Another Look at the Future of the Private College
by George C. Dehne

About five years ago, George Dehne wrote an article called “A Look at the Future of Private Colleges.” Since then, his firm has surveyed about 35,000 college-bound students and has analyzed the trends within and beyond higher education. Much has changed since his first article, but disturbing trends and activities still loom ahead for many private institutions. In this effort, Mr. Dehne examines new data and directions, but also reminds us of issues that linger.

America’s racial and ethnic diversity will grow dramatically. In 1998, 65 percent of children were White, 15 percent Black, 15 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 1 percent American Indian/Alaskan Native. The Census Bureau estimates that by the year 2005, people of color will comprise 50 percent or more of the population that is under 18 years of age. To get a sense of the speed of the change consider that today, 25 percent of the United States’ population over 18 are people of color while 35 percent of those who are under 18 years old are people of color. The difficulties for private higher education are foreshadowed in the economic realities of these young people. There are only 2 million children of color under 18 years of age — that includes African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans — who come from families with incomes over $70,000. On the other hand, there are 19 million students of color with family incomes under $35,000. Keep in mind that the Census Bureau estimates that there are 71 million households in the United States. In 1998, one of every ten residents was foreign born — roughly 24.6 million people new to the advantages of liberal arts colleges. This dramatic increase in the number of prospective “international students” living in the United States suggests that many colleges might be better off looking around their own cities for global diversity rather than traveling to numerous countries overseas. Indeed there will continue to be growth in the number of 18-year-olds, but their distribution is far from equal. By 2010, four states — California, Florida, New York and Texas — will contain one-third of the nation’s youth. Several states will actually have a decline in population.

In a 1998 survey of attitudes toward higher education, 44 percent of the public think that higher education should bear more of the burden for making colleges more accessible through “faculty teaching more classes and cutting costs.” Forty-six percent believe that “taxpayers and state governments should absorb a greater share of the costs” and, as we know well, this kind of dramatic change in federal or state support is unlikely. According to the 1998 Mosaic Mutual Funds report on the realities of financing a college education, college expectations run high — 90 percent of American families with children 12 and under expect college to be in their future. While 56 percent of American families have initiated a college savings account or investing program, their saving balances are modest — 43 percent of those who have saved have less than $5,000 per child. When you take into account the 44 percent who have no savings program in place, this means that roughly 70 percent of American families have $5,000 or less saved for each child’s college education. Yet, even families that do save for a child’s education will confront trends such as the growing number of multi-generation families resulting from increased life expectancy. A survey conducted by the National Council on the Aging and John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company found that roughly 50 percent of baby boomers would use money designated for their child’s education to finance an aging parent’s long-term care. In fact, 12 percent of respondents had already raided savings meant for a child’s education for just this purpose. In our own studies we have found, especially among the highest ability students, that 80 percent think financial aid should be based on academic achievement, not necessarily need. When asked why, the vast majority of these students say merit scholarships are a reward for their hard work and achievement in high school. The Mosaic research also reported that families in the $40,000 to $75,000 income range were just as likely to rely on grants and scholarships as families in the under $30,000 income range. Even among families with over $75,000 in income, one out of three families rated grants and scholarships as the number one funding source for college expenses. Meritocracy is alive and well, but it may mean the end of need-based aid. In 1976, the average Pell Grant for low-income families covered 19 percent of attending a private college and 39 percent of a public one. By 1998, the average grant covered just 9 percent for a private college and 22 percent for a public. Once it was the middle class that felt the crunch of college costs; now it is the lowest income families as well. Finally, two other facts raise concerns about the students of the future. One-parent families comprise 27 percent of family households with children. Roughly 40 percent of mother-child family groups have a never-married mother. In addition, 41 percent of single-mother households subsist below the poverty line. Also, despite the robust economy of the past few years, only 8 percent of the 71 million American households have incomes of $100,000 or higher and only about 10 percent of these families have students in college at any one time.

Academic Preparation
The National Commission for Excellence in Education recommended that high school students have four years of English, three years of social studies, and two years in mathematics and sciences. In 1998, 23 percent of high school students graduated with just the minimum. But even more shocking, 37 percent of seniors graduated with less. In other words, 60 percent of our high school graduates just met or did not meet the minimum standards. Despite the interest in higher education, between 1982 and 1996 the percentage of students in college preparation programs has increased only 5.4 percentage points — from 40.6 percent in 1982 to 46.0 percent in 1996. Meanwhile, only one of three African American and only three of ten Hispanic high school students are in college preparatory programs. National statistics show that over the past two decades, students have made important gains in educational achievement and attainment. For example, more high school students are taking high-level courses and Advanced Placement (AP) examinations; fewer high school students are dropping out; and more students are attending college after they complete high school. While these gains are positive, a look at some of the research suggests significant challenges remain:

Educational Attainment
Clearly, there is still plenty of room for educating adults in the future.

It is worth noting, however, that in the year 2005, the Bureau of Labor predicts that only 31 percent of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

A Possibly Brighter Future for the Liberal Arts
Interest in the traditional liberal arts fields continues to fade. Among the 1999 SAT takers, more than 50 percent who indicated a “likely” major selected one of these four areas — health-related, business, education and engineering. In 1998, only one-fourth of the bachelor’s degrees were awarded in the arts and sciences. Yet, the Department of Labor predicts that today’s college graduates may work for as many as 12 to 15 companies, in as many as three different professions. The futurist Watts Wacker writes, “There will be a renaissance of the Jeffersonian approach to life. People will actually be engineers and historians and agrarians. People will work in four or five fields during their career. They will join companies knowing they will be out of business in five years.” This is a good sign for many colleges and universities if they can demonstrate that liberal arts institutions produce flexible workers who are good at problem solving.

Another interesting demographic fact may also signal happier days ahead. Today, the population of teens between 12 and 19 years of age in the United States is about 31 million. This represents 11.45 percent of the total U.S. population. By 2020, the projected population of teens in that age group will be 34 million — obviously a 3 million increase. But it will represent only 10.6 percent of the total U.S. population. This suggests it will be a buyer’s market for college graduates because they will have to fill the shoes of the aging baby boomers. We suspect it will be an era more like the 1960s, when college students were in demand and the need for them was great. We believe there will be less stress for graduates in securing jobs and perhaps more interest in learning for learning’s sake among undergraduates. This should work to the benefit of the private liberal arts institution.

Expectations of Students and Employers
Michigan State University’s Annual Recruiting Trends Survey asks business and human resource people what they expect from a college graduate. Those surveyed said college graduates need more of the following:

In GDA survey research, we asked college-bound students what “skills” they expect to gain from their college experience. The list was varied and broad:

Extremely to Very Important

These two lists suggest to us that colleges and universities will have to be much more intentional in talking about developing skills. Despite the fact that it sounds like creeping vocationalism, prospective students relate to benefits derived from skills rather than abstractions connected to our usual description of higher education and especially the liberal arts.

Trends with Varying Impact
In our original paper, we talked about trends and their impact. Most of them still hold, but we would like to talk about a variety of new ones.

The Ever-Bigger Movement
The first trend is what some call “the ever-bigger movement.” We see this trend in the rise of the megastores such as Virgin Records with four- or five-story buildings filled with CDs and tapes. We all have seen the super Wal-Marts with consumer goods of virtually every kind and the Sports Authority with over an acre of sporting goods under one roof. A one-city block supermarket in Silicon Valley called Draeger’s is a grocery store, butcher shop with smokehouse, a fishmonger with a full-time sushi chef, cheese cave with humidity chambers, bakery, florist, 30,000-bottle wine shop, food library, cooking school and restaurant. Unfortunately, it is not only in retail that we see the interest in the “ever-bigger.” In higher education, the large universities are the megastores and their rising popularity is a testament to the ever-bigger movement. In the George Dehne & Associates’ national research of five years ago, students said the ideal size for a college or university was about 3,500 students. In our most recent survey in 1998, the ideal size for the majority of students is over 5,000 — a 43 percent increase in just five years. In our 1994 study, we found that about 16 percent of students said they were interested in a college with 1,500 or fewer students. In our most recent study, only 10 percent have the same view. We can already see the impact of this trend on some smaller colleges. It is making it more difficult for smaller institutions to attract the kind of students and in the kind of numbers that they once attracted so easily. The counter to the ever-bigger movement for many small colleges will be taking the opposite approach. One response that is proving effective for some small colleges is the “boutique” approach that provides specialized knowledge or skills. This might be a focus on education, business, the sciences, environmental studies or subgroups of any of these. Another response for small colleges is customization. For example, based on our research, we have urged one small college to encourage the self-designed major, while another college allows each student to design or tailor an off-campus experience.

Urban Orientation
There is a strong movement toward an urban environment. In a Fannie Mae study, young adults between 18 and 24 were found to have the most positive view of cities. This, obviously, is the traditional cohort for higher education. Fifty-five percent of the young people surveyed described cities as “the center of business, culture and progress.” Fewer than 25 percent of this cohort described cities as “the center of poverty, crime and social injustice.” In our national studies, we find that more than seven of ten students now prefer an urban or a suburban area of a large city compared to a small town or rural community for a place to attend college. Gone is the idea of the bucolic setting for college. These young people want action. When we asked students at one New York City institution why they liked the environment, they said, “It’s the city that never sleeps.” Entertainment and activities “on demand” is what this generation of students seeks. They want go to a movie at midnight and to have breakfast at 4 a.m. Students seek those places where they can find entertainment of any sort at any time, day or night. These students, however, came by it naturally. For those of you who can remember that period of time when television stations “signed-off” during the early hours of the morning, that symbolic moment of silence has been replaced with a 24/7 “always open, always on” lifestyle. To take advantage of the urban interest, suburban institutions must demonstrate access to the city, whether it is by train, commercial bus line or even by a regularly scheduled college van. Small town colleges must create action of their own. Access to all-night snack bars, recreational facilities, athletic fields, computer labs and game rooms will soon be a norm, whether the institution likes it or not.

The Experience Economy
In his Trends Newsletter, John Naisbitt argues that the United States is changing from a service economy to an “experience economy.” He suggests that only those organizations that can stage an experience out of their service will get customers and be able to charge premium prices. Naisbitt talks of the Rainforest Café as an example of this phenomenon. The whole Disney empire with its amusement parks, game preserves, retail stores and even its Disney University sells an “experience.” A term recently coined to describe this change in retailing is “edutainment.” Retail outlets that subscribe to “edutainment” are half museum and half store. They blend interactive displays with a variety of educational offerings. A prime example is REI Sports in Seattle, a seller of outdoor gear. In addition to the shelves of outdoor equipment and racks of outdoor clothing, the Seattle REI shop has a 64-foot climbing wall, an indoor ski slope to try out your skis, and “a rain forest” in which to test your all-weather gear. Even our colleges and universities are turning in some part to “edutainment.” For example, there are food courts in student unions where students can choose their meals from three or four national chains or local providers. Mammoth recreational facilities with pools, skating rinks, and squash, racquetball, indoor tennis and volleyball courts built primarily for recreational or intramural sports are another example. It is not, however, only the recreational area where we see “edutainment.” Take a seat in the classroom of a “Teacher of the Year” at your institution. You will no doubt find that this teacher is a “performer” who entertains while she teaches. Or this professor is creative in his use of technology as a way to impart knowledge. Today’s students crave entertainment in their education and in their out-of-class experiences, and will expect it in their work after college. Colleges will have to become centers of “edutainment” if they are to meet and reach this generation of students and the public that support them.

High Order “Cocooning”
The term “cocooning” was defined by Faith Popcorn in her book Clicking — 16 Trends to Future Fit Your Life, Your Work and Your Business. Ms. Popcorn describes “cocooning” as a safe and very personal environment. This is a house or an apartment for an adult. For young people, it is their rooms at home or in residence halls. Let’s take a look at the room of the typical 13- to 17-year-old. According to a Roper Starch survey, these are very different kids than the ones we remember entering our colleges and universities 20 years ago. First, and perhaps most important, Roper Starch found that seven of ten teens had never shared a room with a sibling. Half had a television in their room. One of four a VCR. One of three a telephone. Two of ten a computer. This explains the increasing demand for single rooms and the numerous complaints about roommate. GDA personnel at one time judged the quality of a college by the number of televisions in the residence hall rooms. More televisions meant lower quality students. Not any more. Unless they are banned by the institution, you will probably find a television in eight of ten rooms of college students. The expectations for electronic access are the standards by which prospective students are judging residence halls. Colleges that do not have residence hall rooms equipped with telephones, cable television and high speed online access may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. “Cocooning” also affects the dynamics in the residence halls. Instead of students seeking out each other to talk and bond, many are simply going into their “cocoons.” Sometimes they include their roommate(s), but with single rooms growing in popularity, students often isolate themselves. The gadgetry that provides a full set of electronic stimulation in their rooms has resulted in a loss of community at some colleges. It is far more difficult for the enthusiastic junior or senior resident assistant to get students to leave their lairs to participate in floor activities. How can a discussion of alcohol abuse compete with the latest computer game or a good movie?

“Clanning,” another Popcorn term, refers to the need to associate with like-minded individuals. Clanners identify themselves with a particular group that shares their outlooks and values. This explains, the experts say, the rise in interest in book clubs and chat rooms on the Internet. We also see this in higher education. Many colleges are noticing the increased interest in theme houses — facilities where students choose to live together to speak a language, talk about science and technology, or provide community service.A college itself can be a “clanning” experience. Small colleges devoted to the environment, great books or a conservative Christian viewpoint are essentially “clanning.” Of course, a reputation for serving a certain “clan” can be risky for a college that is already homogenous. If the concept of affinity groups continues and grows, it is possible that only students with similar interests will attend some small college.

The Possible Dangers of a Pre-professional Niche
Our studies of college-bound students show that those interested in private colleges generally are more interested in continuing on to graduate school, and primarily professional school. But will some professional areas suffer with the increase of expert software and the number of paraprofessional opportunities? For example, in the law profession there is software to write a contract or a will and to form a new business. In addition, products such as QuickBooks or tax preparation software have made hiring an accountant less necessary. Financial planning software, even online trading, has already had an impact on financial advisors and traditional stockbrokers. In health care, the increase in physician assistants and nurse practitioners could reduce the need for the number of medical doctors. Indeed, this may be good for the liberal arts, since students may look at them rather than a more pre-professional track. But it also means one of the bread-and-butter areas of many colleges could be in jeopardy.

“Anchoring” refers to the increasing tendency of people to seek fulfillment in spiritual values. People look to the past to recapture what was comforting and reassuring. They ask and seek answers to the great eternal questions. Some argue this is reflected in the increasing interest in church attendance. Sixty percent of adult Americans say they attend church regularly or occasionally. Three of ten teens say they attend Sunday school or Bible study. There are 1,600 full-time religious radio stations. Both the rhetoric and the reality are turning toward traditional values. This, of course, is good news for church-related colleges. In our national studies, as many as 40 percent of students say it is extremely important that an institution emphasize values and ethics. But it also might be good for liberal arts colleges in general. Students might become interested in fields such as philosophy and religion where the intent is to address the big questions. Many would argue that the liberal arts are the ultimate “anchor.”

“Egonomics” is the reaction against standardization. It pertains to those individuals who seek out various avenues for self-expression, who regularly attempt to make a personal statement. Egonomics is a culture of me, myself and I. “Me” is an insistence on customization. “Myself” is an expression of “I want to be a name, not a number.” “I” is a demand for personal services. Egonomics is especially acute among the current and rising traditional-age students. Small colleges are in the egonomic business whether they know it or not. Many of our client colleges have turned to a highly personalized and customized admissions process: a process we call “prospect management.” Starting at the inquiry stage, these colleges seek detailed information about each student’s interests and concerns. Then based on this information, they respond to students in an individualized “sales” campaign. It is, in fact, one-to-one marketing. Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, wrote “the most profitable businesses of the future will act as a knowledge broker, combining insights into what is available with insights into the customer’s individual needs and preferences.” This sounds like a private college to us.

The Technology Wrench
Of course, we couldn’t focus on trends affecting higher education without talking about technology and its probable impact. The impact of technology is and will be immense, but not all of it is good. As we stated above, the need to catch the attention of young people requires blending education with entertainment. Several companies have developed video games to train new employees, finding that traditional training programs just don’t work. Is that where higher education will need to go to educate its clientele? If so, what faculty members are willing or able to take the first steps? Many small colleges are rushing onto the “distance learning” bandwagon by offering courses via the Internet to anyone willing to pay the price. In our view, great acceptance of distance learning will make the small residential college irrelevant. If there is no one-to-one contact with faculty, if there is no interaction with classmates and if significant learning does not take place in the residential community, then there is no need for a residential college. It is our view that smaller institutions must more fully demonstrate the benefits of their residential nature if they expect to thrive. Fortunately, the interest in learning solely via the Internet is not as great as one might be led to believe. A survey of adolescents who are heavy users of the Internet by Interactive Network, Inc. found that nearly three of four respondents said that both the classroom experience and the use of the computer at home were the most attractive educational setting. In the same survey, when asked, “If you could, would you do all your work on-line or would you rather go to a classroom?” eight of ten said “half and half.” In our studies of adult students, only three of ten say they want their courses to include an on-line Internet component. Some estimate that it would take a typical college about $4 million annually to keep up with changes in technology. Few, if any, small colleges can meet this challenge. Even if they could, there is no guarantee that the typical college-bound students would have the sophistication to know or appreciate the differences. Based on our research, prospective students believe every college graduate will be a “computer scientist,” prepared to excel in the use of a wide variety of applications. This then is the challenge for colleges — to demonstrate that each student will graduate with the ability to move from one technological level to another.

Vigilante Consumers
The final trend is the new era of the vigilante consumer. People like Ms. Popcorn say that not just a few people are protesting. We all are. We are all discontent. The underlying theme is the lack of trust. Prospective students have become suspicious of institutional motives, such as sales pitches in the admissions office, and current students question the activities of the administration. Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, has done many longitudinal studies of college students. He describes the student of today this way: “Students are asking roughly the same thing from their colleges as other products. They want their colleges to be nearby and to operate at the hours most useful to them — preferably around the clock. They want convenience, such as easy, accessible parking (at the classroom door would not be bad), no lines, and a polite, helpful, efficient staff. They also want high quality education, but are eager for low cost. For the most part, they are willing to do comparison shopping and they place a premium on time and money. They do not want to pay for activities and programs they do not use. In short, students are increasingly bringing to higher education exactly the same consumer expectations they have for every other commercial establishment with which they deal. Their focus is on convenience, quality, service and cost.”

The Future Demographics of the American Private Colleges
From our perspective, there will be five kinds of small American colleges in the future.

  1. One group will be the high-prestige and highly endowed colleges. These will include Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Williams, Pomona, Swarthmore and so forth. Academic reputation is only one of the reasons students choose these kinds of institutions. Location drives much of the original and final interest in them. In fact, if we consider many of the strong small colleges, most are nestled in recreation centers or near recognized cultural centers (Philadelphia, New York). Most are also in areas where there is a large population base and will succeed because they have less regional competition.
  2. The second group will be the distinctive small colleges. These colleges include such institutions as St. John’s of Annapolis and Santa Fe, with its Great Books Program; Colorado College, with its one-course-at-a-time program (now successfully replicated by Cornell in Iowa and Tusculum); Sarah Lawrence, where every course is paired with an independent study; and Hampshire, with its open curriculum. These colleges can spread their recruitment nets wider to ensure they are able to find students who are intrigued with their special concept. The reason distinctions sell is simply, if you are the only college or one of a couple of colleges offering a program or concept, students interested in it have no other options.
  3. The third group of successful small colleges will be those that are adaptable. These colleges recognize that the era of colleges populated only with traditional 18-year-olds is over. The adaptable college will appeal to a variety of groups. The adaptable college will look quite different from most small colleges of the past. The staff and faculty of these colleges will not only judge success by their traditional undergraduate population, but by their ability to provide a quality education to a variety of publics. In a nutshell, the adaptable college will have these attributes:
    1. The college will be suburban or suburban-like. Students may avoid the urban colleges because of the sense of danger. Rural colleges will have difficulty because there will not be a population base to support important non-traditional programs.
    2. The adaptable college will enroll a blend of age groups: traditional-age and adult students.
    3. These colleges will have a combination of programs. Many graduate programs will flourish.
    4. The adaptable college will be open virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Day and evening classes as well as weekend programs will keep classrooms active, if not filled.
    5. These colleges will have a minority population of 20 to 35 percent of their enrollment.
  4. The fourth group of private colleges will be a hybrid between the adaptable and the distinctive. They will be known as particularly strong in some academic areas. They will also have a couple of distinctive (if not unique) programs or activities. These distinctions may have an impact on all students, but they will not be as prominent as the characteristics of the Distinctive Colleges. They may have an adult learner population, but not nearly as prevalent as the Adaptable Colleges.
  5. The fifth group of small colleges will be significantly smaller or closed. Many will be in rural areas where there is no population base. Any college, however, that falls prey to the view that things will improve and go back to the “good old days” may be listed among this group. Faced with the inability to match financial aid requirements and operating needs, these colleges will atrophy and finally die. Only those under-endowed colleges that have a strong regional base, little competition or a distinctive mission will thrive.

What’s a College to Do?
We offer no panacea, nor can we suggest a “silver bullet” for private colleges. As we stated above, demographics may be on our side. There are, we believe, steps colleges can take to protect themselves from a dwindling market and stiffer competition.

Create “Situational Value”
Research conducted by Yankelovich Partners looked at shopping behaviors in retail stores. The study found that the definition of value shifts according to varying shopping situations or goals. They called this “situational value.” For example, the Yankelovich study showed that people went to electronics stores regardless of higher price because they perceived the sales people as more knowledgeable and there was a range of options. Our view is that each college must become more aware of or develop its own situational value because prospective students and their parents will pay more for those things that they think are better or different than they can find anyplace else. In higher education, what students expect from their education differs. For example, we have recently seen an increase in the popularity of low-priced, small colleges in the Southeast. In this case, it is size and cost that is the determinant. Students attending these colleges don’t expect prestige or elitism or even many amenities. What they want are small classes, personal attention from faculty and modest prices. And they also realize that there are very few state-supported options that can offer this type of situation. This is a situational value. A client college of ours in Pennsylvania is an example of a situational value. In the incoming freshman class, approximately 60 percent of the new students expect to major in the natural sciences. When we studied these science students during the college selection process, we found they were not looking at other small colleges. Instead, they were considering private research universities or state-supported flagship research universities. They decided that this small college’s program and facilities were the right choice, despite the smaller size and higher cost. The college created a situational value. One institution can create several situational values. A small college with an academic program usually found only at large institutions can create a situational value. That same college, if it offers a special experience — a required overseas study or a guarantee of an internship — can create another situational value. If this same institution has an extracurricular program not easily found — say, sailing, riding or cycling — it can create still another situational value.

Develop Effective Symbols
The college experience is intangible. A student searching for a college can’t kick the tires, look under the hood, or demand a warranty. Instead, students look for evidence through symbols. For example, a well-kept campus with excellent facilities is a symbol of stability and quality. A large library building (not necessarily the number of volumes) is a symbol of academic quality. Yet, symbols go well beyond the state of the campus. Students look for symbols in all areas. If a rural college claims easy access to a major city, then it should have the symbol such as a van or a bus route to prove it. Your college might do a particularly good job in serving the undecided students, but if there is no program to symbolize it, your institution will look like all the others. Symbols are “outward signs of invisible graces.” A small college must demonstrate through symbols that it can deliver what it promises.

Create Linkages
When we say to “create linkages,” we are not talking about cooperative ventures where colleges purchase products at a volume discount. We, indeed, believe this trend is important, but we are talking about linkages that soon will be made easy through technology. High-speed optical fiber to appliances (TV, computer) will make it quick and easy to supplement the traditional academic programs. Students can have a “virtual” international experience without leaving the campus. German, French and American students could work on a project together. Through technology, team teaching with professors from another institution who never actually come to campus can become a reality. Any prepared college will be able to offer courses in virtually every field at a reasonable cost and without the addition of more full-time faculty. Collaboration among other colleges and industries will become commonplace. Technology, high-speed transportation and necessity will make projects and programs with cultural organizations, businesses, health care organizations, schools and other colleges a seamless enterprise. It will be easy to have curators of museums, health care professionals, college professors and business executives as guest lecturers in a class or even team-teach a class without ever being physically on campus. A musician from any orchestra in the world could provide lessons for a student at a small, Midwestern college.

Be More Intentional about the Advantages of Small Colleges
In our first look at private colleges, we said there were four characteristics that college-bound students cited as attributable to colleges but not large universities. These were personal attention, ability to personalize their education, concern for development of the whole person, and ease of participation in the life of the college. Unfortunately, in our most recent studies, we find that college-bound students no longer attribute the opportunity to participate in student clubs and activities only to small colleges. In the past few years, large universities have effectively portrayed themselves as providing the same social and extracurricular opportunities to first-year students as seniors. Whether this is the case or not, we can’t judge, but we can chalk one up for the big boys. Three distinctions remain:

  1. For obvious reasons, students still believe that a small college can provide “personal attention” better than a large university. In fact, 85 percent of the students we surveyed credit smaller institutions with the ability to offer personal attention. Unfortunately, in our experience, all smaller institutions provide this, so it is more difficult to differentiate your institutions from similar ones.
  2. The ability to personalize a college experience is also a trait credited more often to small colleges. Three of four of our survey respondents said the “ability to personalize the college experience” was a trait of a college. College-bound students believe it is easier at a small college to:
    • Complete a double major
    • Conduct an independent study
    • Do research with a professor
    • Take interdisciplinary courses
    • Study abroad
    • Get an internship
    • Design a major
  3. Perhaps the most important advantage for a small college lies in the students’ belief that these institutions are more concerned with the development of the whole person. Eight of ten survey respondents said small colleges were “more concerned with the development of the whole person” and 85 percent credited colleges with “more concern about personal development.” The academic program represents a modest portion of what students expect from a small college experience. Students who choose small colleges are interested in social, personal, professional, spiritual and intellectual growth.

Our concern is to making things more intentional. Most college administrators reading this might nod and say, “Oh, we do all three.” But does your institution have the symbols (see above), programs and activities that demonstrate students can personalize the experience or that the college makes an effort to ensure personal and professional development?

Use Small Size to Enhance the Major Field
In our GDA research, the major field has surpassed even career preparation as the most important characteristic to a student looking for a college or university. While many of us who value the liberal arts do not like this trend, it behooves colleges to be aware of it. And for those who say students always change their majors anyway, we offer two insights. First, about three of four students who said they have decided on a major tell us in our surveys that they are either extremely or very committed to that field. Second, even if a student does change his or her mind about a major field while in college, most do not know they will as prospective students. Betting on the self-knowledge of an 18-year-old is high risk. Of course, a small private college can’t compete with a large state institution on the number of courses it offers or the size of its faculty. Yet, smaller institutions can take advantage of one of the traits that students already attribute to colleges — the ability to personalize the experience. One way a college can compete is by urging the customization of a major field by allowing easy access to internships, overseas studies, service learning, collaborative research with faculty, conducting independent research or even creating interdisciplinary majors.

The second way to compete is to urge each academic department to consider ways to enrich its field in some distinctive way. For example, one department might insist on a senior project, while another requires an off-campus experience. An academic department in the humanities might require that all its students fulfill a multi-media communication requirement. A political science department might have local politicians, government workers, lobbyists, propagandists and political fundraisers talk about life in the trenches. A business program might want to focus on the future of business. The objective is to develop interesting and distinctive elements for each field so a prospective student sees a robust experience not easily found at a large institution.

Raise Institutional Visibility
In our first Look at the Future of Private Colleges, we urged private colleges to fully recognize the importance of gaining name recognition. We now make a more impassioned plea to colleges to put greater resources into institutional visibility. In our national studies of college-bound students, nearly four of ten students said they were enrolling in a college they learned of before their sophomore year in high school — nearly a year before your admissions office even contacts them. Another fact: eight of ten currently enrolled students at virtually every college where we have conducted surveys first learned of the college in which they are enrolled via word of mouth (family, friends, alumni, high school acquaintances). Only two of ten learned of your institution through activities of the admissions office (direct mail, attendance at college fairs, etc.). To generate this talk, colleges must create “buzz.” Finally, college admissions offices live and die on their self-initiated inquiries (telephone, letter, e-mail, SAT scores sent). Yet, if obscure, your institution relies only on luck. How do you get visibility? Pay for it. We don’t mean advertising in magazines or on MTV. Our studies show these simply don’t work with the traditional college-bound students. (Advertising can have an impact on your adult market.)

There are hundreds of ways to guarantee your institution’s visibility at relatively low cost. For example, provide educational services to high school teachers. Co-sponsor a “Read-a-thon” with a major radio station. Purchase an advertisement in target regions acknowledging your alumni in that area. Advertise an upcoming visual or performing arts event in a major orchestra’s program even if you know that your campus is too far away to make attendance easy. Regularly conduct a poll on a subject of interest to the public (family, religion, children or a social issue) and place the results with the national media. Ask parents and alumni for suggestions on how to promote your college in their area – then fund some of their ideas. The tendency of most colleges is to pump out news releases in the hopes that one might become a front-page article in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. It is better to invest in guaranteeing your institution visibility with the most important audiences rather than spend time waiting for the blockbuster news article.

Become Experts in One-to-One Marketing
Students tend to assume the treatment in the admissions office reflects how students can expect to be treated at the institution. If customizing the education is what students expect of smaller institutions, then the admissions effort should also be customized. Let me review three principles of one-to-one marketing.

The days of “mail and pray” admissions programs are over. In the recent Consumers in the 21st Century Survey, junk mail tops the list of consumer nuisances with 59 percent of the public indicating they are completely fed up with it. Yet, fully half of the public feel that they do not have enough information to make informed purchasing decisions. One-to-one marketing is the key to a successful admissions program in the future.

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