With universities literally pushing the envelope in the competition for students, everything from stationery to basketball is fair game, Stephen Phillips finds.
Postmodern theory may be a useful tool for literary academics, but is it of any use in recruiting students? Michael Thompson, the admissions chief at the University of Southern California, believes so. At a recent London conference, he expounded his institution's admissions strategy in a session titled "Postbox to postmodern: An epiphany on the journey to meaning".
He says it is what USC needs to reach today's marketing-fatigued teenagers. "These students have been marketed to since they were eight; they're jaundiced. Since [September 11] 2001, they've been more interested in meaning. We are trying to engage students at the level of creating their own meaning. We are empowering them to make choices about what they want to know about the university."
This quirky initiative is just one example of the growing sophistication and ingenuity that US university admissions departments are adopting to attract students. At a time when tuition fees are ever more crucial to institutions' revenue and students are wary consumers, universities are seeking more imaginative ways to get an edge over their rivals.
Most US institutions have intensified outreach efforts, but USC is focusing its energy and reducing off-campus recruitment this year. Staff direct prospective applicants to a website where they are prompted to assemble a customised curriculum based on their interests. The portal allows them to view a course menu, staff profiles, related media articles and even lecture times. This information allows USC to tailor future pitches to prospective students based on the preferences they have expressed online.
Universities are targeting guidance counsellors, who advise high-school pupils on higher education. Some public universities vie to host conferences for guidance counsellors. Wealthy private institutions fly them in for complimentary visits that include guided tours of facilities, access to faculty and students and other various perks.
Tulane University in New Orleans includes a tour of the city and dinner as part of its package. Centre College, a small liberal arts college in Danville, Kentucky, used to offer visiting counsellors an afternoon at the horse races and $30 each for a flutter. But this was deemed too controversial. These days, it sticks to glass-blowing demonstrations. Two years ago, USC invited hand-picked counsellors to the Orange Bowl, an annual collegiate American football showdown.
Such businesslike, customer service-oriented methods are also being applied to ever-more demanding would-be students. "It is not unlike a company. We are the sales department," says John Beacon, vice-provost of enrolment management at Western Michigan University.
His institution, like many others, has broadened its admissions operation into "enrolment management", which covers recruitment and retention. Beacon estimates that as many as 55 per cent of students at many mid-sized public universities do not complete their courses and that up to a quarter drop out in their first year - which represents a loss of talent and revenue.
It is the job of everyone at the university, including faculty, to "to make these customers feel wanted", Beacon says.
In keeping with such an ethos, institutions strive to keep parents up to date. The University of Massachusetts recently instituted an Office of Parent Services to assuage concerns about student welfare.
Parents are cultivated all through the recruitment process. Western Michigan starts with its campus visits. "It is all about creating a family environment," Beacon says. "We want mum on the campus because she's a big influence on where kids go to college." USC's website has a page for parents.
As this implies, the internet is a vital recruitment tool. "Five years ago, we got 10 per cent of applications [online]; now it is 70 per cent," says Carey Thompson, admissions dean at Centre College. But care must be exercised. Centre College takes pains to craft distinctive messages that do not appear to be unsolicited spam.
Given the competition, universities cannot wait for students to come to them. Some have turned to a lively consultancy industry that claims to offer demographic data and myriad techniques to help colleges identify the brightest admissions prospects.
Much of this effort is built on university data mining, which has grown more sophisticated and financially savvy, says Steve Graff of the College Board, which runs the SAT college entrance exam. The board sells to institutions details of the more than 2 million who sit the SAT each year.
Graff says: "(Universities) used to go to locations where they traditionally got students and continued hammering away at them. Now they (target) specific students in particular areas defined by demographic factors. They also target students who bring in the most revenue." Tactics include cross-referencing school-leavers' data with household buying patterns for specific communities, he says.
Demographics are vital. "We're looking at a very large increase in Hispanics, declining (whites) and a moderate increase in African-Americans," says Richard Whiteside, vice-president for enrolment management at Tulane. "The two fastest-growing segments have significantly lower family income (than those that traditionally provided students)," he adds, which could cause problems for university funding.
Graff says that most cutting-edge recruitment tools remain the preserve of wealthy, academically selective private universities, which often charge high fees and have long been in the vanguard of aggressive recruiters.
They have also long cast their nets across the country. Recently, public universities and smaller private institutions, keen to tap new markets as the numbers of potential students in their traditional regional catchment areas are expected to shrink, have begun to adopt similar national recruitment schemes. These are mostly based in the northeast and the Midwest. Universities in the west and southwest, however, anticipate a population boom, which means many will be unable to meet demand for places unless they substantially increase capacity.
But national recruiting is not a simple matter. Young people in growing areas such as Texas and California show little inclination to study elsewhere, Beacon says. And although students from cities such as Chicago, Denver, Seattle and San Francisco - which have wealthy educated populaces - may be open to the idea of attending distant institutions, others from, say, the Bible Belt may be much more reluctant to travel.
The University of Vermont, which faces a 40 per cent decline in numbers of school-leavers in the state between 2001 and 2017, is using its location as a selling point to woo far-flung students. But its appeal as home of ice-cream icons Ben and Jerry and 2004 Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean - coupled with its hippy-ish counter-culture - may not go down well everywhere.
"We look (to recruit from) places with cultural affinities," says Daniel Fogel, the university's president. "We are more likely to recruit in Boulder, Colorado (seat of the University of Colorado), than in Selma, Alabama."
The University of Massachusetts recently began a national recruitment strategy built around collegiate sports. Recruiters accompany campus basketball teams to nationwide fixtures. "Staff alert prospective students in the region and invite them to a pre-game reception. Then we invite them to the game so they get a flavour of the [campus] spirit," says Michael Gargan, vice-chancellor for student affairs. Applications to universities have been known to rise if their teams do well, he notes.
The application process itself is being streamlined to make it easier for students to apply. Some universities have introduced on-the-spot admissions decisions at recruitment fairs, based on a person's academic work and a short interview. This is done mostly by access institutions with low entrance requirements, but public universities such as Illinois are using it at selected "feeder" schools.
Other schemes include early decision-making, in which universities offer applicants fast-track approval if they make that institution their first choice. Massachusetts offers staggered admissions deadlines and Tulane pre-fills application forms using information culled from marketing lists, to save potential students time.
Nothing is too trivial if it confers an edge. Centre College entrusts all correspondence with prospective students to windowed envelopes rather than the regular variety. "We sent 10,000 letters out and tested the response (by envelope type)," Thompson says. Confounding expectations, those with windows - which typically carry impersonal missives such as credit-card offers - got a consistently higher response rate, he says.