It’s kick-off time at the College Marketing Bowl!
I haven’t written any blog entries recently because I’ve been on a family vacation back east. Since we happened to be in New York, Becca and I took admissions tours of NYU and Columbia – her first venture into the college admissions process.
Let me start with a disclaimer that we’re not really looking. She’s just entering 11th grade in the fall, and so hasn’t started reading brochures or checking out web sites or doing any serious search stuff yet.
This was pre-search.
Like pre-soak on the washing machine.
Or like a pre-game show.
Which brings me back to the College Marketing Bowl analogy.
Even at this itsy bitsy early stage, it feels like a giant sporting competition. But who is competing against whom? The colleges competing against each other for our $40,000 in tuition and $13,000 in room & board per year? The students competing against each other for the privilege of paying all that money?
All I could think, as we sat there listening to the shtick from the NYU and Columbia admissions spokespeople, was what a humongous marketing project this is. Think about it… NYU’s price tag of $53,000 equals the cost of buying about 200 iPods per year for four years. Eight hundred iPods in total. This is one really big consumer purchase that they are trying to sell us.
NYU’s marketing effort was a combination of high-tech, streamlined and chatty. They gathered us in a new-looking admissions auditorium across from Washington Square, with posters of their ten satellite campuses around the world, a video profile of a charismatic young woman in their filmmaking program, and slides of students and facilities. They played up the opportunities to study abroad and their career placement services, and the tour guide took us inside a residence hall to a model dorm room that was outfitted (according to a little sponsorship placard) by Bed Bath & Beyond.
Columbia’s effort was basically an hour-long lecture in a giant, historic rotunda that seemed intended to cow you into applying with its grandeur. The dark-suited admissions staffer talked at us, in a voice that was difficult to hear because of street noise and the reverberations of the giant rotunda. He played up the advantages of having a real campus with quads, trees, and centralized dorms in the middle of the city, but also the historical weight of Columbia – for instance, that Columbia professors “invented” the disciplines of political science and anthropology, and that the rotunda of the administration building was the biggest in (New York? the USA? the known universe? I forget). Our charming student tour guide talked about the dorms but didn’t take us into one.
Two very different marketing approaches – NYU using all sorts of bells and whistles and seductions, and Columbia relying on an unabashed and unadorned recitation of its own greatness.
I was reminded of a terrific book I read a few years ago, The Gatekeepers by New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg.
Steinberg spent a year following the admissions staff at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. What struck me was how the university spent the first half of each year beating the bushes to drum up applicants – sending its admissions people to far-flung corners of the country like rural Arizona or inner-city Los Angeles to encourage applicants who might otherwise never have heard of their school.
And then Wesleyan spent the second half of the year culling and rejecting most of those applicants.
Part of the story behind this is that universities want really big pools of applicants, so they can look as selective as possible. If they accept 1,000 from a pool of 5,000, that’s one out of five. But if they accept 1,000 from a pool of 10,000, that’s one out of ten – a much more impressive stat for those notorious best-colleges-in-the-US rankings.
So colleges want our children to apply. But they don’t necessarily want our children to attend.
After only two campus visits, I can already tell that these marketing presentations are going to blur together. Every college will tell us about its low teacher-student ratio, its munificent financial aid budget, its laudable diversity, its stellar job placement record, its plethora of student clubs and activities.
For Becca, one challenge will be learning to distinguish a good university from a good marketing presentation.
For now, she came away jazzed by NYU and underwhelmed by Columbia. She is interested in filmmaking, and liked the emphasis on film and the arts at the NYU presentation. She liked the prospect of being part of the city more than living in a university quad. She didn’t like Columbia’s mandatory core curriculum.
But what really ignited her enthusiasm was when the NYU rep mentioned that their dorms have “theme” units, such as a Spanish language floor, French floor etc.
And that one of those floors is a “Bohemians and Rebels” floor!
This is my daughter who in the past year has discovered Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie, and who would rather have lived in the 1960s than any other decade.
Current score in our own personal College Marketing Bowl: NYU 10, Columbia 0.
But again, it’s just the pre-game show.
And what would Emma Goldman and Allen Ginsburg say to learn they have become cogs in a machine built to market a $53,000 consumer product?