John Lawlor is the founder of The Lawlor Group, a full-service higher education marketing firm.
KCH: What is the research telling us about the student criteria for choosing a college. Are the criteria changing?
JL: In some ways, the criteria for choosing a college haven’t changed that much over time, but the weight of importance associated with each variable has changed. Academic reputation, graduation rate, successful outcomes, personal attention, majors/course offerings, special programs, campus setting, size, distance from home, and the proverbial “right fit” have always been key criteria. And, of course, the price to attend, which factors in scholarships, financial assistance, amount of loans, and the availability to work part time while going to school.The first set of variables continue to be important, but the degree of importance for each variable has changed considerably due to the economic realities of today. Successful outcomes-the likelihood of graduates going on to a graduate school of choice or meaningful work with an employer that ultimately leads to a fulfilling career-are playing a key role in shaping perceptions of an institution’s value proposition and, therefore, what people are willing to pay for a college education. The recent 2009 CIRP survey of American freshmen confirms this too. The most frequent response to the question, “The following reasons were ‘very important’ in deciding to go to this college” was “This college’s graduates get good jobs.” Admittedly, the college experience is much more than career preparation, but communicating an institution’s successful outcomes must be a part of the conversation with prospective students.
KCH: Your firm, The Lawlor Group, has been working primarily with small to mid-size private colleges. What is unique about the needs of this type of institution?
JL: Frankly, the needs of all colleges and universities come down to one thing: resources. Most small to mid-size private colleges are heavily tuition dependent, so the marketplace pressures to continue to offer a personal, engaging student experience at an affordable price are very real. Many of my clients are actually in strong positions because they are already operating pretty efficiently and have the size and scale to be more entrepreneurial and responsive to an evolving marketplace. But like colleges and universities in all sectors, there is continuing pressure to have the resources to invest in continuous improvement.Overall, I believe smaller to mid-size colleges have be more proactive about communicating their value propositions-communicate what students are getting for their money. Graduation rates are typically outstanding, personal advising and mentoring are generally good, and institutional size and scale allow for real engagement, participation and involvement. This typically includes an active, accessible alumni network, which can help lead to successful outcomes. And finally, very few people actually pay full price. Unfortunately, private colleges are tagged with the label of “expensive” and don’t even get consideration by students and families. They simply must do a better job of communicating their value propositions (and they better have one) and reframe the conversation so that the price to attend is seen as a prudent investment rather than an expensive commodity.
KCH: I know that you’ve been looking closely at the impact of rising tuition levels on choices of college-bound students. At what point can we expect to see rising tuition levels lead to very different decision-making about college?
JL: I believe we are already at that point. We frequently talk about the new frugality and practicality exhibited by today’s prospective students and families. The number of people who have the ability to pay for the price of a college education during a narrow four-year window is diminishing, while those with the ability to pay are showing more constrained willingness to simply pay for prestige. The marketplace is deleveraging and becoming more prudent in their decision making about colleges. We are already seeing more students stopping and starting, attending multiple colleges, “buying down” to less prestigious colleges, and for the very focused students, seeking the most convenient, efficient means of getting in and getting out of school.
KCH: What parts of the student experience are we not paying enough attention to?
JL: Academic advising and career counseling are two very important areas that need more attention. Our research over the years with current students and recent alumni indicates that student advising is a huge area of concern and a leading variable in student/alumni dissatisfaction. Too many college communities associate advising with helping students register for classes and finding the appropriate classes for getting a major in order to graduate on time. But the reality is that many students are undecided, uncertain, or simply have multiple interests. Set that against the economic backdrop of the price of education, the need to make the “right” decision for meaningful career preparation, and pursuing intellectual passions, and you have quite a conundrum for many students. Students are seeking serious and relevant counsel about courses of study along with meaningful career counsel. The colleges that provide this type of meaningful advising will generate plenty of positive word-of-mouth endorsements, improve retention, and most likely, enhance their value proposition.