In the past week, my 16-year old daughter received letters from the University of Miami, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of Denver, and Texas Christian. There is nothing unusual about strong private universities trying to recruit an academically promising high school junior. But the arrival of these letters, and their contents, say a lot about the standardization of student recruiting.
Here is what I mean. My daughter hadn't received mail from any schools in about a month. Then, in one week, a flurry of letters. This can only mean that the schools sending letters are all using the same vendor to manage their name buys and the early search phase of recruiting. That fact is borne out by the fact that the letters all look the same--they all tell my daughter how promising she is, and they all offer her a special publication (hints on how to have a successful campus visit in one; suggestions on choosing a college in the others). All ask her to log-in to access the information, and provide her a special log-in and password to do so. Three ask her to complete a "quiz' to determine her top major choices. Even the layout of the letter and the envelope look the same.
The gaps in the letters are as interesting as their contents. They contain very little about the institutions, their missions, or their distinctive programs, and this in spite of the fact that these schools are actually distinctive. RPI is a great technology school, Miami is in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the University of Denver offers great programs in business and diplomacy, and Texas Christian is, well, Christian. But unless you were a very well-informed high school junior, you would never know that from the letters.
What does it mean when significantly different institutions recruit students in ways that blur the differences between them? It means first of all that student recruiting, as with many other parts of enrollment management, is becoming standardized, with the assumptions behind standardization being driven by vendors. Among those assumptions is that the first step in recruiting prospective students is to entice them with praise, promise them access to special information, and get them to provide information for the school's recruiting database, which in turn makes it possible for the institution to launch a concentrated marketing campaign at the student.
One has to wonder whether this approach is good either for students or for institutions. Is it likely to connect students early with schools where the students are likely to flourish? Does it provide important decision-making information early enough in the process? Does it create authentic relationships between students and potential schools? And for institutions, does it make sense to put distinctive missions, programs, locations, and other institutional characteristics in the background?
I would guess that the answer to most of these questions is "no." Which raises another question--if these practices don't make sense for students or colleges and universities, how long will we, as enrollment managers keep them up? Probably as long as vendors encourage them and we, out of anxiety about our ability to enroll enough of the "right' students, agree to do so.