Admission officers use marketing strategies to reach enrollment goals for their colleges. Enrolled students bring tuition dollars and help higher education institutions generate other important sources of revenues. This explains the attractive promotional materials and emotional videos with images of colorful fall foliage, stunning architecture, groups of festive students or spring classes held on lush lawns with flowers in bloom.
Student tour guides liberally use keywords such as safe, global, diverse, friendly, thrive, motivated, and vibrant diverse. It is common for tour guides to linger in gleaming, energy-efficient buildings, and walk quickly past ones that are out-of-date. Often, college officials cite high institutional rankings for items such as the percentage of alumni hired in their fields within 6-months of graduation, campus safety rates, or alumni marrying one another.
In recent visits to two campuses, I was disappointed when the admissions official did not make time for questions after the presentation. I typically see nearby campuses over a few days on my college visits. It surprises me that officials don’t more effectively differentiate their colleges from other institutions yet advise prospective students to distinguish themselves in essays and interviews. More admission officials should take the time to visit nearby colleges and learn just how much alike they sound to visitors.
How can you take a smart approach to campus visits? Be proactive:
- Ask specific questions and ask the same question of more than one person. If someone is unable to answer, ask them for the contact information of the person who should know. Ask about needed campus improvements and insist that the official respond about an issue campus leaders can affect rather than something like the weather.
- If officials cite rankings, they should note sources so you can check and verify. Here are resources to help you investigate or verify college information:
- nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/ has information on college facts including costs, graduation and retention rates, campus crime, loan default rates, and admission rates by gender, etc.
- collegeboard.org has reliable information on deadlines, costs, admission requirements, etc.
- campuspride.org has ratings for colleges on their inclusion of LGBT students
- ope.ed.gov/athletics has reports on equity in college athletics
- Pick-up a student newspaper. Typically there are discussions of the concerns of the students, a crime blog, and critiques of campus events or unpopular decisions made by trustees or campus officials.
- Go into town and walk around. See how students are treated by locals. Are they regarded as nuisances, or with respect? Are they employed by area establishments? Ask the locals about how the college and how the students are regarded. And, if possible, get some good local food.
- Talk to non-admissions office related students as well as faculty and staff. Ask them what they like most and least about the college. Look for diversity and see if people mix easily across racial, gender, and ethnic groups.
- Inquire about topics that interest you, for example: How are students involved in campus decision-making? Do students participate in activities to help with causes? Do they raise awareness or funds for national, or global issues? What activities and opportunities are available for students beyond the campus?