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Susquehanna University. Just follow the river up from the Chesapeake Bay to Selinsgrove, PA and you're there.

Susquehanna University. Just follow the river up from the Chesapeake Bay to Selinsgrove, PA and you're there.

Our blog update is late this week thanks to a time warp — college reunion weekend. It was a minor milestone year for me since graduation from Susquehanna University in 19??. The beauty of aging is that those of us who were never good with numbers now have a built-in excuse for deep-sixing dates.

But Susquehanna University is an institution with proud traditions dating back generations. My own family now boasts four generations of SU alumni with our oldest son a 2010 grad. As a result, I have witnessed many of the recent campus changes firsthand that may represent bigger shifts to some of my classmates.

With the cost of higher education continuing to ascend, and recent graduates emerging to a very tough employment market, the competitive challenges faced by small private colleges have never been greater. Over the past two decades, many institutions have done impressive jobs of upgrading facilities, technologies, and academic departments. College has become such an American rite of passage from high school to young adulthood that parents and alumni have been willing to keep writing checks to fund whatever has been needed. However, it will be harder to keep these ongoing improvements going year after year given present economic realities.

Susquehanna University beat cross-state rival Muhlenberg 17-0.

Susquehanna University beat cross-state rival Muhlenberg 17-0.

For now, Susquehanna University continues to resemble the school and experience I had back in the 19 ____s. It is a little like Brigadoon, an idyllic campus in the small town of Selinsgrove, easy to miss (if you don’t get off the 11/15 bypass) between Harrisburg and Lewisburg, PA. Homecoming is still a big fall weekend of football, luncheons, and even a parade through town (no sign of the giant “Eat Me” cake float/Deathmobile from Animal House).

Susquehanna still stages a Homecoming parade every fall.

Susquehanna still stages a Homecoming parade every fall.

Perhaps the most welcome change is a far more diverse campus community. The numbers of minority students and minority faculty and administration members are definitely on the rise. Successful integration requires all parties to get out of their comfort zones to make new friends and find common and not-so-common ground. There was a lot of evidence that at least on a beautiful fall Saturday in central Pennsylvania, this is now old news. While no one is ever going to classify Selinsgrove as urban, the appearance of Snoop Dogg for a fall concert is one such sign of the times. And with that, I will let a band from my era (who never made it to campus except in countless albums sold) close out this week’s blog.

Snoop Dogg is coming to Susquehanna!

Snoop Dogg is coming to Susquehanna!

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College Marketing Materials: From Here To Infinity

College Marketing Materials: From Here To Infinity

We had a new business meeting this week with the marketing director of a local college. That meeting was about continuing ed, but it prompted me to visit a shopping bag I had kept in the corner of my office after my son headed to campus last fall. The bag was a collection point for all the undergraduate marketing materials he’d received over the course of junior through senior year of high school, from colleges large and small, near and far, looking to fill their freshman class. Hundreds of suitors, who all knew that only one would ultimately be chosen. The Miss America pageant and the nickel slots in Atlantic City offer better odds.
I took the occasion to review many of these postcards, direct mail letters, multi-panel mailers, view books, and other forms of solicitation. Most were also replicated in e-mail form and some with personal web pages (PURLs). It was an incredible example of target marketing run amuck. The deluge began some time after my son’s data was entered online for the taking of the SATs. Multiply him by the number of college-bound students in every high school across the country and you start to get a sense of the crazy business model of higher ed admissions. The goal is to fill as many seats as possible, with the best and brightest you can attract. You have them, hopefully, for three additional years. But every fall, it’s musical chairs all over again.
I was struck by how many images and messages blurred together from one institution to another. All were professionally crafted. Only a few stood out as remotely unique. Campuses and ivy covered buildings look like they were shot for National Geographic. Students are shown with blissful expressions of living in a better place (Brigadoon? Away from home?). Each is chosen by central casting to fill a diversity rainbow and for their Ralph Lauren model looks. Touch football games are big. So is the promise of study abroad programs. Slogans with the words future, career, imagine, and vision abound. There were quite a few mailings with “green” sustainability themes. Given the small forest shown here spread across our conference room table, I got a chuckle out of that conceit.
With so many choices, how do kids and families sort them all out? Everyone has their own criteria and methods. But once the short (hopefully, short) list is arrived at, the campus visits become all important and from each school’s perspective, a minefield. At one top name school, the campus tour guide was completely drowned out by the sounds of construction jackhammers a short distance away. At another, much time was spent (unsuccessfully) silencing the alarm on the front door of a student dorm we were touring. At yet another, prospective students were asked to share something about themselves with others in the room; the problem was that the room was an auditorium full of people, most of whom were pressed for time and were there specifically to learn about that college, not about other prospective freshmen.
The effectiveness of presentations is paramount when you get hundreds of guests into an auditorium. Many that we attended were rambling snooze-fests. Some were technology challenged. And a few were very, very compelling. A really well-done video can compensate for too many speeches from too many campus representatives. Even the Q and A should be carefully prepared for, not with pat answers but thoughtful ones that represent the consistent voice of the institution.
There aren’t any easy answers to college branding and marketing. The processes and messages in place at most schools are well thought out, but often derivative of competing institutions. Really hammering home what is unique about your campus and its offerings is critical. When you throw in the challenges of ever-rising tuition and room and board costs, an especially tight global economy, and competition from more and more online education options, something has to give (and I don’t mean the alumni).

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