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The College Visit

iStock_000015097052XSmallParents of high school juniors and particularly seniors understand the college visit drill. Secretly I am enjoying it far more than our son, Carl, who is 18 and is a high school senior.

Carl is a good student and is fortunate to have been admitted to several of the universities that he has applied to. He’s still not sure where he’ll attend in the fall, though the May 1 decision deadline soon approaches. Through him I’m better able to see the angst of an 18-year old trying to make what is his first major life decision, though I don’t think he can make a bad one. I’m also able to see how academic institutions market themselves, some well, others poorly. More on that later.

The college decision was far easier when I was a child. I grew up in New Jersey and Rutgers is the largest state university in New Jersey. My dad had passed away during my sophomore year of high school, so an expensive university far away was out of the question. My dad was a WWII veteran and the VA had provided roughly $2,000 annually for each child’s college education. At that time Rutgers in New Brunswick cost $2,000– tuition, room & board. That made for an easy decision. I “chose” Rutgers, as did many of my friends from Springfield, NJ where I grew up. Beyond my high school buddies, I made life long friends at Rutgers, had a good time, met my wife, and enjoyed my college years.

Even though Springfield, NJ is a mere 20 miles from the College Avenue Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, I never even saw the University until my freshman orientation a few days before the fall semester began. I do remember a free Van Morrison concert for us in the “Barn”, a 3,200 seat venue on College Avenue, where the basketball team played until several years later. I also recall playing basketball in the Quad during most of freshman orientation. I met my good buddy, Mark Chernoff, though I recall yelling at one of my teammates to put a hand in the face of the guy (Mark) on the other team who was knocking down open 20 footers.

The college selection process is far different today. According to the College Board, the ultimate college resource:

“As a general rule, school counselors recommend that students apply to five to eight colleges. That number allows for a range of colleges, giving you the likelihood of being accepted by at least one of your top choices. Still, 10 to 15 percent of students apply to more than eight colleges; some send applications to as many as 20. “

Most students now do college visits with their parents to these schools. Truth is our son grudgingly went along with the process of these visits as did our daughter, Carolyn, five years earlier.

I viewed the college trips as an opportunity to spend time with Carl and to relive my youth. We (or at least I) had a good time visiting 14 colleges during the past year, not all of which he ultimately applied to. That was fine, the purpose was to help Carl think through what kind of school was the best fit. He resolved that larger Eastern Universities were the best fit. Perhaps the highlight was going to see Jackass 3D, a true cinematic classic, on a trip to the University of Maryland. An excellent dad-son bonding experience.

Each college visit starts with a short 30-45 presentation about the admission process and the wonderfulness of the university. The presentation is always then followed by the 60-90 minute “walking tour” during which you are told about the tradition of rubbing the nose of the turtle/husky/mascot etc. and how legend tells you that if you kiss a girl or boy on the bridge/pond/river/meadow/etc. they’ll become your spouse. You hear about dorm life, dining, social life, the hundreds of clubs each college offers, etc. Since most of the schools we visited were larger Eastern Universities there’s the chatter of football games and basketball frenzy. With each trip I wanted to sign up myself and turn the clock back 40 years. Road trips, toga parties, and some classes too. I’d be all in.

We still do have a couple of trips planned for next month, but these visits are a little different this time, as they focus on admitted students. Since it’s crunch time and decision date is straight ahead (May 1 for freshman as every child and parent knows), these trips will hopefully result in clarity in helping Carl make his choice.

I’ve also seen how colleges market to children and their parents. Most marketing efforts are poorly targeted and ineffective. Here are some observations and thoughts:

1. Universities should not mail glossy expensive 4-color propaganda on their university to a student who did not request one. It’s a major waste of money. In fact while less costly, even the unsolicited letters are a waste of money.

2. Don’t bother promoting that the application fee will be waived. Sorry to call out Duquesne University, which is a fine University in Pittsburgh, but they have some really lame promotion stressing a waived application fee. Carl has gotten several messages to that extent even though he never visited, called, asked for info, etc. Waiving a $60 fee is nice, and god knows I’d always like to save a buck, but please, is that a reason to apply? Smells of desperation to me.

3. Focus on the students who have applied (duh) and try to convert a higher percentage of admitted students to actual attendees. Remember that each student applies to many schools, therefore   a smart university should seek a higher conversion rate, particularly for the top tier of admitted students. There are always tons of applicants, at least for top schools. The objective is to get them to come in the fall.

4. The ways to increase the conversion rate is to stress the fun aspects of the university. These are the important elements to the student—dining hall food (this is REALLY important), social life, events, on campus concerts, off campus hang outs, and bars (yes, I know the drinking age is 21). Yes obviously strength of the university in the chosen major is important too, but in reality since most students change their majors 2+ times anyhow. So for a large university be sure to stress the strength across many majors.

To the parents, stress the likelihood of employment after college. Use whatever data is available on employment and initial salaries. Given the high cost of college, speak to ROI of those dollars.

5. Increase the frequency of communication directly to the admitted student. I’m amazed that many of the colleges where Carl has been admitted are relatively silent for several months. Also I’d heavy up in the March-April period, when decisions are largely made. I know I’ll miss these trips since Carl is our youngest child. No doubt he’ll enjoy his college years and will have fun, and learn, about himself as well as academic subjects.

As I said earlier, Carl has several options and ultimately won’t make a bad decision. His mom and dad’s alma mater, Rutgers, alas will not be gaining another “loyal son”, though I even promised Carl unlimited access to Old Man Rafferty’s, a great local restaurant on Albany Street in New Brunswick, if he chose Rutgers. Food is important, but couldn’t sway his thinking. Still no-go.

But wherever he goes, I’ll be reliving my college years vicariously through him. Strum on, Carl.




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2 Comments

  1. Dave Zurheide says:

    My experience with our daughter (also a nearly 18 year old high school senior) has been similar — it was a rare opportunity to spend some time with my daughter AND have the opportunity to visit various East Coast colleges. If only I would have had the chance for such visits when I was her age! My decision was largely site unseen…

    I am also amazed at the erratic and varied way that colleges have been communicating after she has been accepted. Some of have been well timed and very well done, whereas I wonder if some of them have no interest in her attending. But she has down her research, narrowed down her destination at least (Boston, here we come!), and the reply deadline of May 1 is fast approaching!

    • Lonny Strum says:

      Thanks for the feedback Dave. I have enjoyed the process. Our son Carl will be going to U Conn in the fall. He is happy with his choice. And I am happy for him. I do however beleive that many universities would do well to think through their marketing and outreach.

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