Are You Buying What Colleges Are Selling?

A haiku about standardized testing. An opportunity to discuss cheese. Offers for a free poster, a levitating brochure, and even a “doorknob to the universe.”

What do these seemingly disparate subjects have in common? They’re just a few of the unusual “selling points” colleges and universities are including in their marketing materials.

My husband, teen, and I began receiving emails detailing peculiar perks at certain schools last fall, after our son Sam, a high school junior, took the ACT test. Before we’d even gotten his results, our in boxes overflowed with messages intended to intrigue us enough to request additional information or perhaps visit the campus.

Students walking on the Columbia University quad. (@cacasillas via Twenty20)

As Sam is our oldest child, we were eager to begin the college search, suss out what distinguished one institution from another, and ultimately, find a good, affordable fit. So we opened each new email with interest. But our curiosity quickly morphed into confusion as many respectable schools sent quirky correspondence that read more like satire straight out of The Onion than the insightful—or even useful— information we’d expected and hoped to see.

Colleges Pitch Students and Parents

Exhibit A: (from a prestigious school, chartered in 1693):

Samuel,
Who cut the cheese?

No, we’re not making a crude joke. This is a regularly asked question at meetings of the (insert college name here) Cheese Club, a group that allows fellow cheese lovers to explore the world of cheese…

I can’t help but imagine this school’s founders weeping in their cheese caves at the thought of this message being sent far and wide. Don’t get me wrong, Sam loves cheese, but he’s not basing any major life decisions on mutual interest and access to dairy products. And, really, a cheese club isn’t that novel. If that’s what he craves in a college experience, I’ll happily send him off with a wedge of Emmentaler and a fondue pot. Why would anyone think this would be compelling?

And yet, as a copywriter, I get it. I know the challenges of competing for eyeballs and the need to craft engaging copy that stirs the reader to act. I also love a good joke. During my high school years, I dutifully set my VCR to catch David Letterman’s monologues and top ten lists. While my classmates were swooning over Jon Bon Jovi and his flowing locks, I carried a torch for Garry Shandling and his self-deprecating wit. But rather than cracking me up, these schools’ misguided missives leave me cringing.

Exhibit B: (from a liberal arts school that refers to itself as “one of the finest colleges in the known universe”)

“Our job: Send you a brochure called Unfolding (College name). It literally unfolds. We at (College) aim to be forthright about naming the brochures we send your way. If we send you a brochure called Levitating (College), you can take it on faith that it will be floating through the air.”

Our collective reaction: After wasting our time explaining the virtues of your brochure (and, unless I’m mistaken, don’t all brochures by their very nature unfold?) we have no intention of visiting your website, let alone your campus.

We received another email boasting about an on-campus Qdoba and an indoor rock climbing wall. Really? Is our son planning his future or his 8th birthday party? Of course, we want him to have access to things he enjoys on or near campus. But please, college and university marketing teams, don’t lead with this. He’s spent the past three years challenging himself by taking rigorous courses in preparation for this next step, let’s not dumb it down now.

What I’m suggesting is this: Woo us with your research and internship opportunities. We want to know your ratio of students-to-faculty not frat boys-to-food trucks. Keep your limericks, and dazzle us with bullet-pointed lists of statistics on your graduates’ job placement rates and starting salaries across majors.

Because, after all, with the debt we’re about to incur, we deserve nothing less. Among the Class of 2018, 69 percent of those enrolled took out student loans [studentloanhero.com], and graduated with an average debt of $29,800, which includes both private and federal debt.  At the same time, 14 percent of their parents borrowed an average of $35,600 in federal Parent PLUS loans.

No 24-hour, on-campus Panda Express is going to soften that bleak reality. So save your jokes about the Provost’s wacky golf pants collection. Spare us these virtual glitter bombs, and provide us with information we care about.

It’s been three decades since I applied to college so I understand it’s a completely different world. But I recall swooning over glossy brochures (yes, they, too, unfolded), complete with sprawling grounds, stately buildings, and professors and students engaged in discourse in classroom settings. These materials were written with an aspirational tone that made each institution seem like a portal to my brighter future. None featured “nastylicious” hot sauce contests, nor did they brag about paranormal sightings in dorms. None beckoned: “Come for our engineering program. Stay for our bowling alley.”

Granted, marketing is aimed at teens but, let’s be honest, in most households it’s the parents who are sorting the mail and passing these along. We’re also receiving these emails after paying for standardized tests, and we’d prefer guidelines on admission requirements and financial aid to food court options and photos of your mascot.

The consensus among parents I know is this: “While marketing efforts have increased, quality has gone way down.”

“Can you imagine the money wasted on all those crazy brochures they use? It is ridiculous,” a mom of twins, who receives double the information, said to me recently.

Many of these schools successfully set themselves apart, but for the wrong reasons. Our kids have worked hard and looked forward to this moment, let’s address them like the bright young women and men they are — especially if we want them to take the next four pivotal and pricey years seriously.

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Liz Alterman is a journalist who’s been writing online and in print for the past two decades. Covering everything from parenting and personal finance to real estate and the royal family, her work has appeared in The New York Times, and she’s served as a regular contributor for CNBC.com, Realtor.com, The Muse.com, and Your Teen. Additionally, she founded the humor blog, On the Balls of Our A$$ets, which explores attempting to stay sane following a mid-life layoff. When she isn’t writing, Liz enjoys reading, baking, and pretending to organize her basement.

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