Marketing Higher Education Gets Sophisticated
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The competition among schools for college students is intense - and not just for those with straight A's - so colleges and universities are using sophisticated marketing to lure students to their school: spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars per student. NPR's Wendy Kaufman has more.
WENDY KAUFMAN: At Portland State University, in the heart of Oregon's most vibrant city, hundreds of students are grabbing coffee and pastries and heading inside for new student orientation.
Unidentified Woman: Justin?
JUSTIN (Student): Yeah.
Unidentified Woman: All right. And, are you checking in as well? You'll both need to get a big pack…
KAUFMAN: Portland State is Oregon's largest public university. It gets about 16 percent of its budget from the state. So this school and the overwhelming majority of U.S. colleges and universities have to rely on tuition from students who pick them over someone else.
Ms. CASSIE MCVEETY (Vice President for University Relations, Portland State University): I think more universities and colleges are marketing themselves in a way that we haven't before.
KAUFMAN: Portland State's vice president for university relations is Cassie McVeety.
Ms. MCVEETY: There's a lot of competition out there, there's no question. And it's very hard for any college or university to stand out in that noise.
Mr. BOB SEVERE(ph) (Senior Strategist, Staymates(ph)): I always tell clients that the marketplace is filled with golden retrievers. You know, they're reasonably smart, but they're terribly distracted.
KAUFMAN: Bob Severe is a senior strategist at Staymates, one of the nation's leading college marketing firms.
Mr. SEVERE: We have a golden, and he's a wonderful dog. But he is, you know, you're talking to him and he's noticing there's a dead bird in the garden, there's something on your shoe. For me to get his attention, I need some pretty compelling messages. In fact, for me to get his attention, I better have started working with him when he was a puppy.
KAUFMAN: He tells clients they should start recruiting students when they're high school freshman, or even earlier.
The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education says private schools spend about $2,200 in marketing and recruiting costs per enrolled student. Public schools spend about a third of that.
Much of the spending begins with a list of prospects. Colleges and marketing firms buy student names from testing organizations, camps, schools, and other places that have lists of kids. Bob Severe says colleges typically pay between a nickel and $0.50 cents a name.
Mr. SEVERE: Let's say I buy their name from the College Board, or ACT, and because I have their street address I know their zip plus four. I can assign, generally, a sense of what their parents probably are like. Whether they're Democrat or Republican, whether they go to church or synagogue or whatever the case may be. I can take a fair guess what kind of magazines they read, what kind of cars they probably drive.
KAUFMAN: Armed with information about a student's family, together with test scores and information students themselves provide, colleges launch their campaigns. Their brochures often highlight amenities such as sports centers and luxurious dorms, but offer scant information about the educational experience.
Ask a group of freshman at Reed College what they think of marketing, and you'll get an earful. Ruben Lazarus(ph) attends the intellectually challenging liberal arts school in Portland.
Mr. RUBEN LAZARUS (Freshman, Reed College): When I was applying to colleges, I was getting hundreds and hundreds of letters and applications and everything from colleges that I'd never heard of. It felt really good at first, because hey, these places want me. I felt really special. And honestly, I didn't even look at most of it after the first week or two.
KAUFMAN: One of the ways schools try to catch a student's attention is to boldly display any high ranking they've received from U.S. News or other publications that rate schools. Reed's Dean of Admissions, Paul Marthers, says one major element in the U.S. News rankings is reputation, as determined by college presidents and deans around the country.
Mr. PAUL MARTHERS (Dean of Admissions, Reed College): So I get a ballot every year from U.S. News and World Report.
KAUFMAN: And just as members of the motion picture academy are inundated with material from movie studios in advance of academy award balloting, so are academics. Marthers strides over to his bookcase to collect some of the material he received in advance of the most recent balloting.
Mr. MARTHERS: And actually, this is a tiny percentage of what I got. And it's all, look at me, look at what I've just accomplished.
KAUFMAN: The irony is that Reed College doesn't participate in any aspect of the U.S. News rankings, so the marketing material goes straight to recycling.
Under the auspices of the non-profit education conservancy, several prestigious schools, including Reed, Amherst, and Williams, are taking steps to address the negative impact of marking hype. But getting less selective schools to abandon glitzy marketing could be a tough sell. Many are vying for the same students, and the schools want to ensure they stay relevant in the marketplace as the growth in full-time four-year students begins to slow in 2010.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.