in Higher Ed

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.

  1. Agreed, Doreen. No one is going to want to be strong-armed into going to a school, so it seems to make more sense to invest resources in drawing people who’ll leave with the same experience you’ve had at your alma mater, in that, they’re a walking evangelist for the place because it changed their lives that much.

  2. Thanks for your perspective, Andrea. Coming from a program that’s not a school itself, but a program would be a challenge to try to “market” and “sell” but hearing you report back that it’s indeed about the conversations you’re generating that do the most good, is affirming.

  3. I work in higher education but for a small department and program called the Semester in Washington Journalism Program, where students come to Gorge Washington University for one semester and then return to their home schools.

    When I recruit and go on the road to visit campuses, my tactics differ than the average college recruiter. I have found it is much harder to “sell” another institution to a student who has already started the college experience.

    Typically, our recruiting efforts are centered around personal visits and one-on-one conversations with students looking to add something to their existing education. I attended a very small private undergraduate school myself, so oftentimes I look to the sales model my alma mater used when I made that decision to attend. I am also an alum of this Semester in Washington Journalism Program, so when I talk with prospective students I wear two hats, one as an alumna and also one as a recruiter.

    It doesn’t matter if you are a large public university or a small program like mine, the conversation is what matters most. Higher education is one of the most expensive purchases a student (or family) will make in their lifetime and they want to make sure wherever a student ends up that it is going to feel like home. Maintaining the conversation will grow a relationship and students/decision-makers will feel like someone actually cares. The process takes time, but will benefit in the end because you never know how your approach may effect other potential students via word of mouth.

  4. Your post made me think of the book The Paradox of Choice. The author said that in his experience , students who think they’re in the right place get far more out of a particular school than students who don’t. In other words, the subjective opinion of the student holds more weight than the quality of the objective experience.

    So you can “sell” all you want to the student to get him/her there, but at the end of the day if he/she doesn’t value the experience your marketing dollars/antics were wasted.

    I don’t think you would want anyone to be at your school who had to be strong-armed to be there or who fell for a marketing ploy. I loved where I got my higher education and I’m a walking marketing machine for it. So I agree that the relationship cultivation is key and not the school’s slogan.

  5. I think there’s a big difference between what they’re doing at The Olive Garden and what a college offers. In part because, if Olive Garden fails to succeed — they go out of business. If a college isn’t successful, they might go out of business eventually..but it takes a while. If someone goes to buy a car, they’re not borrowing the money on a guarantee from the federal government.

    I think the non-profit status of higher education institutions means we have to hold schools to a higher standard. Most successful schools know this, but there are still those who don’t see things that way and are more interested in the results than the process that gets you the results you want.

    You can eschew much of the salesmanship that goes into the delivery of the product and still manage to get the desired result.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)

  6. College is a business. For most schools it is a business with a solid underlying mission, but it must stay afloat financially to educate future generations (and keep those of us working in higher ed employed at these institutions).

    The use of sales terms doesn’t bother me. Using corporate marketing techniques doesn’t bother me.

    What does bother me is the highly aggressive recruiter, the one who **intentionally misrepresents** the school he or she is selling (yes, I said selling) in order to get a prospective student enrolled. They are no different than shady salespeople in other professions.

    Successful salespeople are often relationship builders, even the waitperson at Olive Garden who puts you at ease and upsells you on that glass of wine or appetizer. (They are trained to do this and evaluated on their success in this regard.)

    I’d even go so far as to say that someone can be at their core inauthentic and/or ambivalent about the product they are selling and come across as authentic and build relationships i.e. the aforementioned waitperson. It could be argued that such a person is talented at sales.

    But I’d prefer not to work with him or her.

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