The Frustrating Sameness of College Recruitment

Neil is now at the stage of his education where I’ve tasked him with identifying a few colleges he might like to attend. And so, when he started taking College Board tests, I encouraged him to let them sell his information to various colleges who think he’d be a good fit for them. Soon glossy brochures and well-crafted letters started showing up in the mail, and emails filled his inbox. Since I’m homeschooling him, I’m his guidance counselor as well as his teacher as well as his mom, and after the pile had gotten large enough and we looked at all the material to see if there were any colleges we hadn’t heard of previously which he could put on his prospective colleges list.

Alas, what stood out more than anything was the sameness of all the colleges. They all have good-looking friendly students, great professors, beautiful campuses, and are committed to diversity and caring for the environment. Come tour the campus and you’ll meet students from all over the world, and enjoy their new state-of-art fitness center/library/student center. They’re also all phenomenally expensive (though they offer need-based financial aid, which I understand as ruinous loans) and so exclusive in their admissions process you better be able to walk on water if you want to get in.

Part of the low admissions rate is due to the fact that applying for college is online, so if you apply to one college. you can almost as easily apply to 40, and many students do. I was curious about the other end of the process — how many of the accepted students end up going to a certain school. This is called the yield rate, and like many of the other statistics, such as number of students and average SAT score, you can look it up.

Not surprisingly, most of the students accepted at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or MIT ended up there: all those schools are well-known and have a great reputation. What stood out, however — especially in the case of schools classified as liberal arts colleges — was that the ones with the highest yield rates weren’t necessarily exclusive, but rather ones which offered more unique sort of educational experience. That the U.S. Naval Academy has an 86.7% yield is no surprise — when you have to make the effort to pitch a member of Congress of choosing you as their favorite candidate for the school, it’s almost certainly your top choice. But others with a high yield rate stand out because they are unique, such as the only college for religious sect (i.e. Principia College, Soka University), or with a markedly different course of study than that at mainstream colleges, such as Thomas Aquinas College, which is one of the few in the nation offering a classical Great-Books-based education.

ForĀ  just like the admissions officers who have to pore over thousands, or tens of thousands, of applications from eager teens across the nation and from all over the world, what we want most of all is a good “fit.” I want each college to stand out, and tout its unusual qualities, but the endless brochures only exclaim how unique each school is in exactly the same way. Collaring an actual student or recent graduate gets you far more information in a minute or two than the glossiest brochure with eerily similar demographic students mixes as all the other brochures.

I would much prefer if the colleges captured that and put that into their marketing. Go ahead, and point out that students party so hearty at your university that beer pong is a varsity level sport; or that your foremost criteria is academic merit so everyone (except the professor) in the Combinatorics class is the kind of person who got beat up in high school for skewing the grading curve. If you’re a small school in the Upper Midwest, go ahead and tell everyone what we already suspect — that it can get down to 40 below during finals week (in May) but that it fosters a particularly close-knit student body and the kinds of friends you’ll still be tight with 50 years from now. It would be so refreshing to know why the students at your college which I’ve never heard of before chose to go there. And if the answer is “because I couldn’t get in anywhere else,” um, well, I guess the picture of your verdant lawn will do.

And in this age of advanced data marketing, why can’t the information also be better targeted? From the letters and pictures, it’s pretty clear almost every college wants the Hispanic valedictorian who’s been helping the homeless in her community, and that’s great for her, but that’s not Neil. You’d think with all the information he ticked off on the lengthy College Board application, there might have been one or two pieces which actually reflected him, such as a note about how to apply as a homeschooler, or stories about some of the cool math professors and what they teach. So regrettably, almost all of the carefully crafted brochures and viewbooks went into the trash. Which isn’t very green at all, despite the school’s commitment to the environment.

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