The Old College Lie

Today’s wisdom from Admit This! is for high school juniors and maybe even sophomores. I’ll include parents in my target audience, too.

You may have heard of giving something “the old college try.” For those of you who have never heard that phrase, it means giving something your best shot, even if you aren’t sure how to do it.

The title of my post today is a play on the words of that phrase, as it relates to colleges tying to sell themselves to prospective applicants. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what a college is really all about, and you should be very careful and discerning when creating your list of candidate schools.

Keep asking yourself, “Why do I want to apply to this college? What is it — exactly — that draws me to it and allows it to get a good grip on my wallet and future earnings?” Those are good “perspective” questions that should refresh how you see any college. Friends’ opinions, siblings’ experiences, and (heaven forbid) rankings are (or should be) irrelevant to your needs.

This is where I make my transition to the murky world of college marketing. A good friend of mine has a great take on marketing. He says that marketing is that discipline, which has been honed to perfection, that makes you run out and buy stuff you don’t need. I’ll raise a glass to that!

Have you ever watched the classic TV series Mad Men? It’s about a Madison Avenue ad agency in the Sixties. What’s interesting about the show, other than the superb acting and soap opera plots, is the inside look at how marketing works. The agency creates ads and, more importantly, images for their clients, who make products ranging from laxatives to rubber gloves (not that those two products are related).

Since we delve into the realm of higher education here (which is also a product), I was struck by the title of an article on Forbes Web site, entitled The Three Biggest Lies in College Admission, by Steve Cohen. This started me to thinking about an old Total Quality Management (remember that?) maxim, which stated “Perception is reality,” meaning that if you think it’s true, then it really is. The article also started me to thinking about the connections between colleges and marketing and perception, not to mention reality. Well, actually, Cohen proposes his perception of college reality in his article.

I have my own perceptions about higher education and, although I don’t view all of them as “lies” (maybe more like bold statements that are somewhere north of misrepresentations), I do believe there are some significant misperceptions, if you will, out there among high schoolers and parents about what they’ll get for their money from a college education. Let’s look at Cohen’s trio of alleged “untruths” and then I’ll venture mine.

Cohen’s three “biggest” college lies are:

1. Standardized test (SAT and ACT) scores are less and less important.

2. Asking for financial aid won’t have an impact on the admission decision; and

3. There is a level playing field in college admissions.

From my perspective, I see #2 as the one with the most potential to mislead. So-called “need-blind” schools these days (perhaps most acutely since the economic woes that began in late 2008) are likely hedging on their policies of not allowing applicants’ financial aid needs to affect their admissions chances. It’s the old story of two equally qualified applicants, one of whom is able to pay 100% of the freight and the other who needs 50% (or more) aid to attend. Guess who has the better chance of getting in.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the costs and the associated returns on investment of higher education. In this post, I’ll confine my comments to undergraduate higher education. Graduate and professional schools are another matter. Perhaps I’ll discuss those in a future post, but for now, I’ll put forth just two (what I’ll call “ill-conceived”) perceptions that may result in unfortunate realities for both students and parents. They are:

1. You need a college degree to succeed in life; and

2. More expensive is better.

Regarding #1, there are myriad examples of highly successful people who either never attended college or who dropped out and never graduated. You can find an impressive list by searching the Web for “millionaire college dropouts.” Perhaps an antidotal (to coin a word) corollary to my #1 might be “Not everyone needs to go to college.” I truly believe that. There are numerous options: trade schools, tech schools, the military, etc. The challenge, however, is determining which path is best for you: college or some other option.

The point of my opinion here is both simple and complicated, especially for high schoolers: Try to understand which is the best path for you after high school. That can be tough. My bottom line for you, though, is this: Don’t believe the common marketing point that you need a college degree to make something of your life. It can definitely help you, but it’s not absolutely necessary. And I won’t even mention here the consequences of huge student (and parent) college loan debt!

My #2 flies in the face of the old saw, “You get what you pay for.” Not true, I say! There are tons of so-called “best buys” out there in College Land. You can also find them on the Web. So, if you have gone through your evaluation process, and decided that you do want/need a college education, be careful of your selection process. Forget for a moment the perils of admissions wars, the battle to just get in. Concentrate, instead, on cost vs. product.

Perhaps the biggest threat to objectivity in this arena is The Power of Prestige. You would be amazed at some of the seemingly irrational reasons applicants propose for “going Ivy.” That’s also a topic for another blog post. Anyway, my final thought on #2 is: Be careful what you buy. College is a product and you are a consumer. All that glitters is not gold. More costly does not mean more cost-effective in the long run.

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Need more evidence of college marketing tactics? Check out this article: A Campus More Colorful Than Reality: Beware That College Brochure. Excerpt:

… colleges try to shape the picture they present to prospective students, says Tim Pippert, a sociologist at Augsburg College in Minnesota.

“Diversity is something that’s being marketed,” Pippert says. “They’re trying to sell a campus climate, they’re trying to sell a future. Campuses are trying to say, ‘If you come here, you’ll have a good time, and you’ll fit in.’ “

Pippert and his researchers looked at more than 10,000 images from college brochures, comparing the racial breakdown of students in the pictures to the colleges’ actual demographics. They found that, overall, the whiter the school, the more diversity depicted in the brochures, especially for certain groups.

“When we looked at African-Americans in those schools that were predominantly white, the actual percentage in those campuses was only about 5 percent of the student body,” he says. “They were photographed at 14.5 percent.” …

Ha! Don Draper couldn’t have done it better than that!

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So, how should you think about all this? Well, think about Madison Avenue, and think about the true realities of higher education. Beware erroneous perceptions. If you don’t, you may end up being a Mad Man or Mad Woman!

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.