Fear and Loathing in Student Recruitment

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By Kevin Kuzma, Online Editor

At its core, college recruitment is the act of convincing a potential student to choose one institution over another – and in that regard, it’s sales.

As plain as it is to explain it that way, such a statement puts a charge of fear through the collective hearts of college administrators and academicians. The “s-word” is a no-no, and so is any sort of analogy that relates the process of helping a potential student choose a college with any tactic that works to move their idle hands. They do not want to create the impression that students are overly pressured into making their selection despite the basic understanding among them about the best ways to attract students and … let’s choose our words carefully here … assist them in making a reasonable choice for their future.

The high level of awareness – and fear – around the college marketing process in general is exactly what renders bogus the recent argument about the tactics used by many “for-profit” institutions to motivate students to enroll.

In the modern era, college recruitment involves a barrage of post cards, glossy campus books, advertisements in college-themed magazines, email, e-newsletters, flashy websites and mini-sites, text messages, banner ads, and so on. Those techniques are used by all institutions of higher learning, be they traditional colleges and universities, community colleges, online schools or “for-profit” colleges. Many of these schools use every single one of these methods in a calculated barrage that begins in a high school student’s freshman or sophomore year. These potential students’ responses to these materials, if any, are carefully measured over a four-year period with the intent of drawing them closer and closer to enrollment by the time they receive their diploma.

The recruitment is not lengthy at a career college. The recruitment process is more targeted and sometimes more intense, but generally the students are more aware of what direction they want to go in. They want a career, fast, and they need a college that offers the flexibility to work around their other obligations to deliver the training they need to move ahead.

Every good college recruiter – no matter what type of institution he or she works for – is well aware of what promotional materials are sent to the masses. They are also aware of when because, if the marketing pieces are effective, they receive a rush of interest and inquiries from the recipients. The recruiters reinforce the strengths of their particular institutions (sales points) and drive home those factors with the student until they feel your institution is vastly superior to the other schools within the students’ realm of choices. And this is done in a countless ways that appeal to emotions, and sometimes fear – by establishing an emotional connection (your parents went to school here and your mother pledged this sorority), admission into our school is highly competitive (fear that the potential student won’t measure up), our application deadline is quickly approaching (don’t miss the deadline or you could be sidetracked a semester or longer), and so on.

At a traditional college or university, there are other sales ploys not so easy to distinguish. Tradition, the longevity of the university and a sprawling campus are all impressive, and they’re also convincing. Whether students come to campus for a tour or take a virtual tour online, a college’s storied tradition, its elaborate grounds and academic-looking buildings, and the community in which its located (a bustling college town where the university is the center of activity or perhaps a location not far from urban night life) are also critical sales points that college recruiters use in drawing students to choose their institution in which to enroll.

The fear is also on a more ethereal level at traditional colleges. From the time you are a high school sophomore (or earlier), your high school instructors begin touting the need for you to choose the direction you want to take your life so you can enroll in the college. Then there are the deadlines your junior and senior years that you absolutely can not miss or you risk jeopardizing your future. A missed college application deadline means a derailed future. Granted, some deadlines should be hard ones for a reason – and the Harvards, Stanfords and Yales of the world – but many schools portray themselves in the same category when it comes to academic competition, and that’s simply not the case.

Many of these tactics create high-pressure sales tactics and play on potentials students’ fear. Some might be more subtle than others, but in essence, they play on raw emotions. The higher education community as a whole should be coming together to refute the singling out of any college for using the ploys that are prominent in higher education and the sales process in other fields. There is fear all around. Fear used to motivate students. Fear among recruiters for the possibility they will be called out for using questionable tactics.

If it happens in the for-profit sector, it can happen with traditional schools. I hate to resort to fear in making my closing point, but as many of you know, it’s definitely effective.