As a senior at Windsor-Plainsboro High School in central New Jersey, Kim McCaughey had to choose the site for her post-secondary education. It was a tricky choice; buried somewhere in the shiny heap of college brochures was the right school for her, but how would she find it?
“You wouldn’t believe it. My mail box was just crammed full (of college recruitment material) every day,” McCaughey said. “But I did take the time to read through all of them.”
McCaughey didn’t have any guidelines when she initiated her search. But she says her decision to apply to GW was strongly influenced by the brochures she received. “I wouldn’t have applied otherwise,” McCaughey said.
“My father, an MBA, was impressed and said they (GW) obviously put a lot of money into marketing, into selling the school.”
Now a freshman at GW, McCaughey said she is glad that some of her tuition dollars are spent on marketing strategies.
“I think it’s worth it,” she explained. “The higher the quality of student coming here, the more my degree is worth.”
Something happens here.
Every year, this scenario is repeated in households across the country.
The idea of college as an elite academy is disappearing – education is a common commodity and students are enjoying a buyers’ market in the college search. If universities aren’t literally banging down the doors of high school seniors, schools certainly are trumpeting their presence with brochures and telemarketing.
The advertising is not free – printed materials eat up between one-quarter and one-fifth of GW’s annual recruitment budget, according to Director of Admissions Cathy Napper. The University sends viewbooks to about 100,000 students a year in an attempt to lure them to campus. Of those, GW netted about 1700 students for this year’s freshman class.
“Direct mail in terms of publication and postage is one of the most expensive parts of the admissions program,” Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak said. “It’s an investment that the University makes.”
According to Napper, GW shells out roughly seven dollars for each potential student – $700,000 overall. And she says that, compared with other universities, that expenditure isn’t as painful as it sounds.
“We do well,” Napper said. “For a major resource institution, we tend to be on the below average end.”
Debora Snelgrove, SASS director of communication, oversees the creation of recruitment publications. Snelgrove said she tries to create material that will best match the wishes of the admissions department.
“Something happens here” has been the University’s recruitment theme for three years. The phrase originated from comments Chernak made during an administrative brainstorming session.
“We liked the theme because we felt it coincided with (GW’s President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg) and the changes being made here,” Napper explained.
Between 1989 and 1991, high school seniors were urged to “bring your potential to power,” a theme developed by a GW-hired marketing firm.
The yardstick the admissions office uses to measure the efficacy of the viewbooks is called the “bedroom floor test,” Napper explained.
“When you throw all the brochures on the bedroom floor together, you want to have the one that stands out,” she said. “You want to be the one that someone will put on their coffee table.”
In order to continue producing impressive viewbooks, Snelgrove may need more money. The budget allotted for printing snazzy, eye-catching fliers must cover a variety of expenses, Snelgrove pointed out.
“I know how to get good printing and design,” Snelgrove said. “I know how to buy it.”
Thrifty purchasing is necessary, Snelgrove said. In past years, the cost of labor and paper has steadily risen, but the printing budget has not increased with it.
Like other businesses, the University has a product to sell – a GW degree – and a target audience.
And like many corporations, the University does market research to pinpoint the desires of its prospective customers.
“It is all dictated by the market; what are prospective students doing and what does the admissions department want,” Snelgrove said.
The administration polls students at the beginning of freshman year. On surveys that try to isolate reasons for enrolling at GW, students consistently have fingered brochures as effective hooks, according to Snelgrove.
The point of the brochures, Napper said, is fundamentally to persuade students to visit GW. Once they tour campus and see its location, she said, they are much more likely to choose GW over other universities.
“We do a pretty good job of presentation once they come and visit,” Napper said. “Plus anybody who comes to visit is already predisposed to coming here.”
Another piece of the business puzzle is financial aid. If some students are to receive generous packages, other students must tote the extra weight by paying full tuition. Students from more affluent backgrounds are even more valuable to building an endowment, since family contributions are key.
Napper insisted that students from all points on the socioeconomic spectrum are admitted. “No specific group or area is targeted,” she said. “Rather a type of student is targeted.”
But Napper did acknowledge that GW tends to recruit more heavily in wealthy areas.
“We don’t sit around saying, `let’s recruit all rich people,’ but we do tend to go in areas where people can afford us,” Napper said. “We don’t usually go where we’ll be laughed out of the place because people can’t afford us. But we’re not like, `Oh my God, a poor kid, I can’t talk to him.'”
Price of diversity
Campus diversity remains one of GW’s most touted selling points. Brochures and administrators weave diversity into almost every pitch – and with good reason. During the noon hour, languages from around the globe bounce off the bricks by Gelman Library.
As a result, international students are valuable to the University. But GW’s teeming population of international students come at a price. And exotic hometowns are not the only traits that make foreign students attractive to administrators.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) guidelines bar students from many countries from receiving financial aid, making foreign students a more lucrative, less burdensome group in the eyes of the University.
“What happens is that as a whole foreign students may be more likely to be paying full-freight than domestic students,” Napper explained.
Hunting down international students has become an easier task in recent years with the growth of the Internet. The University also charges Director of International Recruitment Touran Waters with pitching GW overseas. At this writing, Waters is recruiting students in the Middle East.
“I don’t agree with the way the University recruits international students,” freshman Martin Kim said. “What I hear is if you give the school enough money they will overlook your GPA, and if you give them cash it’s even better. Most of these international students are related to very big people in the business world.”
Kim was born in Argentina and lived there for 12 years before
moving to the United States. He is not a U.S. citizen. He is, however, eligible for financial aid as a permanent resident.
Kim said he chose GW based on his campus tour. The viewbooks, he said, had little effect on him.
“I looked into a lot of that stuff (brochures),” Kim said. “I looked at it and I didn’t care.”