Selling the college experience

In a difficult financial environment, institutions look to any advantage to recruit students. The revenue challenges facing public universities have caused those institutions to look to alternative revenue streams. In particular, many public universities have started to seek nonresident students to increase enrollment and revenue. Recently, I published a paper exploring this in College & University coauthored with a former student, Marybeth Smith. In today’s post, I want to share an excerpt from this work covering one of the key findings we found.

Selling the college experience

Photo credit: USA Today

Public institutions have begun mimicking the recruiting practices of private universities. This is one of many factors leading to the privatization of public universities. 

In our study, Marybeth and I sought to understand how admissions recruiters for Southern University, (a pseudonym) tuition revenue-seeking institution, attempted to attract nonresident students. We interviewed admissions counselors that focused most of their efforts on recruiting out-of-state students.

One of our major findings was that Southern University was selling the college experience.

The most compelling way admissions counselors attract out-of-state students is by selling “the experience.”

Considering costs, one counselor said, “that’s not really the reason they’re going to Southern. They’re going to Southern for a southern experience or sometimes scholarships, but typically it’s an X factor rather than costs.”

In some cases, the X factor is regional. “The most common thing I hear is ‘I want to go south,” a counselor in Northeast noted; “You know, somewhere that’s warm,” another said.

“A lot of time, they really just want change,” one counselor remarked.

“There’s nothing like Southern University out here. They think they have school spirit, you know, these big football games. Then they get here.”

Collegiate experience plays an important part of a recruiters pitch: “You get the big school, you get the football, you get the ra-rah,” one counselor commented.

Even when SU may possibly cost more, counselors can still sell the experience.

When asked about students trying to negotiate scholarship offers, one counselor used the university experience as a defense: “We’re the Southern University. They’ll be like, [regional school] is offering me x, what can you offer me?”

One counselor provided a comprehensive retort to students questioning an out-of-state school like SU:

My response to that is not only are we ranked higher than [state flagship], but facilities wise, research wise, faculty members wise, and also the sense of collegiate experience, you will invest in your future and you will get more out of your experience at Southern. The fact that the price is phenomenal after the scholarships. That is a big, big thing. You have that scholarship, but do you want to in-state, in New England? Do you want to go to a warmer climate? Do you want to go to a school with great school spirit? Because these things come into play and these things [state flagship] can’t offer.

Though funding—especially competitive merit-based scholarships—plays an important part in recruiting out-of-state students, recruiters believe the way the school makes students feel ultimately determines their determination to go there.

Because experience plays such an important part in college choice, peer testimonies, not surprisingly, impact this decision.

Experience becomes the primary selling point for admissions counselors, but ultimately, students spread the message.

Several counselors commented on the importance of word-of-mouth advertising amongst prospective students.

One recruiter emphasized the role of students’ friends when seeking out-of-state students: “The other thing I talk about is the hospitality that I have to go on about, I sort of have to sell it, but it’s 100% validated when a classmate comes to campus and can go back and tell that story.”

From a recruitment standpoint, student experience becomes key to enrolling students: “The kids that are in freshman year, they’re going to come back for winter break and be talking about what a great time they’re having at Southern, how beautiful the school is, how much fun football is. That’s a really big driver, too, for admissions.”

This often leads to recruiters finding multiple students from single out-of-state high schools, such as a West Coast counselor, who after inviting a student for a campus visit, enrolled her and two of her out-of state friends.

“It’s an exponential type of deal,” another recruiter said.

What does this mean for public higher education?

The strategies for recruiting nonresident students by Southern clearly demonstrates the influence of the broader external environment and the privatization of the institution.

Although not a direct focus of our study, the use of private university admissions tactics in a public university environment warrants additional discussion and consideration within institutions and in the broader enrollment management community.

I understand and appreciate the need for public universities to seek out new revenue streams.

However, I worry that the privatization that we’re seeing across public higher education isn’t the result of deliberate strategy.

I suspect what we’re seeing instead is the confluence of several tactical decisions that may be justified, but may also be leading us down a path undermining the historical purposes of public higher education.

The full article can be accessed here.