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Live from the admissions front

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Scott D. Miller Scott D. Miller

Scott D. Miller is President and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College. 

A college president's least favorite book title is "Silent Spring."

Not the one about pesticides and the environment penned by Rachel Carson in 1962. I am referring to a book about our campuses that we hope never sees publication — a story of failure at the college enrollment office during spring recruitment season.

In my 23 years as a college president, I have never seen the enrollment war so fierce. And that's what it truly is, a war for the hearts, minds and housing deposits of the next incoming freshman class.

In times past, there existed a kind of gentlemen's agreement that colleges wouldn't play hardball admissions. Advertising was low key. Branch campuses weren't opened in the competition's backyard, or even in the same region. And nobody played "Let's Make a Deal" with financial aid offers. 

All of that has gone the way of the printed college catalog as an admissions tool.

These days, most colleges exist in a buyer's market. Prospective parents and their students have an unprecedented array of higher-education options from which to choose — large and small, public and private, four-year and two-year, online and for-profit. The notion of "college" has long since ceased to denote only the residential, four-year experience. Now you can assemble a higher-education package as easily as you can buy furnishings for a new house.

What's changed?

Higher education is — hold your ears, academic purists — a consumer-driven business. Individual preference rules, though there's nothing new about promoting the advantages of choice. Bethany College's archives contain early view books expounding the virtues of our academic program and scenic destination.  "There is not a more delightful location of a college, east, west, north or south than that of Bethany College," founder Alexander Campbell proclaimed in the mid-19th century. Illustrations of the period showed an elegant, stately campus constructed from the surrounding wilderness, suggesting that students could benefit immeasurably from the civilizing influence of such a setting.

Now it's more about money than manors. 

A growing trend is trumping a student's financial aid offer from a competitor. Thirty-eight percent of American college-admissions officers indicated in one recent study that they continued to court prospects even after the students had committed to another institution.

Photographing beautiful campus buildings for printed publications has given way to launching precision strikes via social media. It's faster and cheaper to reach students where they dwell rather than to print a fancy brochure that, increasingly, they don't read.

"Postcards, viewbooks and mailings in general are going the way of the print newspaper. Marketers have to plan their communications to play nicely with mobile devices," writes Craig Maslowsky, vice president of enrollment management and marketing at Excelsior College, in "The evolllution" (evolllution.com). Also effective is tailoring communications to students' special interests. Excelsior's Maslowsky comments, "we must anticipate our relevant audiences and align communication with their behavior before they even reach our website. Once they reach the website, that experience needs to be customized to the extent that it adjusts to their needs."

All of this makes perfect sense. What is less clear is how to keep students once they enroll. As with any business, it takes twice the effort to lure a new customer than to retain an existing one. Most competitive colleges do an admirable job of employing analysis on the front end, the recruitment and matriculation stages, but less so on the vitally important area of the actual collegiate experience. Anecdotal evidence, social-media communications, exit surveys and the like offer some clues. But where much of higher education fails today is useful assessment of living and learning on campus.

A notable exception is the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE) which measures "the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities" and "how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning (http://nsse.iub.edu/html/about.cfm)." Comparative data reveal how happy — or dissatisfied — your students may be with those of peer institutions. 

Colleges also do well to encourage employees to keep their ears to the ground, listening for what works and what doesn't among today's student consumers. This is especially important for front-line staff in the offices of enrollment and financial aid, housing/student affairs, the finance department and the registrar. Although some institutions have aggressively pursued customer-service training and quality-control measurement, such exercises often go the way of campus strategic plans directly to a shelf in the library.

As with other wars, the admissions version is increasingly high-tech and the stakes sometimes seem just as high. I devote many hours to individual recruitment of students, spending time with prospects in my office, reaching out to parents and siblings and making the process as personal as possible. Scholarships remain the cornerstone of our fundraising. And we keep our gorgeous campus photo-ready for visitation days. 

Still, I know that competition for students will occupy more of our time and resources. If current trends are any indication, we will be fighting over fewer prospects and offering more incentives to enroll and stay. Bethany has joined some other institutions in announcing a tuition freeze for the forthcoming academic year. This will give families added flexibility in financing their students' education.

But we and our peer institutions will need to stay at the top of our game in every respect to win our individual admissions wars. Not only is failing not an option, but judging from the intensity of competition in higher education now, I would say that even success is a relative term. 

These days, you're only as good as your next freshman class.