Eternal College Marketing and the Consumer/Student

Last week I attended the IACAC conference in Itasca IL. It was congenial as usual but one of the presentations touched on a topic I’ve been concerned about and writing about for a while. The session’s title says it all: “From Here to Eternity: The Endless Application and Decision Process.” But it doesn’t really cover the issue to the depth I think it should or could have. The college process has become harmfully extended, and that’s the real problem: As colleges and universities strive ever more mightily to keep their beds full, they are damaging the very resource most valuable to them and to society at large: prospective students.

Most people involved in the college process know that it seems to be getting longer and longer, starting earlier, becoming more complex, and inspiring more anxiety. On the other end, after colleges’ decisions are made, students and families obsess over which college or university to choose (assuming they have a choice), trying to make a flawless decision the same way a coffee-crazed fashionista might obsess over the construction of a half-caf double shot soy milk latte with non-fat whip. The IACAC session was clear in describing the process but left me stranded when it came to reasons for it, what can be done about it, or even why it’s an issue. The session looked at the college/student/high school/counselor relationship in a vacuum, concerend only with the admission and decision-making processes themselves, and didn’t offer any possible cures besides adhering to NACAC guidelines and being nice to each other.

In an ever-widening search for more and more applicants, colleges have adopted marketing tools and strategies (often with the help of outside firms, one of which I am ashamed to say I once worked for) from the world of commerce. In small doses, things like glossy viewbooks, posters, helpful or imploring letters to juniors and seniors are harmless and can provide information to students just starting to learn about colleges. But as the session presenters noted, the process has stretched from perhaps a 17-month jog to a 34-month or more sprint through the psyches and aspirations of teens and their families.

In his book “Consumed” Benjamin Barber talks about how companies create “first order wants” that are not necessarily what we should want. They plant in us the feeling that we need to have a certain soda or appliance regardless of whether it harms the environment or if we really need it. (“Second order wants” are those that are really necessary or that serve a social/societal need.) Marketing is designed to rev up our first order wants because we have become a society dependent on consuming, not producing. (If you doubt that, recall that President Bush told everyone to go shopping when he finally addressed the nation after 9/11.) So we learn to “need” goods and services not because we actually need them but because we want them and we are told we want them.

College marketing works along these lines now. Glossy images, lifestyle-oriented photos, cheerful students under trees, and so on, are less about offering an education to the student than presenting a magical realm of happiness and success to the consumer. (I wrote about this a long time ago.) Inculcating that desire earlier and earlier in teens and their families creates the “need” for college as a consumer good (“first order”) rather than as an eventual public good (“second order). It gears the consumer of college (I almost said “education” but more in a moment) to think that college = my personal happiness (and ideally for the college, THIS college = my personal happiness). So the relationship comes to be defined as college/consumer not college/student.

One might say that colleges have plenty to say about education in their viewbooks and brochures, and one would be right. However, it takes a great deal of parsing to draw that information out from the cheerful descriptions of comfortable residence halls, helpful professors and the massive extracurricular opportunities available on campus. None of this is in itself problematic, but it overwhelms the process of education central to any college or university like kudzu on a Georgia highway. Sure there are courses at this college, but look at the beautiful campus! The rainbow of students! The “starchitect”-designed gym!

Growing up in a consumer society, teens and their parents can hardly be blamed for looking at a college education as a consumer good like toothpaste or patio furniture. But in the process, education has been ever more surely demoted to being an option on the SUV, the second DVD player in the back seat. As college marketing intensifies to reach teens and their parents earlier and earlier, it actually pushes the work of high school to the background, replacing it with the need to “get on the college track” early in order to get into college.

But this isn’t about being more educated; it’s about seeming more educated so a student can be a more attractive college prospect. Students and their parents fight for AP classes not for the challenge but for the transcript enhancement. As college heighten the sense of “need” they actually hollow out the educations they claim are the central part of any applicant’s record. It’s no secret that many who are counseling high school students these days talk about showing students how to “package” themselves for colleges. The marketing of the college to the student/consumer and the marketing of the student/consumer to the college becomes like the snake eating its tail without a clear endpoint or purpose except to get the student/consumer to the advertiser’s college and to get the college to choose the “brand” of student that appeals to it.

“Packaging” emphasizes form over substance, appearance over reality. The glorious landscapes of the campus quad or the glittering accomplishments of a 16-year old who plays violin for an old folks home (at the suggestion of her independent counselor) are triumphs of packaging. The result is an expectation of glitz over tougher realities, fun over the harder work of learning. The few colleges that refuse to bow to marketing or the lure of the “zipless” class, like St. John’s, where students read the original works of great thinkers and everything is required, can be counted on one hand. The rest hide the realities of real education–it’s hard–behind smooth talk about professors willing to give out their home phone numbers and be on hand, it seems, 24/7.

Extended college marketing devalues substantial educational and extracurricular achievement because those things, to be genuine, need to be learned painstakingly and often through trial and error. By creating the “need” for an early start in the college process, this marketing is essentially making hothouse plants of our students, forcing them to bloom before they’re ready and as a result making them more like hothouse tomatoes–better able to travel over long distances and last on the shelf, but not something you really want to eat. Marketing in this way forces students to arrive somewhere before they’re ready to travel, and in the process teaches them that you only need to look like a student in order to be thought of as one. I have to think that this phenomenon is somehow connected to the complaints professors have about how often their students are unprepared for college.