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College Spirit or Branding?

October 23, 2006

A common theme of some recent posts here (one, two, three, four) has been the question of profits in higher education. Now comes this Chicago Tribune story yesterday: “Colleges’ recruitment strategy: Win true-blue fans by 8th grade.” Here are some lowlights:

– “Maybe it’s the free tickets to college sporting events. Or the T-shirts. Or perhaps it’s the dream of someday painting your face maroon and yelling yourself hoarse. Whatever the reason, college kids clubs–which offer free admission to athletic events, team paraphernalia and other goodies to those in 8th grade or younger–have become as common on campuses as beer pong tables in frat houses.”
– “Relationships between colleges and youngsters are nothing new, according to Robert A. Sevier, senior vice president, strategy, for Stamats, a higher-education research, planning and consulting company with offices around the country. ‘There’s an old saw in marketing [that] the best time to reach a high school junior or senior is when they’re 14 or 15, or 12 or 13,’ Sevier says. ‘And what you’re really trying to do there is get your name, get the college on the radar screen for these students before everyone else does.'”
– “‘If you were a college in a town that’s very diverse, you would reach out to young kids in the neighborhood to keep them in school, to encourage them, to get them used to the idea of going to college, not necessarily that college.’ [Sevier] cited the Family of Schools program at the University of Southern California, which is a working relationship between USC and a group of neighborhood elementary schools. And Beloit College in Wisconsin has Help Yourself, an after-school educational support program for children in grades 4 through 12 in the Beloit area.
‘Other colleges, their reasons are a little more self-serving,’ Sevier says. ‘Not only do they want them to think of college, they want them to think of a certain college.'”

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Okay, per the USC and Beloit examples, so some schools are trying to reach out to their young neighbors. The overall tone of this piece, however, fits the notion that universities are really just multi-million dollar conglomerates that are trying brand potential consumers at a young age. No wonder those students, when they actually get into an insitution’s classrooms, gripe and complain when they experience the pain of learning. What’s the proper balance? What’s the right way to promote enthusiasm for higher education, or ‘school spirt’, and not just a college’s football or basketball team? – TL

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