From where I sit: An exercise in mass courtship

October 15, 2009

When you're engaged in teaching classes or immersed in research, you tend to forget that higher education is big business. That attitude is much harder to sustain when you are standing on the floor of a vast trade-show venue, facing a surging sea of teenagers, many accompanied by their anxious parents. Most are excited, some are stressed and apprehensive, and all are looking for clues to determine which university might offer the best match for the next stage of their academic careers.

Welcome to the Ontario Universities' Fair, the kick-off event of the Canadian undergraduate-recruiting season. For the past 12 years, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre has hosted representatives of the province's 21 universities and welcomed tens of thousands of prospective undergraduates and their relatives. This year, 116,000 people passed through its gates, making it the largest such event in North America.

Next year's students come armed with a battery of questions, and a wise university arrives prepared with a range of representatives from admission and scholarship divisions, as well as from individual faculties and departments, who are ready to offer persuasive answers and seduce the top students.

It's easy enough to swot up on the basics, such as "How much is tuition?" (most frequently asked by the parents), or "What programme should I enrol in if I want to be a doctor?" (perhaps the most popular query of all). It's much harder to field unexpected questions, or keep a straight face for the ones from the hilariously uninformed, such as the Toronto kids who ask if they can get to Queen's University on the subway (the answer is no: Queen's is located 260km away).

Toughest of all are the sometimes heart-wrenching microdramas that play out on the floor: a lanky boy shyly asking about creative-writing options, only to be drowned out by his father's insistence on hearing about law school; or a tight-faced girl firmly drawing her mother away from a booth and hissing: "Mum, no, don't ask - I don't have the marks..."

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the event is watching the courtship exercise unfold. Take swag, for example: every school offers something to take away. This year it was clear, even to the casual observer, that one of the big winners in terms of visibility was tiny Algoma University, whose all-natural cotton bags stencilled "The Great Green North" appeared to be the carry-all of choice for students.

Whether this will translate into applications remains to be seen: after all, its brochure features pages with headlines such as "It's not as cold as you think" and "Take the road trip of your life!" to encourage students to go north. Other schools feature offers designed to draw students in, such as opportunities to win iPods and tuition-fee waivers.

In the end, though, it's all about the people. Each recruiter has roughly two to three minutes to be the face of the university, to inspire confidence and to pique interest in the all-important campus visit that is usually necessary to seal the deal. Even though the booths are staffed by associate deans, registrars and tame professors offering carefully market-tested viewbooks displaying the assets of the university from the best perspectives, in the end it's often the student volunteers who make the genuine connections: a heartfelt "I really love it here" from one of their own means more to the average 16-year-old than all the rational arguments grey-haired wisdom and market research have to offer.

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