There is a thick stack of beautifully-produced glossy pamphlets depicting fall leaves and smiling good-looking young people and gothic architecture on my kitchen counter. So many that they continuously slide around and fall off onto the floor to be chewed on by Max the family dog and stepped on by most everybody else. And more arrive everyday: a continuous stream of personalized correspondences proclaiming “Hey Nick” and “Fit is Everything” and “Rocky Says Yes” and “Your Future is Now.”
It can only mean one thing. And anybody who has a kid who’s a junior or senior in high schools knows just what it is:
It’s time to apply to college.
I must admit, it’s been a while since I did any applying to schools—the last time being over fifteen years ago when I applied to doctoral programs. It’s been almost thirty years since I applied to undergrad, and even then I only applied to one school.
There may have been a few brochures here and there, but certainly nothing to compare with the mass of publications that seem to be single-handedly keeping the US Postal Service in business.
Ah, there’s the applicable term in all of this: business.
College, for better or worse, has become a business, and like all businesses, it relies on advertisement.
Ergo the huge stack of pamphlets overtaking the counter.
For even in this age of digital technology and social media, not to mention limited resources of both the natural and economic kind, colleges are still heavily invested in print. And nice print at that: thick glossy paper with lots of color and professional graphic design. Some even send short books, paperbacks that are designed more like travel guides than college brochures.
But don’t get me wrong, there’s heavy investment in digital media as well, from emails and Facebook messages to Tweets and IM and who knows what else. And even phone messages from personal Admissions advisors and perky college students extolling the joys of going to Whatever U or This-and-That State.
Throw in the fact that my son wants to play Soccer, most probably in Division II or III or perhaps even NAIA, and you have another aspect to deal with. College coaches (though limited in how much contact they can have) sending texts or leaving phone messages. Recruiting companies selling their services. College Showcases here; ID Camps there. Recruiting forms to fill out and highlight videos to make.
And if you add something else like band or the International Baccalaureate program, then it all gets multiplied exponentially.
Schools we’ve never heard of contacting us and sending materials. Like Finlandia, which is not quite all the way in Finland, but it’s close (Upper Peninsula Michigan on Lake Superior). Or Lutheran Schools of every Synod imaginable—evidently, when you apply to one Lutheran School, they tell two friends, who tell two friends, and so on and so on, until the thought occurs that maybe we’ll convert to Islam just to stop the obscene amount of materials coming from Lutheran schools alone.
And God forbid your student played a highly coveted instrument in the band. Like the Euphonium (the what? I know; it’s a fancy baritone). On a recent college visit to the corn fields of Nebraska my son met with the band director, even though he has little to no inclination to continue playing in college. When asked by a few band students in the music building what instrument he played, the opening of their eyes was only exceeded by the gaping of their mouths as they sat there drooling, barely able to contain their joy: “Euphonium? You play the Euphonium?” Even the band director could not completely hide his emotion (I still swear I saw a little tear in his eye as he spoke), promising the chance at several thousand dollars in scholarship without even the requirement of a music major or minor. “Just a couple of practices a week and concerts a few times a year.”
In real estate, they call this a “buyers market.”
The fact of the matter is that colleges and universities need students way more than students need colleges and universities.
By that I don’t mean to denigrate a college education, only that the supply seems to be outpacing the demand. And the skyrocketing cost of a higher education isn’t helping, as schools vie for the attention and tuition of students who have many choices, from traditional to online.
College is expensive, the College Board recently reporting that the average total cost (including room and board) for a four-year in-state public school is $18,493.00 per year, and $32,762.00 for out-of-state. Cost for the average private school is $42,419.00.
And with such high dollar amounts and a plethora of choices comes the need to stand out. To show how these amenities or those services provide the best fit or opportunity or quality of life or whatever. Hence the need to sell; the need to advertise. The need for all those %@#& pamphlets and brochures.
Gone are the days when colleges and universities just offered an education to students. Now, like everything else, we offer services to a clientele: a product, a lifestyle, a brand.
I don’t know if, in the long run, this is a good or a bad thing. After all, one benefit is the opportunity of higher education to a broader range of students. Of course, one of the drawbacks is the oppressive student debt that a generation of students has racked up since we shifted paradigms from mostly grants to mostly loans several decades ago.
College is big business now, and not just the athletic programs with sponsorship and television deals. It’s big business for academics too. And let’s not kid ourselves: given the amount of money that the government receives from interest rates, it’s big business for the federal government as well.
And big business means big advertising. And creating demand. And promoting a brand. And selling series.
Which in term means lots and lots of slick pamphlets and shiny brochures collecting on the counter.