Straight talk, clear answers and good information attract students of the highest caliber
By Bryce Hinchman
For decades, many colleges have allegedly misrepresented themselves to the public in an attempt to draw as many student applications as possible. In doing so, they may have sought to be “everything to everyone,” says Roland King, vice president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. But even the perception of shielding information from college-bound seniors and their parents has created a serious public image problem for universities across the country.
St. Lawrence and other respectable institutions have spent years trying to reverse the damage by being more open and “transparent” with the public during the marketing process. It starts with being upfront about the cost of tuition, the curriculum and the identity of this rurally-based liberal arts college that harbors some 2,200 students in Upstate New York. Armed with this information, students have the chance to see St. Lawrence for what it really is – and what it really is not.
Because colleges often market themselves inaccurately, many Americans have developed misconceptions, and ultimately mistrust, of the higher education system attributable to its perceived exclusivity and high cost. “A lot of colleges sold themselves as being ‘big enough’ but ‘small enough’; their ultimate goal was getting people to apply no matter what,” King says. “But that’s changing.” Today, institutions are slowly beginning to realize that an enlightened, transparent marketing approach can still attract students of
the highest caliber.
For future scholars, selecting a college and making an informed decision takes time, research and, most important, the resources necessary to make the right choice. They need the facts and figures, whether concerning costs, acceptance rates, average class size, student-to-faculty ratio or any other basic information.
St. Lawrence publicizes all this information to make the task a little bit easier. “People want straight talk, they want clear answers, they want good information that they can understand, and they generally want to be reassured about the whole higher education process,” King says.
With the click of a mouse, college-bound high school seniors can find just about everything they need to know about St. Lawrence. For example:
• Last year, SLU accepted 1,827 out of 5,418 applicants, a 34% acceptance rate.
• The average financial aid package provides almost $30,000 to current students.
• 31% of St. Lawrence students participate in intercollegiate athletics.
• In the event of an emergency, the campus alert system is timely, widespread and reliable.
• Detailed crime statistics dating back to 2005 are posted for the public to see.
• 44% of students in the Class of 2012 were in the top 10% of their high school class.
The list goes on. For future college students, these statistics could make the difference between applying to St. Lawrence and deciding to look elsewhere. In a sense, this openness filters out students who aren’t a great fit and draws in those who are. “There are people who simply should not consider going to SLU for various reasons,” King says. “You are who you are; you know your personality traits, strengths and weaknesses, and the more you can acknowledge that, the better off you’re going to be.”
Fortunately, it looks like St. Lawrence’s efforts have paid off. “I spent a lot of time on the SLU Web site,” King says, “and it’s largely a model for doing it right.”
The rising popularity of the Internet in recent years has given colleges like St. Lawrence a platform from which to communicate better. “This has certainly been my inspiration for starting the Institutional Research Web site,” explains Christine Zimmerman, director of institutional research at St. Lawrence. “In doing so, we can communicate with our own campus community while being more open with everyone.”
Understanding the broader context of the data, Zimmerman says, stands as a critical step in the application process for both parents and future students. “The sticker price alone wouldn’t provide the public with a true understanding of the cost to students if it was posted in the absence of financial aid information,” she continues. “But the Web has provided institutions with an incredible tool to be transparent and provide this much-needed context.”
Building on the Web-based movement for greater transparency, St. Lawrence and over 600 other institutions recently joined the University and College Accountability Network. U-CAN gives the public access to vitally important information – from tuition costs to freshman retention rates – free of charge so that individuals can make informed decisions when searching for the right school. In less than a minute, a prospective student can breeze through the data on U-CAN to see if a college is really worth a second glance.
“The Web site has been a tremendous hit because we were able to address a lot of these basic concerns,” King notes. “Students want something clear, something simple, with reliable statistics.” The partnership with U-CAN has furthered St. Lawrence’s concerted effort to scrub the dirt off the windows, giving the public a more honest and transparent look at this institution.