Cornell Looks to Gain Prestige by Re-Branding
ALEX CHADWICK host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
In a few minutes, hundreds of dolphins turn up dead in Africa; scientists investigate.
CHADWICK: First, this: it's the last week for a lot of students to put down a deposit for the fall semester of college. This is the end of what can be a very grueling application process to get into good schools. Sometimes, though, it's the universities that have trouble getting good students.
NPR's Mike Pesca reports on what one Ivy League institution is doing to attract more applicants.
MIKE PESCA reporting:
If you were a high school student in the late 90's thinking about higher education, a glance at the U.S. News and World Reports list of the top colleges told you Cornell was number six. If that convinced you to apply and you got in, by the time of your high school graduation, you could say you were going to the tenth best university. But by the time you got to Ithaca New York, Cornell had slipped out of the top ten. The members of the class of 2004 found themselves graduating from what U.S. News said was the 14th best national university.
Fourteenth. When Gallop took a poll of the greatest presidents, you know who came in 14th? Nixon.
Mr. PETER COLE (Cornell graduate, 2004): It's a shame that the rankings seem to matter so much.
PESCA: That's Peter Cole, Cornell class of 2004.
Mr. COLE: But they do matter a little bit in our society. You know, Cornell is a wonderful school, and at the time we started, it had gone from sixth to tenth to twelfth, and so, you know, what can we do, you know, to change that trajectory a little bit?
PESCA: Cole had some ideas about how to do this--30 pages of ideas, in fact, in the form of a paper headlined The Cornell Image: A Brand in Crisis. Cole admits those words had a certain shock effect.
Mr. COLE: Branding is not a good word in higher education.
PESCA: Because, he says, it gives academics the idea that you're emphasizing style, so he filled his proposal with substance. Using statistics and charts and relying heavily on the work of Robert Frank, author of The Winner Take All Society--and a Cornell professor by the way--the report and subsequent editorials in the school newspaper argued that Cornell wasn't putting its best foot forward. The Web site was lame, and the perky brochures seemed like they were selling a sleep away camp that happened to have a graduation ceremony at the end.
And then there was the logo. Imagine a flag of the old Soviet Union: a field of red, and in the middle in plain white letters, Cornell. Heather Grantham, current co-chair of the image committee, recalls the shortcomings of the so-called big red box.
Ms. HEATHER GRANTHAM (co-chair, Cornell image committee): The company that designed that logo originally was the same company that designed the almost identical big red box for J.C. Penney. It's not Cornell. It's not Ivy, it doesn't have that history, and so we really wanted to make that push to revert back to some form of the original crest.
PESCA: Today, if you get a mailing form Cornell you will see the crest featuring a shield, an open book, and a rising sun in the right corner. If I remember my crest speak, that's dexter flank. The man who talked the big red box into taking a buyout package was Thomas Bruce, a new vice president who was hired a couple of years ago in part as recognition that the image committee had a point. Today, he says Cornell might be becoming, through some odd alchemy, hot.
Mr. THOMAS BRUCE (Vice President, Cornell University): Nobody knows, I think, really, honestly, how a university becomes hot. We all want to be hot, but I know one thing, and that is that there are a lot of things going on here at Cornell University that deserve to be hot.
PESCA: And it seems to be working. According to the admissions office, applications were up by 20 percent in 2005, and another 15 percent this year. SAT scores and class rank are also going up.
The real test will be if Cornell rises from 13th place in the U.S. News rankings. And that serves to remind us that this is not a tale without potential victims: namely, Washington University in St. Louis. Wash U currently holds the 11th position in the U.S. News ranking, and holds a place in the minds of Cornell students as the school they can't believe is beating them in the polls. Brad Nelson is a sophomore at Washington University. Here is what he thinks of Cornell.
Mr. BRAD NELSON (Washington University student): Cornell is an Ivy League school. It might not be the typical Ivy League school, it might not be the best Ivy League school, but people recognize what the, you know, the names of the Ivy League schools and I think it makes it a difference.
PESCA: In many ways, Nelson is the typical high achieving student. He went to a top high school where all of his peers were hyper aware of the college rankings, and he might be typical in another respect. After choosing a school based, in large part, on perceived prestige, he's had second thoughts. He wishes he had searched for a diamond in the rough, maybe sought out an underrated school. Of course, if Cornell's image committee gets its wish, his new school will soon be underrated, or at least rated under them.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
(Soundbite of choir singing)
CHOIR: (Singing) Cornell.
BRAND: And there's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.
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