As a former university president, ex-member of Congress and Texas lawmaker who set higher education budgets and a college instructor, I see plenty of disturbing trends in higher education: diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs under attack, college rankings falling apart and student debt piling up.
Despite that, I’m hopeful. That’s because I’ve taken on a new role that has given me a fresh perspective.
I am starting a new phase of my life: College Dad.
My son finishes high school this spring and has spent the year learning about, touring and applying to schools. My wife and I have been with him each step of the way. We’ve pored through glossy mailings, taken campus tours and waited for college admissions decisions so he—at long last—could choose where to go.
It’s been eye-opening for him, part of a lifelong journey toward a college degree, increased knowledge and a meaningful career.
It’s also been eye-opening for me. The view is definitely different from this side. It has made me remember a few “back to basics” lessons from my past and reflect on what it takes for a university to connect successfully with prospective students.
University leaders are constantly churning through myriad challenges that cry out for their attention: budgets, compliance, crises and the daily management of multiple stakeholders, from alums and accreditors to professors and policy makers. So here’s a reminder of where to focus.
Lesson 1: First impressions matter. My son (and his parents!) were wide-open to learning about new colleges and experiences. But in a sea of marketing emails, brochures and social media posts, colleges had to quickly show why they were a good fit.
Some colleges—like the Big State U, whose colors are everywhere near us—had a head start. But other contenders emerged because their messaging was straightforward and authentic. It got past the clever catchphrases and “Frisbee on the quad” shots and right away showed my son they cared about things that mattered to him—like exploring a path to med school.
Lesson 2: Different shoes can fit the same foot. Many students swear they are looking for that one “dream school” that has everything they want academically and socially. In reality, students are complex, nuanced and adaptable. They can thrive in different places.
Universities should help potential students see beyond shorthand descriptions that too often define colleges—urban-progressive, pre-professional, close to home, Greek-heavy—to understand specific offerings, opportunities and programs that will determine a student’s college life once they rapidly get past those stereotypes.
My son’s final schools looked very different on paper. The University of Texas at Austin is a flagship public university near home; Loyola University Maryland is a Jesuit liberal arts school halfway across the country. But they both gave him personal attention and showed him an energy and research opportunities that appeal to him. They listened and they spoke to him. Not at him. I know he would thrive at either.
Lesson 3: Make it personal. Many universities have entire offices of institutional research dedicated to crunching numbers about themselves. And administrators and marketers love to highlight obscure stats that help them stand out in rankings and with donors.
But these data points don’t matter nearly as much as making current students, advisers and professors available for honest conversations with prospective students approaching the hardest transition of their lives. These discussions—usually in the middle of campus, far removed from the admissions presentations—help students make truly informed decisions.
Lesson 4: Yielding results. Sometimes a college’s drive to highlight and improve statistics can directly serve students, like offering more courses or reducing the time it takes to graduate. Other times, not so much.
By heeding these lessons, universities can drive success in one statistic that I’ve come to see truly does matter: their yield rate—the percentage of students accepted to a school who ultimately enroll in it.
When students have a good first impression of colleges, recognize the different fits, feel that their goals and interests align with the university’s, and make personal connections, they will apply to the schools where they really want to be—and then go there.
Take that as advice from a College Dad—a University of Texas dad.