Tuesday’s Blog: Ed Cook, College Shopping


Today I participated in the Fall Open House at UMass Boston, as a Faculty.  The College of Management booth got easily 200 students visiting in the 3 ½ hours of the open house, maybe more.  I answered more questions than I can count.  And I hope it was a help prospective students and their parents get the hang of the program. So I saw it from the other side of the table than I have been on for the last two years.  It was interesting / fun, and it reconfirmed something I recognized a while ago about College Admissions and recruiting, it is big business-Marketing to be exact.

I have been college shopping for two years.  I have two daughters.  One just started her freshman year at a local institution of higher learning and the other is shopping for an institution of higher learning.  Daughter 1 and 2 could not be more different when it comes to their likes and dislikes for colleges.  The older one knew for two years that she wanted to go to a small, non-city, close to home, school to be a High School History teacher.  She looked at 10 small, non-city, close to home, schools with good Liberal Arts programs that had Teaching programs.  She ended up at a small, non-city close to home, school with a good Liberal Arts program that had Teaching program.  Mission accomplished with minimal pain.

The younger OMG!!  She wants a school that is not too big but not small, in a city is ok, but suburban or rural is ok too.  Out of state is ok, but not too far, but close to home is ok too.  Make a list I say, six months ago and while I’m out of work we’ll go visit.  The list changed week-to-week.  Shoot, it changed day-to-day.  She wants to go into something Medical, or into Business.  OMG Meredith! Many of the places she looked at did not have one or the other.  OK, OK, I was spoiled by the older one I know, and she is only 17 and it is hard enough trying to figure out what to wear in the morning to impress the other kids in school, never mind deciding what school to go to for preparation for a career for the rest of your life.

Daughters 1 and 2 have received hundreds of mailings from colleges all over the USA. We have been to several College Open Houses.  Between the mailing and printing costs, the people, the facility the food, etc. these run into the thousands of dollars each.  It is worth it to the school because this is how they advertise.  It is Commerce.  An attractive picture on a brochure from a school not yet considered by a high school senior might generate a visit and a successful visit might generate an application ($50 to $70) and the best result, an enrollment which generates thousands of dollars.

I’m not trying to be negative because hundreds of companies advertise to get their name out to the public. Each school is selling itself and its benefits over the other schools and its benefits.  Whether it is a small school, a large school, city, religious affiliated, great athletic programs, prestigious reputation (there is only one Harvard), whatever it has got, it is trying to sell to the prospective students and especially the parents of the students.  If the school has tuition of $40,000 plus $12,000 for room and board, they have to do a mighty good selling job for their programs and Financial Aid to outweigh the programs, benefits and Financial Aid package of a reputable State University.  It is just that colleges don’t want you to think they are advertising to generate revenue.

They all need to advertise because in addition to four-year colleges, there is competition from trade schools, on-line schools (some that are accredited some not), Two-year Community or Private school, there are schools looking for students and their money at every corner.  Some do the selling extremely well.  Some do a very poor job.  In my little corner of the world I have seen both and in-between.  Between August last year with daughter one and October 15 this year with daughter two I have visited 16 colleges.  Three have been visited with each daughter.  One of the twice visited schools had the worst tour of the campus both years.

Marketing and the image of a school is incredibly important to a fickle audience which is most 17 and 18 year-olds.  The new buildings, the open spaces on campus, the dorms, views of the water, fun activities, and so much more.  But the marketing and selling goes on.  Just like selling a car, or laundry detergent.  “You like that college down the street better little girl, we’ll increase our Financial Aid package so you buy our school over that one.” Just like a car dealer.   I am positive that at least 90% of parents don’t recognize it as such.  Perhaps they should.  It would make them better consumers of the product which is education and for 75 or so percent, the living environment their child will be in for the next four years.  Don’t be so awed by the freshly mowed grass and fancy accoutrements, and athletic fields.  The education is what counts.

The demand for Higher Education is what keeps pushing the cost higher, that, and the fancy accoutrements, and athletic fields.  I have been telling people this for years and after a quizzical look they usually say “oh yeah, that makes sense.” The law of Supply and Demand is the main component here.  Companies want educated workers.  Statistics show that a worker with a Bachelors Degree will earn some $30,000 more per year than a High School graduate (U.S. Census, 2007).  Multiply that out over a 40ish year career and you are looking at north of $1,200,000!  Money talks, or in this case it screams!  It is intuitive that if qualified and if you have the financial resources you would want to go to college for the extra earnings capacity, thus, higher demand.    If you think that tuition would remain as high if only half number of students enrolled, think again.  Nearly every school I visited was crowing that their applications have been higher every year for the last several years and still increasing.  Thus they can justify tuition and Room and Board increases.  Demand goes up, prices go up. Demand goes down, prices go down.  Maybe some schools would go away, maybe some should anyway.

I recently contacted an old friend whose alma mater is one of Daughter #2’s favorites, to see if he had any opinions about the school.  He said he had not kept up with the school except to say that he had been solicited for money for years and felt that since the college was a business he did not understand why former students were continually asked for money.  He gave the example of “if I buy something at Wal-Mart and pay full price for it, they do not contact me for years to ask for donations.”

Today I was selling an institution of higher learning, tomorrow it is back to buying an institution of higher learning for younger daughter as we come down the stretch with the essay and Common App.  (Thank God for the Common App so that I don’t have to fill out by hand the applications of the 12 schools Meredith wants to apply to.)  At least I know it is marketing and that I will be paying higher tuition four years from now than I am today. Don’t like it but I know it.

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2 thoughts on “Tuesday’s Blog: Ed Cook, College Shopping

  1. Ed, In the same boat, waiting for my 17 year old to finish her college essay, went through 4 changes of major plans in junior year, but she’s settled in to what makes her happy, she’s going for early decision, so all the stress will be over by Christmas, and she can enjoy senior year. I have to say the college visits were some of the best times we had together, and the top choice is the one where the program matches her dreams the best, and she feels really comfortable after two visits. The fifteen year old, simply plans to rule the world. He has amazing grades, and will be pursued by schools, but he has absolutely no idea what he wants to “be”. He’s busy being 15. He points out that since you’re not even 20% into the current average life span, why should you know what you want the finished product to be. Latest plan is rock star, which will be his cover for international spy. His little world is really entertaining. This is quite an adventure for parents, and I really enjoyed reading your blog.
    Chris (olson) O’Neill

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