LINCOLN, Neb. — Forget course catalogs and colorful pamphlets.
Think sex, skiing and rock ’n’ roll.
When it comes to recruiting students for college, admissions officials are turning to increasingly outlandish stunts to get the attention of high schoolers. Birthday cards, ski weekends and even reality TV shows are being used by colleges and universities to get an edge.
Personal contact with students is in. Indiscriminate mass mailings are out.
“Everybody’s trying to do something that isn’t the mundane,” said Dan Kunzman, vice president of admissions at Doane College in Crete in southeast Nebraska.
The marketing efforts are being driven, in part, by the standard issues — college rankings and involved parents. But schools in states including Nebraska also are struggling to fill seats and deal with declining enrollment.
The result is a feeding frenzy among colleges and universities to snare the best freshmen, said Bob Massa, vice president of enrollment at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
But not all of the gimmicks are received with open arms.
After the University of Nebraska-Lincoln agreed to let Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee film his reality show, “Tommy Lee Goes to College,” on campus, some faculty members protested. Local domestic violence and family groups also expressed concern that having the rock star representing the university may not be the best image to project. Lee spent about four months in jail after pleading no contest to kicking his then-wife, Pamela Anderson, in February 1998.
The show is tentatively scheduled to air this summer.
At Doane College, school officials apologized after receiving complaints about recruiting postcards that showed a male student surrounded by women, encouraging students to “play the field.” They were sent to about 13,500 prospective students in California, where the number of high school graduates is on the rise.
The competition for students has picked up in the past decade or so, Massa said.
The most outlandish recruiting ploys are more likely to be hatched by schools in a highly competitive environment, or ones needing to increase enrollment, boost name recognition or advertise a change in mission, said Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of California, Irvine. All of this puts the student in the driver’s seat.
“It’s not a seller’s market,” said Massa, who has been involved with college admissions for 30 years. “It’s a buyer’s market.”
Student recruitment is of particular concern in Nebraska, where demographic changes in coming years will result in fewer college-age people in the state. Enrollment at the University of Nebraska was down 2 percent in 2004, while it dropped nearly 4 percent at its flagship Lincoln campus for a 30-year low.
Meanwhile, high school graduates are expected to increase by more than 10 percent in such densely populated states as California, Florida and Arizona.
“If I had the money I’d rather invite them all to a ski weekend,” said Kunzman, Doane’s admissions director.
That’s what Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe, Pa., is planning for potential students who have applied for admission. Between snow boarding and skiing, students will be given information about financial aid, academic programs and life at the college.
Don Orlando, director of public relations for the college, doesn’t try to hide the goal of the free weekend in February.
“It’s obviously a marketing effort,” he said.
With just 1,050 students, Centre College in Danville, Ky., also goes after high school upperclassmen with a personal touch. Prospective students get birthday cards and phone calls from admission staff and sometimes even the college president.
“We look at this as a long courtship,” said Carey Thompson, dean of admission. “It can often last 18 to 24 months.”
Freshman Andrew Beeler, 20, said his first choice for college was George Washington University, but the personal contact he received from Centre College swayed him to enroll there. One letter had a personal note from a professor about internship possibilities.
“They had been sending me so much information,” Beeler said, “it just seemed like the obvious choice.”
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