My investigation into college recruitment web sites

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By Darren Johnson

Campus News

I know that the trend for four-year colleges who recruit students has been away from traditional advertising and toward more quantifiable, online means, but my investigation into this reveals methods that seem spammy and a little bit scammy (and probably ineffective).

My daughter is approaching college age, and her high school counselor had her sign up with a web site that hooks up colleges with potential students. I won’t name the site, but there are a lot of sites like this.

My daughter, who really doesn’t use email, gave one of my email addresses to the web site, and I was amazed at the number of emails I started getting. They reminded me of the old mailers Publishers Clearinghouse used to send emblazoned with Ed McMahon telling me I was soon to be a millionaire.

Here are some of the headers:

  • Come to a place where you can be who you are (Marlboro College)
  • You’ve Been Selected, [name] (Fordham University)
  • Your personality e-quiz (Hofstra University)
  • There is still time, [name] (Ohio Northern University)
  • Don’t miss your chance! (St. Bonaventure)
  • Merry Christmas from ___ (Merrimack College, Belmont University)
  • You’ve earned the recognition, [name]! (Providence College)
  • Don’t make these mistakes (Siena College)
  • We are thrilled to have found you, [name] (Stonehill College)
  • Very excited that we have found you, [name] (Providence College)
  • You caught my attention, [name] (LeMoyne College)

college-flyers-300x358They have never met my daughter. She hasn’t taken the SAT yet. But they are assuming a certain closeness. It’s kind of creepy, and kids are well trained to avoid creepiness. Kids also avoid email. So why are these colleges doing this?

The pitches in the bodies of the emails have hard sales, calls to action — call now, click this now, act now, now, now, now!

I’ve also visited much of the country, and these emails are similar in tone to the ones I get from casino and other resort destinations. They are loud, hyperbolic. They also give the impression that she already is pre-accepted to these colleges, like some credit card companies send you letters saying you’re pre-approved for a MasterCard. It plays on people’s egos.

(OK, chances are, she would be accepted into practically all of these colleges, if she applied, as her grades are decent, but they shouldn’t assume that.)

I know colleges like online advertising because click rates and open rates are trackable, but the only real numbers that should matter to them are the number of applications they attract and the percent of students they enroll and retain.

She also gets paper mailers from the various colleges (see photo) — some are whole books that clearly look as if they cost $5 to make and probably $2 to mail. She ignores them in the same way I ignore the Publisher’s Clearinghouse mailers.

Dear colleges, just like the pimply guy in high school, if you try too hard, act too desperate, you won’t get a date to prom.

Be cool, be stately. Stay classy, as they say. Just go back to giving kids nice T-shirts and frisbees, buy ads in student papers and on pop radio stations along with certain TV shows. Know your audience.

Retro works. Kids don’t wear shirts with Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga on them. They wear shirts with Hendrix, Nirvana and the Ramones on them. Old school is cool.

Kids who like their parents do better in college, so advertise in a way their parents understand. They trust mom and dad’s judgment.

And if any college counselor reading this wants to send me a T-shirt, I am an XL, but hope to be an L by summer (send an XL, just in case).

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  • Aaron

    Great article. I hate those websites. I still get phone calls from them even though I haven’t used one of those sites in a couple of years.
    One small thing though. Ed Mcmahon was never a part of publishers clearinghouse. That’s one of those things that people remember as being true but in fact isn’t.