"No matter what it is called, who does it or where in the institution it is being done, universities are engaging in marketing activity." That message shocked academics when a marketing professor named Richard Krachenberg first delivered it in a 1972 Journal of Higher Education article. What schools referred to as recruiting was really advertising, Krachenberg pointed out, financial aid was pricing and the bloodletting ritual of changing the curriculum was just product development.
Nowadays the marketing is right out front. Universities on the make hire image creators to give themselves a new brand -- "Freedom with Responsibility" was the mantra under which Brown University powered its way from Ivy League doormat to the hottest school in the country in barely a decade -- while those at the top of the ladder fiercely defend their position. When Harvard University started to lose budding high-tech entrepreneurs to Stanford University, it dropped its long-standing policy that forbade students from operating businesses in their dorm rooms and launched a technology and entrepreneurship center.
In an effort to lift Vanderbilt University to Ivy League status, The Wall Street Journal reported, the school revived a Jewish studies program to recruit Jewish students who, according to Chancellor Gordon Gee, "by culture and by ability ... make a university a much more habitable place in terms of intellectual life." (Religiously affiliated schools such as Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University are, improbably, doing the same thing.) Dartmouth College flies in its 80 most desirable applicants, more than the number of potential faculty it brings to campus for job interviews.
Around the country, top students are treated as pampered consumers whose preferences should be satisfied -- the idea that they're really neophytes whose preferences are formed by a college education is generally dismissed as quaint. "The objective of the enrollment process," says William Elliott, Carnegie Mellon University's vice president for enrollment management (goodbye, admissions director; hello, corporatese), "is to improve your market position."
To be sure, there were snickers when Beaver College, outside Philadelphia, consulted focus groups and changed its name to Arcadia University, and furrowed brows when Dickinson College, a traditional liberal-arts school whose origins date back to the American Revolution, selected William Durden as its president. Durden had been a vice president at the for-profit firm Sylvan Learning Systems -- the "dark side," as some academics say. But both moves were seen more as gauche than as substantively shocking.
Dickinson had slipped behind the competition. It was drawing weaker applicants, having to admit more than three-quarters of them and paying a king's ransom to get them to come. The school was in danger of dropping off the all-important U.S. News & World Report list of America's top 50 liberal-arts colleges.
Durden's ambition, he said, was to propel the school into the top 20, and recruiting much better students was the way to go. Nothing unusual in that these days. So he hired a marketing consultant -- again par for the course -- who concluded that the college's mission could fairly be summarized in a phrase: "Freedom + Guidance = Growth." But that emblem didn't separate Dickinson from the pack. A stronger "positioning statement" was "Reflecting America, Engaging the World," the consultant wrote, because it "sets Dickinson apart from its competitors, resonates well with prospective students ... and elicits enthusiasm from alumni." There was just one problem, the consultant wrote: "It doesn't reflect current reality." Through new programs and the repackaging of existing ones, Durden set out to change that fact.
There was nothing too unusual in that, either. The gospel at liberal-arts colleges used to be that all programs are equally excellent. Now schools push academic ventures that create buzz, and hardly anyone gets ruffled.
More controversial is the way that many schools now use financial aid as leverage to recruit students from relatively wealthy backgrounds with their relatively high SAT scores. It's a strategy that both bolsters the college's status and minds the bottom line. While super-rich schools such as Harvard have long had a need-blind admission policy (Princeton University has gone even further, giving scholarships rather than loans to anyone with financial need), very few places can afford such largesse. Instead, they try to get the biggest SAT-score bang for the buck. "It used to be, providing aid was a charitable operation," Michael McPherson, president of Macalester College and a higher-education economist, told The New York Times. "Now it's an investment, like brand management."
"We look at past results to estimate what giving students with a 1,350-plus SAT score $17,500, versus $15,000, would do for enrollment," we were told by Robert Massa, a Dickinson vice president who has been a leader in transforming college admissions from a semi-pastoral calling into a science. Dickinson's regression model incorporates such factors as a student's home state and ethnic background, whether the student or the school initiated contact, and whether the student is seeking early admission. Those variables correlate with a student's likelihood of attending, and the higher the likelihood, the smaller the award.
A couple of years ago, a retired college admissions officer named Tedd Kelly launched a version of Priceline for higher education. At his Web site, ecollegebid.com, students declare how much tuition they're willing to pay, and colleges eager to fill empty seats make a deal. Financial-aid officers objected that Kelly was making sacred educational decisions turn on the "almighty dollar," but his real sin was doing in public what many schools had already been doing on the sly.
At Dickinson, where Massa makes no apologies -- "This is totally in line with our peers" -- enrollment management has exceeded expectations. In three years, SAT scores have risen nearly 100 points, even as fewer students receive aid, fewer scholarships are based on need and the "discount rate" -- the percent below the school's "sticker price" that the average student pays -- has fallen dramatically.
If this is smart market behavior, however, it's also ethically debatable practice. Students from richer families gain from it and poorer applicants lose, because a college bent on the strategic use of its financial-aid dollars can almost always buy a student with the same or better SAT scores for less money than a poor applicant would require. At Dickinson the number of first-in-their-family college students, the William Durdens of this generation, has been halved in just three years.
Nonetheless, even public schools, where tuitions are lower, are trying to raise or maintain their status by taking the same shortcut and going after high-scoring students. Across the country, they are enticing students with theme dorms focused on everything from Africana to environmentalism, with housing and meals that Hyatt would be proud of (and, in some cases, actually provides) and with gyms fit for Olympians. Among public universities it's not unusual to find that money is also being spent on an "honors college" -- a small, highly selective liberal-arts school within the precincts of the mass-education-oriented university, which offers separate classes and generous financial-aid packages to top students.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of honors colleges has doubled since 1994 to more than 50, and it is no longer just the state universities' flagship campuses that have them. Ordinary state colleges do, too, although training an elite, as one researcher told the Chronicle, was never supposed to be their mission.
At the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst, the board of trustees launched Commonwealth College in 1999. "We wanted to improve both public higher education and the perception of public higher education," said Aaron Spencer, a UMass trustee and board chairman of Pizzeria Uno. While the state wasn't about to make a major investment in such improvements, with just a few million dollars -- spent on scholarships, smaller classes and spruced-up housing -- and aggressive marketing, the Commonwealth College degree could become an academic status symbol.
There was resistance to this plan from some UMass Amherst undergraduates, including the head of the student government. In one three-hour confrontation with Spencer, the program was called "racist and classist ... not socially responsible." And, indeed, representation of blacks and Hispanics at the honors college appears to be about half what it is at UMass as a whole. But this doesn't trouble Spencer, who professes an "empathy for those from modest circumstances who try and improve themselves," yet muses aloud, "What's wrong with a basketball team that's predominantly black and an honors college that's predominantly white?"
There are other unappealing ways to improve a college's reputation -- for instance, by rigging its U.S. News ranking. No matter that the magazine's methodology in choosing "America's Best Colleges" wouldn't pass muster in an elementary statistics course; a school's place on the list can have a make-or-break impact. Economists Ronald Ehrenberg and James Monks found that for each U.S. News rank that a school moves up, proportionately more of the students it accepts -- and more of those with better SAT scores -- choose to enroll.
These stakes are high enough to tempt even the most selective schools to practice the kind of creative accounting that Enron would applaud. Rates of alumni giving are factored into the U.S. News rankings, so colleges simply eliminate from their database -- by reclassifying as deceased -- graduates who aren't likely to donate. Schools routinely fiddle with average SAT scores to make themselves look better.
U.S. News also places great weight on a college's selectivity (the percentage of applicants it admits and the percentage of those admitted that enroll). And this fact, rather than any academically defensible justification, is why schools have been relying more on early admissions. Columbia University, for instance, filled 49 percent of its most recent incoming class with early admits, more than double the proportion of a decade ago. The academic records of early admits are typically weaker than those of students who sweat it out until April, but there's nearly a 100 percent yield on early-decision admissions.
The result, as James Fallows argued in The Atlantic Monthly last September, is "nakedly unfair." Students who can make a commitment before getting a financial-aid offer are obviously more likely to be from well-to-do families. But the practice continues.
As does the practice of encouraging as many applicants as possible. Colleges know that the more they reject, the better they look on the "selectivity" score. Some colleges are known to reject top applicants that they suspect won't attend. "They think they're Ivy League material," said Gregory Goldsmith, former admission director at Franklin & Marshall College, and "we're not Harvard."
It doesn't take a Holden Caulfield to figure out that it's wrong to ask students to lie about themselves to such places, dumbing down their applications in order to gain admission. But that is precisely the kind of thing that students with access to sophisticated advice are learning to do. After all, for students, too, the name of the game is prestige. A degree from a top-ranked school pays off handsomely in earnings and status. And with ever more students competing for the same number of places at 40 or 50 top colleges and universities, it's not just the institutions that are engaging in what economist Gordon Winston calls "positional warfare."
More and more often, ambitious applicants are hiring coaches to help them package themselves. For top dollar -- for $28,995, to be precise -- they can buy the advice of Katherine Cohen, founder of a company called, aptly enough, IvyWise. For that ransom (and for the one-seventh of Cohen's clients who are taken on pro bono), this 30-something college counselor with a doctorate from Yale University gets her young clients internships with Hollywood directors, cabinet secretaries and Metropolitan Museum of Art curators. She isn't shy about phoning admissions deans, and they return her calls.
"I don't guide applications," Cohen says, "I guide lives." By the time she is finished with them, her adolescent clients know the schools to which they are pitching themselves inside out, down to which clubs they'll join and which classes they'll take as freshmen; they even read a book by one of their future professors. All this raw material filters into the personal essay that, combined with an über-résumé, yields the irresistible application. The drill for interviews is just as rigorous. Students write out answers to a hundred potential questions and do a videotaped trial run for each of the six or eight schools to which they apply. Parents who can afford the Cohen treatment think it's a bargain, as four out of five of her charges get into one of their two "reach" schools.
Of course, positional warfare, as practiced both by colleges and students, isn't the main reason why the poor are less likely to go to college; money is. While 80 percent of students in the highest income quintile go to college, less than half of those in the bottom quintile do, and the gap is considerably wider for four-year colleges.
But the new -- or at least newly sophisticated -- tactics of the competitive admissions marketplace do influence who gets into the elite private institutions and the honors colleges in public universities; and, as is true in most markets, there's nothing equitable about it. Poorer students can't afford to remake themselves as attractive candidates to selective schools. They also fare badly when financial aid is understood "strategically." It used to be said that higher education replicated the nation's inequalities. These days it's making things worse.
What's to be done? On rare occasions, schools can buck the market and win. When Dickinson decided not to require applicants to submit SAT scores, it risked the wrath of U.S. News & World Report, which relies on those scores in ranking colleges. But Dickinson was trying to send a signal to minority students, and it worked. They applied in considerably greater numbers -- nonwhite enrollment has doubled in recent years -- and, presumably, so did many other students who suddenly saw the fusty college as a cool place. Last winter the University of California, also worried about diversity, announced that it might take the same step, a move that sent shock waves through admissions offices across the country.
In general, though, schools are faced with a classic prisoner's dilemma: If they act alone, they lose. It would be nice if colleges were inclined, and permitted by antitrust rules, to act in benign collusion, opting out of the worst excesses of the market struggle. That would mean, for starters, spending less on hotel-style housing or on wiring every campus cranny and more on financial aid for those who really need it; recruiting more heavily in working-class and inner-city schools; democratizing access to good college advising (as the Internet is starting to do); turning the honors college, with its smaller classes and higher aspirations, into a model to which all of public higher education should aspire; and once again making need or merit, not market savvy, the principle on which scholarships are allocated. But with the competition getting stiffer every year and the stakes getting ever higher, don't hold your breath.
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