What Parents Aren’t Telling You About Your Campus Visit

College Campus Grounds

My backyard barbeque visits and social gatherings have become a bottom-less pit of valuable information for Higher Ed marketing and admissions executives. I’m at the age where my friends and social set are seemingly all going through the college search with their children. They have become expert consumers who consistently share their frustrations as well as what stood out.

But if you’re wondering why you don’t hear these insightful comments, here’s why:
“I don’t want to do anything to hurt their chances of getting in.” – Jim*

Higher Ed executives, meet my friend “Jim” (name redacted to not hurt his daughter’s chances of getting in).

Jim lives in Florida and is the father of “Sue,” (also not her real name), a rising senior at a very well-respected private school. Sue is a dream prospect for most schools – top of her class, tons of diverse activities, a compassionate classmate plus she can meet the expense of any school on her list. Sue has her eyes set on a handful of highly selective schools, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. They’re all private colleges with enrollments primarily in the 2,000 to 5,000 range.

Jim is a healthcare marketing executive and the leader of “Sue’s Great American College Tour”.

What Jim (and Dozens of Other Parents) Aren’t Telling You

Jim: There are 4 major components of the university visit almost always could use some improvement. Here’s what I’ve noticed when visiting these schools with Sue.

1. Curb Appeal

It amazes me how some of the colleges don’t think about this. We’ve experienced difficult parking, poor campus signage (which increases the angst as we struggle to find the correct building), even a remote shuttle experience which quickly deflates any excitement we have of arriving on campus. These might be small things, but it they set the tone for the rest of the visit.

Building Corridor

2. Welcome Wagon

In many cases, while the staff we meet are generally friendly, there is still an air of intimidation and power that exists. When you check in at a desk it feels like you’re a number instead of a welcomed guest. One school we visited had someone at the door greeting us with a handshake and saying “we know you have lots of choices, so we’re thankful you’re considering us. Welcome.” It made us feel like rock-stars, which is why it’s probably not a surprise that school is still in the mix. Colleges that act as if they’re hosting guests in their home will stand out amongst from the competition.

3. Waiting Time

Inevitably we get to a campus information center or tour thirty minutes in advance – Sue is nervous about being late and somehow that being a mark against her chances of getting in. I’m struck by how eager we are at this moment and yet how few schools capitalize on this captive and anxious audience. We tend to grab a brochure if they’re around or I try to keep her off her phone without embarrassing her. Whether it’s having students or administrators engage us in a conversation to learn more about us or helping us figure out the culture of the school, we are eager understand what this school is about and if Sue will be a fit there. This waiting time is a prime opportunity for schools to engage with attentive consumers, and catapult themselves ahead of their competition.

Socializing on campus

4. Information Session

They all blur together. It’s as if they are all looking over their shoulders and trying to mimic one another’s presentations, which in general are staid and lifeless.

At one elite school we sat through a presentation with a small group of families in a large, very empty auditorium. Instead of the presenter seeing this issue and moving the spread-out group together to have a more intimate conversation with the small group of us, we remained in the room full of empty chairs attempting to listen to the presenter who we could barely hear.

At another school, the presenter droned on for 45 minutes. The bar is extremely low here.

Engage us. Entertain us. Show videos of dorm rooms.

But please, show us. Don’t tell us. I’m sending my daughter to a new home for four years – I need to know this is the right place. Plus, this information session I’m sitting through… I’ve seen 90% of this on your website. I made the trip here to see what I couldn’t see online.

One suggestion I would have is to break it in to smaller groups so it’s more customized and personal.

3 Things Prospects Want, But No School Gives

Dorm rooms. Food. Classrooms.

Dorm Room

You have to know this. It’s not just Sue and myself. It’s brought up by other parents on just about every college visit. We want to see these things yet few let us experience even one, and none let us see all three.

I know there might be barriers here, but there’s always a creative way around it.

It’s basic marketing. Give your ready-to-buy customers what they want. On campus tours this means dorm rooms.

Even if you fabricated a model dorm room in the Visitors Center, or showed us a video tour, it’d be a home run. Why not give us a voucher for lunch in your cafeteria? I can’t tell you how many times Sue has simply snuck in to college cafeterias as a secret shopper. I thought she was crazy, by my friends going through this all share stories of their kids doing the same. Why not have an information session in a classroom? Schools that figure this out will flat out win the talent war. It could be billed as a VIP tour that no other college gives you and we as parents would be all over it.

Tour Guides

Our favorite part of the experience, but also while maybe not the make, it can definitely be the break. Tour guides for the most part are pretty good, however, they do a poor job of engaging their audience. They have a script, and damn it, that’s what you’re going to get. One simple thing I’d do if I were in charge is to have the tour guide get personal up front. Ask us our names, where we are from and what specifically we’re interested in on the tour. Slightly modifying their script to emphasize our area of interest would be a huge differentiator. Again, I’m afraid the reason they don’t ask is they know the answer will be “dorm room, food and classroom.”


College Team Store

The fact that schools don’t give swag amazes me. Even a coupon for a t-shirt in the campus book store or a free meal in their cafeteria would be a game changer. I hear that this happens more with admitted students, but at this stage it’s still an actual influencer. The most memorable part of any on campus visit to date for Sue is a free ice cream sandwich that one school wove in to their narrative as part of their rural appeal and dairy farming industry in their town. I’m thinking “we’re deciding on forking over north of $250K and a $.50 item is having an influence?”

A t-shirt or visual piece of swag instantly becomes a natural social media marketing campaign. My daughter would be sharing that on Snapchat in a heartbeat. I don’t get how schools don’t see this nominal expense as paying significant dividends. Again, so few are doing anything at this stage, it would be a huge differentiator.

Thanks to Jim, you now have a snapshot of what parents are secretly thinking as they make decisions on your campus. If any of those made you cringe (“oh no, that’s us”) then hopefully we’ve sparked an interest in making changes. However, the good news is most of these suggestions are actionable. Collectively, the schools that find ways around their barriers, listen to the customers, and act on this will win the game.

If you liked getting insights from “Jim,” and would like to suggest the next topic for a parent Q&A, let me know on twitter at @_JaySharman.

About Jay Sharman

Jay Sharman is the CEO and founder of TeamWorks Media, a purpose-driven marketing company in Chicago’s West Loop. TeamWorks helps not-for-profit and higher education clients combine purpose and profit by creating innovative marketing strategies... More about Jay Sharman »

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