Let the Message Go Out
Crafting a compelling message in the admissions marketplace
By Jeff Wakefield Article published January 14, 2002
On a recent school night, a small band of intrepid parents braved cold weather and thick snow to attend College Night at a Burlington public school.
Hosted by the guidance counselor and featuring a wealth of practical advice, the event seemed altogether typical of the kind of service high school educators offer parents today, except that the setting was Edmunds Middle School and the futures being pondered belonged to a half-dozen 13- and 14-year-olds.
The Edmunds get-together is Exhibit A for a key recommendation made by a UVM-commissioned market research study by Maguire Associates of Bedford, Mass.
"It's vital for UVM to be connecting with families earlier, when they're actually beginning the college search in more intensive ways," says Linda Maguire, executive vice president with the firm that produced the study this December. "Telling a 10th-grader who asks for information, as most colleges do, 'Thanks for your interest, we'll get back to you in a year,' is not going to make it in this market."
"Until this year, we've communicated with younger students in a peripheral way," says Don Honeman, UVM director of admissions and financial aid. "As the research shows, we need to find the resources to make reaching this group part of our central mission."
The Maguire study is designed to help UVM develop a compelling image in the marketplace, a set of messages that support the image and an effective communications plan to deliver both.
To obtain its results, Maguire invited a random selection of high school juniors and seniors drawn from UVM's inquiry pool to complete an online survey. Almost 1,200 students responded. The firm also conducted telephone surveys with parents of nearly 200 of the juniors who responded.
I for Internet
UVM and other colleges aren't the only ones playing catch-up with an accelerated college search schedule. Schools (with Edmunds being a notable exception) also are missing the boat by waiting until 11th grade to begin active college admissions counseling. "What that means is that students and parents are getting their information outside the traditional guidance office model," says Maguire. "That new information source, overwhelmingly, is the Internet."
Their research demonstrated that the Web is the preeminent tool searchers use for drawing up a large list of colleges and, especially, for narrowing it down. But, it remains influential, the research shows, through the application and even enrollment stages, with 68.8 percent and 46.3 percent of the students surveyed, respectively, using it as a source at those stages.
"Families look at the Web as an important tool right up to enrollment," Maguire says. "That has major implications for UVM in how resources are allocated between print materials and the online medium."
Small city a big deal
In addition to how to reach prospective students and their parents, the Maguire study also provides detailed information on what to communicate to them.
The research found a basic disconnect between what prospects want in a college and what they perceive UVM has to offer. Prospects give middling marks to UVM's academic quality, which they rank as very important, and high marks to the school's location, which they rank as relatively unimportant.
But that's no cause for despair, Maguire says. The way out of the dilemma is to attack the mismatch on both sides of the equation.
On the one hand, UVM needs to help prospects see that UVM's geography is more than an idyllic setting. "Families need to understand the full power of UVM's location that it can have a major impact on academics through co-curricular activities like studying the lake in an environmental science class or the Old North End in a social psychology class," she says.
The research also demonstrates that Burlington is a UVM asset that needs to be at the forefront of marketing efforts. Those who ranked "proximity to a city" as being a good match for UVM usually applied to the university or intended to apply; those who said it was not a good match tended not to apply or express interest in applying.
On the other hand, the communications program needs to close a set of perceptual gaps where prospects are not giving UVM its due, among them: quality of major; interaction with faculty outside the classroom; career services; and placement in graduate and professional schools.
"My sense is not so much that UVM is weak in these areas, as that families don't know about the university's strengths," Maguire says. "There's a kind of muted effect due to lack of awareness."
The university will use the Maguire research to develop an institutional communications program that will have impact not only on the admissions effort but also on other areas where communications are key, such as development and alumni relations.
Maguire is optimistic that UVM has much to gain from developing a communications plan that delivers the right messages through the right mix of print and online media at the right time in the prospect selection cycle. "Based on our research, we believe the University of Vermont has every reason to be confident about its future," Maguire says. "UVM isn't dealing with a fragmented market, as many universities are. The vast majority of the students in its inquiry pool are academically talented and have reasonably similar expectations for their college experience. The communications challenge is to bring more depth to their understanding of the university's offerings."