College Marketing and the Student Comfort Zone

When I first moved to Chicago I worked for a marketing/communications firm focused on non-profits, including colleges and universities. I got to know them as a client while I was an Associate Dean of Admission at Amherst in the ’90s as they helped us try to capture our “essence” so it could be communicated to new, more diverse audiences. We wanted to get out of our self-centered confidence and enter the marketplace more forcefully, even though we weren’t lacking for applications. (How self-centered? One of our posters didn’t even say where Amherst College was.)

The amount we spent on all the market research was significant enough that we decided to find a less expensive company to revamp our publications. Joining the firm myself, I then spent two miserable years trying to sell colleges on the idea that changing their image or adding a tag line or conducting focus groups and responding to the results would somehow magically deliver the goods–more and better applications, more tuition, more status, more whatever.

What struck me during my campus visits was how desperately most institutions wanted to abandon their “base” in order to chase a better clientele. We were charged with helping them dump the losers already on campus and go after “top students.” I don’t recall ever hearing anyone telling us they just wanted to do better reaching the audiences they already served.

After all the research, we would recommend, among other things, creating a new family of publications (of course, since we produced them) and merit scholarships to buy better talent to raise the institutional profile. I wrote copy for lush publications and even came up with a few tag lines. (For a lesson in status, though, note which institutions have them and which don’t, or have them only in Latin; you don’t see Princeton going with “Put a Tiger in your tank!” do you? And can you call “Veritas” a tag line?)

The institutions’ identities became curiously malleable as well. We worked for a Lutheran seminary that didn’t want to appear “too Lutheran” and for a small religiously inclined college that didn’t want to seem too religious. Regardless, they all wanted “better” and from somewhere else, even if they were doing a perfectly good job with the students they had, which most of them seemed to do.

These projects weren’t cheap. I wrote a contract for the little non-religious religious college for approximately half a million dollars. It was soup-to-nuts including publications, but for a small unknown institution unlikely to suddenly attract top ten percent kids, it seemed quixotic at best, fiscally irresponsible at worst to be spending that kind of money.

This all came back to me when I read “Brand New Dilemma” in the Oct. 19th edition of Inside Higher Ed, which looks at a few recent college “branding” campaigns. To be honest, there’s something embarrassing about these things, no matter what the result, like seeing a bear in a tutu. “American Wonks” at American University; “Makers, All” at Purdue (for which they paid $193,000); it all feels forced and artificial, with a rationale that simply doesn’t add up.

American and Purdue are fine places and I like the regular Boilermaker identity, for example. It’s organic, multi-faceted, and part of the fabric of the place. “Makers, All,” whatever its origins, sounds Amish, which is fine if you are Amish, but what’s this vaguely anachronistic phrase doing at a school famous for cutting-edge engineering?

That isn’t to say branding campaigns don’t ever work. But do they significantly move their intended audiences, creating the dashingly “national” student bodies they seem to promise (among other things)? Maybe not. When I applied to Amherst Early Decision in 1973, anyone who lived within a 250-mile radius of campus was expected to come for an interview (think of the assumptions behind that expectation). Then, 250 miles was considered the standard distance most students would and could travel to attend college. And guess what? Despite all the marketing, the websites, the money, and everything else since then, it seems that students still tend to like cozy.

In 1973, 38 percent of American students attended college in the “comfort zone” between 101 and 500 miles from mom and dad, far from home but not too far. In 1983, the year the U. S. News rankings began, 31 percent did. Both years, only 12 percent of students traveled over 500 miles to college. This according to The American Freshman: Forty Year Trends.

One might expect big changes with lavish publications, the internet, rankings, and aggressive marketing, but the numbers barely budge. Except for a small spike in 1986-89, the percent of students traveling over 500 miles to college has remained relatively constant at about 13 while those in the zone have remained at around 35 percent (rising to 39 percent in 1992), then trending down until we reach 2006, with only 33 percent in the zone, and still just 14 percent traveling farther than 500 miles.

The male/female numbers are nearly identical to the overall trends. In 1973, only 13 percent of men ventured beyond the zone; while 10 percent of women did. In ’83, it was still 13 percent of men and 11 percent of women. And after all the hoopla of the last decades, the number of adventurers has hardly budged at 14 and 13 percent in 2006, while 33 percent of men and 32 percent of women stayed in the zone.

The percentage of those staying closer has actually increased except for those staying within 10 miles of mom and dad, which went from 15 to 11 percent between 1969 and 2006. Thirty-seven percent attended college in the 11-100 mile range in 1969, 44 percent in 2006. So if anything, more students have stayed put despite all the blandishments offered by colleges near and far.

What does it all mean? Certainly, with greater numbers of students attending college, there’s still room to conclude that marketing can work–there has probably been a redistribution of the types of students who travel or opt for comfort. But the overall numbers seem to tell us that the college-age population isn’t necessarily any more adventurous now than it was 40 years ago. Many factors affect students’ decisions about college, but even with the ease of travel, it still seems that there’s no place like (near) home. As for colleges, perhaps rediscovering their own backyards might be as productive as grabbing at more elusive prizes in the wild blue yonder.