Less selling, more relationships

The Used Car Salesman
Image by TexasEagle via Flickr

When did the process of marketing higher education become more about the ‘sale’ than about actually cultivating relationships with students?

Smaller schools don’t have a choice but to engage in these personal relationships and it’s an advantage they use to pick off achievers who might look elsewhere if they felt comfortable or welcomed.

I was reading a blog post that effectively said, “Yes, the prospective student wants to hear from a real student, but not everyone’s comfortable buying a $150,000 product from a 20 year old. (Like parents.)”

When did the college search process become akin to shopping for a new car? I’ve been guilty of using this language about salesmanship, but it’s usually just reflective of the transition. It’s just serves to further legitimizing the shift from some holistic form of admission to an “enrollment management” mentality that places bean counting over projecting an authentic message of “our mission is more than about dollars and cents.”

Higher education isn’t the only field afflicted by this, as much of what dominates the health care discussion these days is an ability to pay, rather than focusing on getting people better.

But back to higher ed. I’m tired of hearing about new forms of “marketing” that we can “use” to reach students. I recognize that you have to make sure that your message is being heard. You need to ensure that the people you’re trying to reach can hear you or else, you’re wasting time and valuable resources for naught. But there’s a big difference between helping a young person choose¬† a good school and pushing them to buy a used Miata with too many miles and no warranty.

In our ever constant desire to push the boundaries and to “reach” more of our audience –parents, students and alumni — that we don’t encroach on their right to ignore us. Not every message will be heard, not every campaign will resonate. The best thing we can do is use experience to figure out what might reach our audiences, target them effective and then do the follow-on work to discover whether our appeals really worked or not.

But the language of sales would be best left behind. College isn’t a Cadillac.