Kick-off time at the College Marketing Bowl

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?

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8 Responses to “Kick-off time at the College Marketing Bowl”

  1. Craig Albert Says:

    Small comment on a very minor aspect of your post: the selling/rejection dichotomy. “Selectivity” is one of the elements of US News ramkings that is manipulable. You do it by inviting lots of people to apply and then rejecting them. Some schools will actually waive the application fee just to boost that denominator.

  2. Susie Says:

    Good post Ilana, and as usual, well observed. The whole college thing is really interesting. in the end, i think the decision often comes down to a rather whimsical one, such as the bohemians and rebels. In our case, the decision was made when a random phone call made to one of the schools in question proved that not all of the engineering students were as nerdy as feared. you never know.

    I found the whole experience of visits, applications, decisions to be very interesting, but EXTREMELY stressful on all involved. The competition is not just among the schools, but among the parents as well–“oh, where is your child applying?” “oh where did they get in?” “well mine is going here, but got in there and there and there….” The not-so-well-disguised competitive side of all the high minded parents becomes very apparent. brace yourself!

  3. Barry Epstein Says:

    One comment and two suggestions, from the “other side” of this process (my Becca having just graduated from college last month):

    The Comment: The early admission process is somewhat counter to the numbers game. The colleges like it, I think becuase it gives them some certainty about their enrollment numbers. (They don’t have to worry about the ratio of admissions offers to acceptances, becuase the ratio is exactly 1:1.) Some of the smaller, highly regarded colleges fill up a very significant portion of their entering classes through that process. (Bowdoin is an example.)

    The Suggestion: Instead of thinking about each college individually, think about having Becca experience and distinguish college types — big public university versus small liberal arts college; urban versus college town setting; high pressure, driven (Princeton) versus laid back (Willamette); mandatory core curriculum versus make your own multidisciplinary major. If you can expose her to college types without getting to the point of thinking about that specific college, it could help remove some of the pressure. She’s not deciding “do I want to go here” but rather “is this an example of the type of school I might want to go to?” You cannot realisitically visit every school she will apply to anyway, unless she is going to do early decision, so focusing on type and narrowing choices that way can be a good strategy.

    The Other Suggestion: I cannot overstate the extent to which I found the likeability of the student tour guide can affect your kid’s reaction to a school. If your kid clicks with the guide, you’re sunk (or you scored). Conversely, if a kid like your Becca has a gum popping, Juicy purse swingin’, Valley Girl, that could sour her pretty quick. (Or does she like Juicy purses…and what the hell are they, anyway?)

    P.S. Remember that my Becca and then your Becca went to:
    Park Day School, then
    Julia Morgan School for Girls, then
    Lick Wilmerding
    So, why is this so hard? Perhaps you already should be focused with laser sharp clarity on Tufts. Face it, it may be inevitable.

  4. Ilana DeBare Says:

    Maybe my Becca shouldn’t even bother applying to Tufts, just show up and tell them she is your Becca, back for another four years. :-)

    Seriously, though, great suggestions!

  5. Patti Says:

    I’ve been enjoying your blog, Ilana… I’m a fellow Sinai-goer. I came to the comments section today specifically to say what Barry’s already said, namely how strongly colored your experience will be by your impression, for good or bad, of the student tour guide. Perhaps being armed against that from the beginning would lessen the effect, but we agree that it’s there.

    The college placement counselor at our kid’s high school specifically counseled against the spend-the-night-on-campus thing because of that.

    I also second the recommendation for the “early” portion of the process IF there’s a clear-cut preference. Being finished on December 15 was an utterly huge benefit.

    Applying to college, in our experience, was infinitely easier than applying to high school. If you choose your applications well, you can be confident that your kid will get into at least a few schools that she’ll really love and find a good fit.

    Oh… and if she’s that much of a would-be child of the 60s, visit Reed in Portland, OR. After our visit, we were all ready to enroll immediately, even though our kid ended up at her ultimate first choice elsewhere.

  6. Wendy Ng Says:

    I took my son on his first college tour at San Diego State University a few weeks ago. On the tour were numerous bored-looking teenagers with their parents (and their friends). Most of the parents asking the questions, except for one African American man, who came by himself–a transfer student. It was interesting for me to observe the race and ethnicity of those students whose parents took them to the college tour. Mind you, this was a state university, and they have declared impaction, which means that they are only selecting students from their local service area (San Diego county). My son’s process of selecting colleges is this: weather (he wants it warm, southern Cal, Hawaii, and maybe Arizona), whether (?) he is competitive enough to get in, and the desire not to take anymore college admission tests than he needs to.

    As a college professor, I think the whole thing of college admissions is such a racket! I am fed up with it. Our children need more choices in their lives. What happened to wood shop, machine shop, home economics (I think it’s now called nutrition and food sciences), and so forth? We have put everyone on the same college treadmill, forcing them to choose majors that define “success” vs. passion in their lives. College is really the time for exploring. I applaud those kids (and their parents) who are brave enough to take a gap year–even if it is working for $$. It shows them the real world.

    But, getting back to my son, no mind that his mom is the college professor and has taught at community college, Pac-10 schools, state public institutions, and elite liberal arts colleges, he will no doubt make his decision based upon the weather and his friends.

    Thanks for allowing me to comment and rant–I love your blog!

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