing strategy.  The quality of food is now right up there with quality of academic programs.  The following is from “Best colleges for food in America”:

Today’s undergrad is already educated about food when he or she arrives on campus.  He or she is generally interested in experiencing new spices, flavors, and cuisines — and wants the university to help this pursuit. It’s all about local, organic, and sustainable. Students want to know where their food is coming from, and more and more universities are happy to tell them

Some colleges even post menus on their website.  Table reservations next?  Michelin stars?

And in, “What We Don’t Talk About on the Admissions Tour”, James Lang notes:

[W]e were touring some top institutions in our region, and I can attest that our experiences were remarkably consistent from campus to campus. We learned all we could ever want to know about living quarters, dining-hall food, exercise facilities, campus social life, clubs and activities, libraries, special programs and opportunities, and financial aid. We learned next to nothing about what made each campus unique or distinctive in terms of the daily learning experiences my daughter would have there, or about outstanding teachers or teaching practices on campus.

The glossy viewbooks of yesteryear have given way to professionally-designed websites providing similar images.  Now colleges also try to entice prospects through a myriad of social media sites.  The for-profts have even bigger budgets for even flashier advertising.  Check out the television ads produced for the University of Phoenix  and DeVry University. Naturally, the for-profits focus less on the pleasures of campus living and more on ROI (return on investment), another market concept that has made its way into higher education.  At least, this emphasizes the education part of higher education even if education is reduced to a means to getting a job.

The extent of US marketing activities is astonishing, if not ludicrous, to the rest of the world.  Especially the budgets these activities require—costs that are (ultimately and inevitably) passed on to students, buried in the fees they pay.  One can only hope that as more universities around the world raise fees and see students as a critical source of revenue that similar marketing activities won’t become the international norm.

Isn’t it time to take stock and consider what we are about?  Once admissions becomes an elaborate marketing operation directed at (primarily) middle-class teenagers, doesn’t this skew the purpose and expectations of a college experience?  Is there a chicken and an egg effect here?  Once you start promoting all of the non-academic diversions offered by an institution, don’t we encourage prospective students to focus on those opportunities?  Or are we promoting them because that is how prospects select the schools they wish to attend?  What would happen if admissions officers once again dedicated their efforts to focusing on the academic experience offered by the institution they represent?  I guess it’s too late to turn back.   

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Liz Reisberg

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