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Fishing for applicants with shiny hooks

Glitzy marketing techniques reach out to applicants, but wider pool might be weaker

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 28, 2014

In a video on the Office of Admission webpage, for a minute and a half — as soft electronic music plays in the background — John Krasinski reveals why “you should look no further than Brown University.”

“Take it from me,” he says. “I’m John Krasinski, class of 2001.”

Brown is not the only university using this type of marketing. Harvard’s admission website includes a sixteen-and-a-half-minute video entitled “Welcome to Harvard” that features several stories of current students­ and alums — including those of Natalie Portman and Matt Damon — as well as footage of its campus.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s admission website includes a video comparing the school to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, with a tour featuring Tim the Beaver, MIT’s mascot, robots and a football player dipping a football into liquid nitrogen.

Perhaps the most well-known college admission video was produced by Yale — a lengthy musical video, released in 2010, entitled “That’s Why I Chose Yale.” Students, administrators nd faculty members lip-sync lyrics detailing their love for Yale, explaining the university’s residential college system, showcasing extracurricular activities and profiling sports teams and the student advising program.

One element is missing from each of these ambitious admission videos. None of them mention that there’s a less than 10 percent chance you’ll get in.

It’s not uncommon for schools to use creative marketing techniques to reach students, said Michele Hernandez, a college consultant and former assistant director of admission at Dartmouth.

“It’s a little bit of a factory process,” Hernandez said. “I think it’s a little disingenuous… It’s kind of unfair to encourage unqualified kids to apply.”

Many universities send marketing materials directly to students, Hernandez said, noting the volume of mail her daughter, a current high school junior, receives. “You could probably save the planet just by stopping sending these.”

Indeed, Brown’s Admission Office sends out “thousands and thousands of letters” and “hundreds of thousands of emails,” Director of Admission Jim Miller ’73 said. “Our role is to find the best students we can find, wherever they are in the world. That’s the bottom line.”

While students from lower-income areas — who may have less access to information about colleges — often benefit from the mailings, many students now rely on virtual tours and online college information outlets to inform their college search process, Hernandez said.

“Today’s students depend more on … social media. Schools are trying to change the delivery,” Hernandez said. “They are trying to get more talent, and they’re trying to get more diversity.”

But, she added, “I think sometimes they should be discouraging students to apply.”

Hernandez made a clear distinction, explaining that she thought paper mailings were acceptable ways of reaching students, while an admission information session, or “the travelling road show,” as she calls it, often specifically encourages unqualified students to apply.

In her work as an admission officer at Dartmouth, Hernandez found that sifting through applications was “somewhat of a scientific process.”She added that if students approached her with SAT scores in the 500s — out of a possible 800 section score — asking if they should apply to Brown, she would answer no.

“Students always say, ‘Well, there’s always a chance!’ But really, sometimes there isn’t,” Hernandez said.

“There’s almost never a 100 percent chance that a student will not be admitted to Brown … but, is this about what’s likely to happen, or is this about giving kids a chance?” said Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and admission strategist at Top Colleges.

Unqualified student applications speed up the reading process for admission officers, Hernandez said. While admission officers may spend hours debating between qualified applicants, “they’re not going to spend more than three minutes” on a clearly unqualified student, Hernandez said.

“Schools like Brown have three goals,” Goodman said — to “maximize the number of students who apply,” to “have the lowest acceptance rate” and to “make sure that the combination of those two generates the best class.”

In the U.S. News and World Report’s 2014 rankings of national universities, “student selectivity” accounts for 12.5 percent of the criteria, and an institution’s acceptance rate accounts for 10 percent of student selectivity.

Though Miller said the University’s placement on ranking lists does not “factor at all into our process or our selection,” the Admission Office still advertises certain placements, like Brown’s “Happiest Students” ranking from the 2010 edition of the Princeton Review, said Rebecca Whittaker, director of outreach for admission.

Goodman said a university’s recruitment push often contradicts a high school student’s best interest, because the admission office is part of the university. “Admissions is really designed right now to benefit the institution.”

Despite the questionable implications of heavy admission marketing, universities often feel compelled to compete with one another, Hernandez said.

“All of the Ivies kind of act in concert,” she said. “They’re just doing their jobs.”


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  1. johnlonergan says:

    Brown’s admissions strategy is the worst possible one. Want proof? Only 54% of those who apply decide to take up Brown on its thumbs-up. We’re clearly second or third choice. Brown or Harvard? Harvard has a 92% acceptance rate. Brown or Stanford? Stanford’s is 84%.

    We’re failing–why is that?

    Three reasons:

    1. We don’t reach out to find the best applicants from millions available around the world. Where are the next Mahatma Gandhi’s, Nelson Mandela’s and Barack Obama’s. Had Albert Einstein been approach by Brown? No, of course not.

    2. We rely on an over-the-transom model. 29K apply, 2700 get accepted, 1600 attend. The response from the Admissions Dept. is “yes” or “no.” There are no intermediate responses. It all takes place at one point in time.

    3. Further on point 2: we do not reach out to grade schoolers and high schoolers around the world. Hello, we’re in the 21st Century–relationships are formed and built over years. Why aren’t we reaching out to and teaching AP classes in good and poor schools alike? Why aren’t we teaching to non-US students? Why aren’t we being pro-active, and finding students before they find us?

    Marketing? Brown has no idea what Marketing is about. We alums do. It’s what we have done successfully time after time. Has anyone from Brown asked us for our expertise?

    The answer is clear–>Brown has lost leadership, is the second- or third choice or not a choice at all, it is passive and terrible at building relationships.

    We know how to improve it. OK, Brown Administration, we’re waiting for your phone call.

    • Slimdink Slam says:

      John, They are doing worse than you think. See FORTUNE Magazine Feb 24 issue article by Erika Fry.

    • JohnButNotTheSameJohn says:

      #1 and 3 seem like the same point? And it seems that these are goals that the AdOffice at least nominally tries to achieve, e.g., Miller’s comment “Our role is to find the best students we can find, wherever they are in the world. That’s the bottom line.” I think you believe that a better job can be done (you are probably right). Can you say more about what that would be?

      Could you elaborate on #2? What is an intermediate response here?

      Finally: We will often lose out on direct competition with schools like Harvard in admissions. Do you think trying to “beat” them is really a worthwhile goal?

      • johnlonergan says:

        1 relates to vastly increasing the pool, while 3 refers to forming relationships. I use Apple equipment because of the relationship I’ve built up with Apple over years; that’s called building a brand relationship. Brown’s admissions policy needs to build a relationship before admission.

        Should Brown compete with Harvard? No, Brown should surpass Harvard. Brown should take the leadership in educating tthe world, as it did for a short time after Magaziner-Maxwell.

        • whatever you say says:

          Sure, we can beat Harvard. We’re only about $75 billion short in resources compared to them, but sure.

          Brown is a niche Ivy. An Ivy to be sure, but I just don’t think it’s going to attract and matriculate the same kind of student who also has Harvard as an option. And frankly, my reading of the student body- and many, many alums- is that’s how they like it.

          • johnlonergan says:

            If your competitor (Harvard) is beating you in your traditional area, change the rules of the game.

            Harvard’s $34 billion endowment will always be much larger than Brown’s. Brown can’t beat Harvard on alumni contributions.

            Given that Brown currently funds itself from tuitions, grants and alumni contributions, it needs to change the game:

            – Educate millions instead of just the 1,600 per year who come to Brown
            – Charge high school students, alums and others interested for the privilege of taking Brown courses
            – Create a ‘sliding scale’ of Brown distance learning that moves from freemium, online courses to virtual degree studies. Charge from $0 to $60,000 and more per year.

            Only by adopting this form of thinking can Brown move beyond its focus on Harvard and Yale. Stop complaining that “Harvard is bigger and better-endowed.” Change the game.

          • And yet you remind us repeatedly in your numerous posts that other universities (and for that matter, non-university education sites) are better at providing online courses. How is changing the game going to help when you choose a game that’s just as stacked, or more so?

            We do charge high school students for the privilege of taking Brown courses. It’s called summer@brown and it’s really not all that special.

            Educating millions is only going to work if you can reach them, provide better coursework than the numerous online resources already available (not to mention local resources for many students) AND convince them that it’s worth their while and money.

          • johnlonergan says:

            Thanks for your reply.

            Brown is not even scratching the surface in forming teaching relationships with high school students. Brown could offer Brown-branded and -supported online teaching for a variety of AP courses in both upper-class secondary schools and struggling high schools where there are few teaching resources available. By doing so, Brown could:
            (1) reach out to millions of potential applicants to Brown
            (2) fulfill a social mission of assisting secondary education, and
            (3) hone its skills in working with teachers and students online

            Summer@Brown? Too little, too late. Ineffective. Expensive. Sooooo last century!

            Are you afraid that Brown’s teaching is not up to global standards? If so, then we have a deeper problem that Brown can’t compete. I hope that’s not the case. We will find out by competing and succeeding on the world stage.

            Resources? Why does everyone at Brown think that online teaching costs Brown money? Is it because Brown spent over $300,000 on two Coursera courses? That experiment was horribly expensive, and horribly misleading. A prof can create an online course ala Khan Academy using an iPhone, Youtube upload and a sheet of paper–hardly resource-intensive.

          • Brown-branded high school or AP courses are in fact probably not free. I don’t know what world you live in, but simply producing a video does not equate to a course, even in a very modern digital model. This is particularly true in the case of a struggling high school, where, frankly, the problem is not an issue of having the actual educational material and more an issue of having the support required for students to succeed. I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that an iPhone and a sheet of paper would even come close to helping the problem.

          • johnlonergan says:

            Have you ever gone to You need to understand how courses are taught.

            “Probably not free”? What are you talking about. Think along with us here…

            The key question is: does Brown want to form relationships with students in AP classes in high schools?

          • Don’t patronize me John. Of course I’ve been to Khanacademy.

            Direct physical resources are not the only thing that costs money.

            Your key question is decidedly unhelpful. Would anyone say no? We are discussing how.

          • johnlonergan says:

            Sorry, my comment was edited. In my comment, I talked about how.

            The question is: can you think constructively about the 3 points:
            1) Teach millions, not thousands.
            2) Flip the classroom, improve teaching and retention.
            3) Accept from a pool of millions from around the world, not just 29000 applications coming over the transom.

          • Chad Johnson says:

            Jim Miller & Co are provincial. They will not deliver.

          • johnlonergan says:

            So Chris, what can we do about this? Accept inertia or change the rules of the game?

          • and who would run the Brown Education Company? John Lonergan?

          • maybe if it takes off you can sell us to Snapchat

          • johnlonergan says:

            Which would you rather do, go hat in hand to the alums and continue to pay sky-high tuition, or develop income streams that can reduce tuitions and ensure Brown’s long-term viability?

            And no, I don’t want to run Brown or turn it into a for-profit. I just want to see my alma mater join the 21st Century.

            Do you have a substantive comment, or are you happy to remain a member of the Lumpenproletariat?

          • johnlonergan says:

            On the chance this won’t be edited out:
            Brown must teach high school AP classes. Brown can charge rich students in wealthy districts, and do it for free in poor districts. Brown needs to use its best teachers–put its best foot forward.
            The cost of putting this together (other than profs’ time) is minimal.

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