Souls for Sale

If marketing is evil, then we all should be devil’s advocates, writes W. Kent Barnds.

November 15, 2010

Colleges across the country — the revered halls and the more recent — have caught the media spotlight lately for undertaking new branding and marketing efforts. Much of the attention has been negative and concentrated on campaign specifics rather than a greater reliance on the marketing industry. I believe this focus on the details acknowledges that all colleges are increasingly tuition-dependent, and now subject to demographic swings not experienced in a generation. Compound these facts with a weak economy, overbuilt infrastructure and increased calls for accountability, and all of a sudden it makes sense that marketing and market solutions will become more common.

My perception is most colleges understand the threats, and marketing has become increasingly accepted and expected around campus and beyond. However, there is a gentle war in my own profession that has me wondering about all of this.

Recently I attended a session about marketing, market forces and their impact on college admissions at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. The session was titled "Selling Our Souls? The Ethical Dilemmas Surrounding the Commercialization and Marketing of College Admission." I admire my colleagues who led this conversation in a jam-packed room of guidance counselors and admissions officers; yet I admit that after sitting through the discussion on manipulative ad campaigns and disingenuous marketing leading to rushed, ill-informed decisions, I hastily updated my Facebook status with the following: "W. Kent Barnds just found out that one is evil if they market to high school students as part of an admissions strategy. EVIL."

I will admit the world of college admissions has become increasingly multifaceted and some of the complexity can be attributed to marketing. But I left the conference thinking to myself, is it really as bad as what my colleagues and others said? And is it really just college admissions offices? Gee, I hope not.

We can all appreciate a nostalgic longing for the good ole days when students got serious about their college search in the fall of their senior year, submitted applications over the winter holidays, waited patiently for a decision around April 1 and made their final decision by May. I imagine the values of those days might cause us to throw overboard direct mail programs, fast application programs, market research, data-driven decision-making, demonstrated interest, long waiting list, merit-based scholarships and maybe even enrollment management altogether — particularly if marketing is part of the enrollment management portfolio. Eliminating those evils would elicit cheers from some quarters, and I can hear the cheers now.

However, I wonder if we should expand the list to include independent counselors, college search coaching, early decision programs, whole-person admission messaging, single choice early action, counselor fly-ins with dinner, wine, golf and a tickets to a great game, flashy high school profiles listing all of the right schools, walls of fame in high school guidance offices, and lists of scholarships earned by students. Should we stop discussing "holistic admission," since there are 602,000 Google references, and cease taking pictures on campus in the fall while the leaves are changing, too? Let’s be honest about what’s going on. All of the things I described involve some element of commercialization, marketing and positioning, whether by the student, the high school, the college or the college counselor.

While we can spend countless hours talking about match — selecting the right students for the college and the right student choosing the right college — the search and selection process has long been commercialized and has involved marketing, packaging, market strategies and competition for students and against one another. This reliance on marketing, packaging, market strategies and competition has not really changed. It’s always been a part of our work. If souls are being sold today, there is a large inventory from the past.

Some might suggest that marketing took a wrong turn a long time ago. But has it? I assert that marketing has changed as the times have changed, and real progress might come down to working out new definitions, new rules and new tools of trade.

Imagine the following conversation, which could have taken place at any point during the last 50 years: It’s not marketing that’s wrong, it’s what you say. Well, isn’t marketing about what you say? Ok, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. But isn’t marketing about how you say what you say? Then it’s not what or how you say it, it’s just that they don’t always understand it. That is what’s bad about marketing.

Well, the one thing we know about communication is that we cannot control what the audience understands.

So, how do we control what we can’t control? Do we just give up on meaningful communication? In this case I’ll summarize "meaningful communication" as sharing the message that presents in students’ minds a clear picture of the college — the place, the experience and the benefit — that sticks. And then showing them how much we want them here if they like what they see. That’s marketing.

Let's not give up on the conversation. But I’d like to ask for some new ground rules for the gentle war.

Call a truce: If you don’t need to market it, you were probably really good at marketing it 50 years ago and now enjoy an enviable position; don't admonish the rest of for trying to catch up.

Be honest: Whatever the practice, the closer the critique hits home, the more likely it will be defended. There is not a single college, college admissions office, high school, high school counselor or student that can’t make a compelling case for the strategies they use to market and position themselves.

Acknowledge and appreciate the different constituents involved: Don't cast judgment before understanding more about one another's stakeholders. Every institution has to please a variety of interest groups, including trustees, school heads, presidents, faculty, parents, alumni, etc., and most believe they know more about marketing than any of us.

Recognize we are all professionals and the strategies developed are to serve students: marketing and market forces have without question introduced higher education to more students than ever before. The intentional broader marketing efforts have helped introduce prospective students to colleges they would not have discovered on their own. I might add that some marketing techniques, like fast applications, have increased applications from males and minorities, which one would think we’d be celebrating rather than critiquing.

Allow real market forces to weed out the bad apples: while we can all cite a horror story about an objectionable marketing practice, most practices are not objectionable. Furthermore, the recent pressure put upon for-profits for potentially engaging in unethical practices proves that real market forces can work for good, not evil.

Please help restore the soul they tell me I’ve sold, and admit we all are engaged in marketing. I desire to continue providing access and choice to students by introducing educational options that might not be considered if not for market research, marketing strategies, positioning, packaging and competition. I want to continue in the profession I love with a clearer conscience.


W. Kent Barnds is vice president of the college for Augustana College.


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