Who Are These People and What Do They Want?
Dr. Doug Spedaro
Premier Collegiate Communications
One of the first rules of a successful marketing campaign is ?understand your market.? This is true regardless of what you are selling, including the recruiting of college students. Today?s high school students have a set of personal characteristics and expectations that make them unique among any generation that colleges have tried to recruit before. Recognizing these characteristics and tailoring your admissions process to answer the unique questions, goals, lifestyle, and habits that they might have is the key to a successful year for admissions.
After continued coexistence with my teenage son (at times painful), and his friends (very painful), as well as some good old fashioned research, I feel confident in offering four characteristics and expectations about this generation of up-and-coming college students. Additionally, I offer some suggestions as to how a successful admissions office might use this information to have a great year by recruiting students that best match what you have to offer. Again, these characteristics and expectations are unique to this generation of candidates, but are understandable in the context of their lives.
The Bionic Boy and the Global Gal
Recently at dinner, I was discussing some noteworthy news event of the day with my wife when my teenage son chimed in, ?Oh yea, I read about that.? After a momentary swelling of my chest as I thought that he had actually read a newspaper or a news magazine, I asked ?Where did you hear about that?? His response, as I should have expected, was, ?I saw it today on some blog when I was checking my e-mails.?
I am proud to say that I, too, was ?wired? in college. Only for me, and probably for you, this meant an excess of thick, black, fully-caffeinated coffee. So much so that I would shake as I tried to write my final essay in English Lit. De-rigor for today?s college candidates is obviously different. The height of technology in my dorm room was a ?Mr. Coffee.? Instead, their technological necessities include a cell phone, I-pod or MP3, a laptop, a ?BlackBerry,? universal Internet access and several e-mail accounts. If they are part of the underclass and have only a cell phone and not a ?BlackBerry,? not to worry! Text messages on a cell phone have become a cheap substitute for the BB.
These folks are ?wired? all of the time. What is more significant, first, is that they expect to be globally connected wherever they are. Second, if one of their communication devices is inoperable, it is like you or I missing a limb. They are truly ?one with the machine.?
The implications of this characteristic for admissions are two-fold. First, as far as recruiting is concerned, the college website becomes vitally important. You cannot expect any teenager who is researching colleges to even consider you unless they can anonymously go to a website to explore. Additionally, this website must include an online application, a scholarship calculator, and multiple links to activities, athletics, and academic areas.
Also, for recruiting purposes, all communication to these candidates must include an Internet option. For example, all of the physical mail that our firm sends out includes an option for students to answer via the Internet. This might be a link to a college website in a letter or viewbook. It also includes communication pieces specifically designed with the web in mind (variable data cards) where we establish a website for EACH STUDENT to explore opportunities at the college. This approach seems to pique their ?wired? curiosity as the response to this type of communication has been extraordinary.
The second implication of this characteristic is that the college must be able to accommodate the needs of these students once they are on campus. Campus-wide ?WiFi? is the best option. If not feasible for your institution, then multiple free Internet access areas are a must. To the extent possible, Admissions must influence the capital spending in the technology area.
?Everybody Gets a Trophy?
My teenage son just completed his first year in a youth soccer league. His team came in first with a 7-2 record (Shhh! I am not supposed to know that as we weren?t allowed to keep score!). There was an? wards ceremony scheduled after the last game of the season. As I was standing around with several veteran parents during the game, I happened to inquire ?So what do they get, a little certificate or something?? I was immediately met by looks of shock and incredulity by the parents that had been there several years. After a few moments (5 embarrassing years in my time), a veteran father came over to me, put his hands on my shoulders, and, in the same soft tones I use when I tell my 7-year old the importance of brushing his teeth, said ?Doug, EVERYBODY gets a trophy.? Emphasis on the EEEHHH). ?Did you get up this morning? YOU get a trophy! Did you put on your shoes today? YOU get a trophy!?
As I stood there humbled in my humiliation, I realized that this veteran had stumbled upon a truth of this current crop of college candidates. ?Everybody gets a trophy!? Several recent periodicals have described this high school generation as the most praised generation in history. Not praise for bringing in the biggest class, or praise for landing the new account. Rather, it is praise for doing the most mundane, everyday things. Praise for doing things that were expected of prior generations as a part of everyday life.
The implication for college admissions is clear, ?Everybody gets a trophy.? Colleges and universities should award merit aid to ALL candidates that are eligible for admission. Using a merit aid awards process, even the lowest SAT/GPA/Class Rank combination student expects to get something. If you don?t award to this lowest category, then either don?t admit them, or adjust your awards policy so as to give a token amount to these students.
Additionally, move your awards to the front of the admissions process. If you are going to award merit scholarships anyway, do it early while these ?praised? students are still making up their minds. Most of our clients notify students of eligibility for academic scholarships and grants early in the recruitment cycle. All of our clients also use a scholarship calculator or some other mechanism on their websites that allow students to estimate eligibility on their own.
A Time for Work, A Time for Play
Perhaps because of their ?scheduled? lives, soccer at 4, scouts at 7, today?s high school students view work and play and other activities as very distinct. A recent article in Fortune magazine described generation ?Y? folks as having dismay over the fact that a CEO of a major corporation worked 60 hours per week. ?? they?re sorry it takes you so long to get your work done.? In other words, ?that?s nice, but don?t expect me to do it.?
Today?s high school students view school, play, social activities and downtime as very separate, distinct events. There is a certain amount of time to be dedicated to each, and each activity is supposed to fit in the time allotted. It is not that they don?t care about academics, they do very much. But they also care about other activities equally as well.
The lesson here for admissions professionals is simply that academics are not enough. A solid, well- respected academic program is essential. But, given that many colleges can offer that, what are the key decision factors? They are college amenities, activities, and environment. In other words, what your prospective students can do OUTSIDE of class is of equal importance to what they can achieve
inside of class. Comfortable, air-conditioned, Internet-friendly residence halls, with private or semi-private baths are key. A well-organized set of extra-curricular and intramural sports is also important. A campus atmosphere of cooperation, not only internally, but with the surrounding community as well, is necessary.
If your college has these extra qualities, communicate them to prospective students by all media possible. If your college is lacking in one or more of these areas, then promote their development. If you have one or two of these qualities, then stress those in all of your communications, direct mail, publications, website, e- ails. One of our clients has a spectacular physical plant, thanks to a wealthy alumna. All of the materials that we print or e-mail for them emphasize the amenities offered on-campus right after the well-respected academic programs.
Where?s the Corner Office?
As a corollary to ?Everybody Gets a Trophy? you can imagine that this generation of high-school students expects rewards for what they have invested. In other words, if they are going to commit four years to you, what can they expect in return?
This expectation emphasizes the quid-pro-quo that these candidates demand. Unlike the burning desire to understand Chaucer, these students want concrete results. Those results mean the quality of the job that they can expect upon graduation. Their desires and expectations are limitless, and so are their requirements in terms of a career.
For Admissions professionals, this means promoting a proven record of career placements. We have found that an effective way to communicate this to prospects is through a letter campaign touting the success of graduates. These letters are usually followed by an e-mail from each alumnus featured in the letter series. This direct mail campaign serves as a testimonial to the types of careers that graduates can expect. Also integral to this promotion is a depiction of the skills training, interviews, and placement activities offered by your career services office.
This generation of college candidates presents not only specific challenges, but also generous opportunities to those institutions ready to address their needs and concerns. These concerns and expectations are global connectivity, ample rewards, varied extra-curricular actives, and a clear placement path. The communication of the college?s ability to meet these expectations must cover a wide variety of media including direct mail, publications, Internet, and e-mails. In the short-term, existing strengths that fit these student characteristics must be emphasized, in addition to respected academics. In the longterm, weaknesses in these areas must be addressed by the college, spearheaded by Admissions.