After Grinnell College accepted Chicagoan Katy Weseman, she received a goodie bag from the Iowa-based school that included clothes, a $10 phone card and a videotape as part of a signing inducement. More important, Grinnell offered the 18- year-old a huge merit award that would have dropped the college's tuition to a fire-sale price of less than $20,000. Weseman ultimately chose Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, because of its reputation for landing its students in top graduate schools, but not before she'd wrestled with the financial appeal Grinnell threw her way.
Facing a similar dilemma, Weseman says, a high-school classmate chose Grinnell, following the money. And another friend initially leaned toward Amherst College in Massachusetts for its finanical aid package, then considered Yale University after Amherst's promised package fell through, then thought about the University of Chicago, which offered her a huge merit award. In the end she wound up at Yale, but only after her father got on the phone to the college's financial aid department and extracted a better package from the Ivy League school.
Such hardball maneuvers are commonplace these days, says Daniel Crabtree, admissions director of Wheaton College in Illinois. "I'd label magazines like Money the culprits, because they're telling people to negotiate and fight for the best deal. But at Wheaton, we don't play that game. So we say, 'Sorry, this is the package.' And some people get very mad about that. The mentality is, 'You owe me, you owe my kid.' "
Newspapers may teem with stories of under-the-table deals offered to star athletes, but today's high- school seniors need not be physical marvels to be lavished with gifts from college recruiters. In the last decade, the experience of choosing a college has been thrown into a turmoil that has rocked the admissions and financial aid departments at colleges nationwide and transformed the selection process into a consumerist choice, with issues like "value for dollar" and "complex rankings" now the norm. Likewise, the issue of paying for college now resembles "real world" salary negotiations, complete with signing bonuses and flurrying counteroffers. All told, most colleges spend several thousand dollars on recruitment costs for every student enrolled.
IMAGE IS ALMOST EVERYTHING Yet in this process, intellectual and emotional issues can get shoved aside. Not surprisingly, today's college kids show record levels of detachment from academia, low trust in the college as an institution and a focus on getting past the college years to start reaping paychecks. And to an unprecedented degree they are making their college selection choices based on image and value, as pragmatic consumers. Marketers who are targeting this group ignore these attitudinal changes at their own peril.
A decade ago, divvying up financial aid for undergraduates worked in a fairly straightforward manner. Families sent off financial information to the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey. That data was fed into an algorithm which generated the family's estimated contribution. Working with this figure, the financial aid office at each college would shape a package of loans and grants to cover the difference between what parents could pay and the price of attendance. While a student's projected debt load might vary somewhat between colleges, the price to parents held fairly steady. The underlying concept for the system was this: Students should choose colleges based on "fit," not finances. In fact, this was precisely the logic around which student aid was developed in the early 1960s.
But starting in the early 1990s, a variety of forces began to shift this process away from its roots in ivory-tower idealism toward one that is driven by the bottom-line approach of commercial negotiation-much to the consternation of some school administrators. One of the driving factors behind the new face of financial aid has been the low birth rates of the early '70s, which bottomed out between 1972 and 1978, a period during which U.S. births never exceeded 3.3 million, and reached a nadir of 3,136,965 in 1973. Prior to that period (and currently), the figure hovered near 4 million births a year. Naturally, 18 years after that low-natality trough of the '70s, many colleges have found themselves fighting to keep enrollment up. For these institutions, it's the scarcity of prospective students that is the mother of all problems. Because so many of a college's costs-like maintaining gymnasiums and paying professors-are fixed, the schools find themselves in the same spot as airlines: selling seats at any price to avoid operating below full capacity. For administrators, every empty desk in a classroom or an unused dorm room represents another step toward running at a loss.
Another seismic shift in the college landscape has come from changing attitudes among entering freshman: value is now the hottest topic among high-school seniors. Since 1966, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program's (CIRP) annual poll of college students has surveyed a total of 9 million freshmen at a wide range of institutions nationwide, creating the most in-depth picture of their attitudes available. Among those factors ranked "very important in selecting this college," the one that has risen most sharply in the last decade is a school's willingness to offer financial assistance: it jumped 62 percent, from 20.2 percent in 1987 to 33.8 percent in 1997. Over the same time frame, the second-strongest rise was "offers low tuition," which spiked to 30.1 percent from 20.9 percent.
But is that what's behind the push by parents to play colleges against each other, hoping for more grants? Steve Kappler of Iowa's Stamats Communications, which surveys high-school juniors and seniors, says there is often another reason for the parents' pushiness: sloppy financial planning. His company's 1997 study found that 74.6 percent of parents saved less than the national average in the survey, $5,590; the average amount set aside for higher education by those under-savers: a paltry $1,561.
So financial aid issues routinely skirted just ten years ago are now on the front burner, and college representatives find themselves forced to defend tuition rates by citing job placement and grad-school acceptance figures that prove there's a payoff to that large investment.
"The concept of value treats colleges like cars. It's very different than choosing the best," says Bill Young, director of admissions at the Colorado School of Mines, a state school in Golden, Colorado, that specializes in training engineers. Fortunately for Young, his school consistently wins high value rankings because its programs are well respected and annual tuition only runs around $12,000.
Not surprisingly, prestigious state schools such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have become far more popular in this value-driven environment. As new data in Michael McPherson and Morton Shapiro's book, The Student Aid Game (Princeton University Press), reveals, 38 percent of freshmen in the Class of 1994 came from families with annual incomes of $200,000-plus, but wound up at public colleges-22 percent more than in 1980. For the rich, it seems, state schools, like outlet malls, no longer bear the stigma of downward mobility.
In the battle for students, particularly bright students from wealthy families, one of the marked changes in the student aid process has been the increase in the number of merit awards like the one Grinnell offered Katy Weseman, grants given to potential freshmen regardless of their financial need. Essentially, these awards are just like the signing incentives built into many corporate contracts. According to Shapiro and McPherson's calculations, such awards have grown at better than 10 percent per year for more than a decade. Between the 1987 and 1997 CIRP studies, the number of freshmen with work-study grants rose only slightly, from 9.8 percent to 11.7 percent, while "other college grants" more than doubled, from 12.9 percent to 27.4 percent.
Special annual issues published by national magazines such as Money and U.S. News & World Report, which rank colleges according to criteria such as which schools offer "the best value" per dollar, have also affected (some would say tainted) the college selection process. Katy Weseman's mother, Nancy Sinclair, says her daughter can quote U.S. News & World Report's top-10 list verbatim. "It was like a bible to her," Sinclair says. "Because all this is so hard to figure out, I found myself appalled by how much stock we ended up putting in the guides."
Many college admissions officers feel that such rankings ultimately do a real disservice to parents. "The different environments at colleges offer much more variations than you find with any other product," says Wheaton College's Crabtree. "A car is a car, it gets you from place to place. But a college shapes the individual and transcends that kind of ranking."
Young at the Colorado School of Mines counters that such thinking is unrealistic and out of step. "There's something wrong with the belief that colleges can't be treated as a product," he says. "The idea that there's something so magic that it's beyond price considerations is the most idiotic philosophy I've ever heard. Right now for students it's the most advantageous situation possible." Still, Young admits, "It's made it murder to run a college admissions office."
FIGURING OUT ROI OF A PH.D Crabtree and Young agree on this: the process by which kids choose colleges has become much more money-driven, and student aid has become a wildly volatile part of that decision. Young says that when he goes out to talk to parents and students, two-thirds of the discussion focuses on finances and the issue of perceived value. "If an admissions officer can't talk to those points nowadays, he's of no use to anybody," Young says. "We're getting more and more questions from seniors that ask us to compare our school with such-and-such competing institutions."
In some cases, the lines are less clearly drawn. "I find the whole idea of value offensive. That's great for the stock market, but it seems like it steers kids toward optimizing their long-term income," says Stephen Perkins of Evanston, Illinois, whose daughter Amelia just finished her first year at McGill University in Montreal. Still, Perkins acknowledges that he did treat the college decision in a hardheaded financial way, giving Amelia a figure for how much he could contribute, regardless of which school she attended; anything else would have to be covered by loans. After Amelia's first choice, Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York, came through with much less than she'd hoped, she wound up at McGill, benefiting from Canadian citizenship to land a cheaper tuition bill. "I really discouraged her from the huge loans she would have needed to pay for Sarah Lawrence," says Perkins, "because that kind of indebtedness is terribly destructive to your freedom afterwards."
Not surprisingly, consumerist students "shopping" for a college are also studying that product's long-term yield. "What students want out of college is a job," says Eric Weil of Student Monitor, a Ridgewood, New Jersey, survey research firm that polls 10,000 college students per year. "That's why there's been a huge growth in the number of students clamoring for internships."
Weil, who is also on the board of the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, a nonprofit group that places some 2,000 students in internships a year, says the number of applicants to that program has increased 40 percent in the last three years, due in part to the Web. Today's motivated students are less likely to rely on college job counselors, Weil says, and more likely to scope out the Web for prospective positions. "And we're not talking about juniors and seniors; sometimes it's even people coming right out of high school," Weil says of this bottom-line bunch. "They want that practical experience on their resume."
The numbers seem to bear this out. Among the "very important" reasons cited by CIRP respondents in choosing their schools, "Graduates go to top grad schools" rose from 27.5 percent in 1987 to 31.1 percent in 1997; "Graduates get good jobs" rose from 47.5 percent to 50.3 percent in the same decade. In 1997, well over half of the freshmen surveyed expected to eventually receive either a master's degree or a Ph.D. They also tended to have fairly developed notions of what they expect to do after graduation. "More and more, kids are focused on very specific programs at a college, not the schools in general," says Kappler of Stamats Communications. "It's much like the way people have traditionally chosen graduate schools, with a specific job or career in mind. These kids are very outcome-oriented."
Granted, many won't make it all the way to post-graduate programs, opting instead to enter the workforce upon graduation; others may abandon the program for which they chose a school in the first place. Still, savvy 18-year-olds know it's wise to keep one's options open by going to a school with a solid track record. In explaining why she eventually chose Carleton despite Grinnell's hefty merit award, Weseman says, "The Carleton swim coach said to me, 'People go on from here to grad school at places like Stanford and Harvard and Yale.' That really stuck with me."
SLEEP FIRST, CLASS LATER What does it mean to students when the college experience becomes a product rather than a process? For one thing, senior year of high school seems to have grown harder. In the CIRP study, the number of entering freshmen who already "felt overwhelmed" jumped 73 percent in ten years, from 16.4 percent in 1987 to 28.5 percent in 1997. And, perhaps reflecting American consumer cynicism in general, the number of CIRP freshmen predicting there was a very good chance they would be "satisfied" with college dropped 11 percent, from 52.6 in 1987 to 47.6 last year. Student Monitor studies suggest those freshmen may be on to something. "More than half the college students we poll express concern with the quality of education," Weil says. "They seem to be questioning whether they're getting value for their dollars."
But if fewer freshmen in the latest CIRP survey expected to enjoy college, they certainly expected to excel, revealing a high level of academic self-confidence. Almost half, or 49.7 percent, predicted there was a very good chance they would maintain a B average, up from 39 percent ten years earlier. Likewise, 18.5 percent of last year's respondents expected to graduate with honors, compared to 11.9 percent in 1987. Ironically, though, the class of 2001 showed record levels of academic disengagement: 36 percent revealed they had been "bored in class"; 34.5 percent had overslept and missed classes; and only 33.9 percent reported studying or doing homework more than six hours per week, down from 43.7 in 1987.
A Lou Harris Poll of the freshmen in that same Class of 2001 reveals a similar disjuncture between efforts and aspirations. Earning a hefty salary ranked high among students' career components, with 86 percent counting it very or somewhat important, and those surveyed claiming to be willing to work a mean average of 48 hours a week to reach their career goals. Apparently, though, they expect that persevering spirit to materialize when they receive their diploma. A log of the freshmen's weekly activities showed they spent 32.2 hours on learning: 17.4 hours in class and 14.8 hours studying. (Sleeping took first place, at 44 hours, while socializing ranked second at 26 hours.) Worse yet from an educational standpoint, that minimal 32 hours seems taxing for many students; 39 percent said they would like to spend even less time studying and doing homework.
"The whole dynamic today is different," says Irma Zandl, whose New York City-based Zandl Group conducts attitudinal research in the under-30 niche. "That sense of idealism about learning may have been lost. Also, with so many more students waiting a few years before coming to college, it's making the whole setting a much more real-world experience." In other words, like most people in the professional world, college students want to reap what they consider to be the maximum benefits-money and social status-for the minimum amount of work.
Clearly, the front-end consumerism of today's college experience has repercussions: college kids may have weird hair and party more than people in the "real world," but as consumers they are full-fledged adults. Marketers who view college as a sort of way-station before adulthood will need to adjust to the new reality. That includes online shopping, points out Kappler, whose most recent study indicated 74.8 percent of high-school upperclassmen have Internet access at home and/or at school. Weil also cites consumer pragmatism as a key campus trend. "It used to be that if a company like Apple could convince the right administrators, the campus would become an 'Apple campus,' " he says. "But today those sales centers are dying on the vine. Even if kids don't bring a computer to school with them, they'll look for a better value through catalogs. They're not going to take the college's authority at face value on that kind of purchase."