The Big Campus Come-On In the world of viewbooks and videos, all campuses are lush, all coeds comely. Here's how colleges sell themselves.
By DENISE M.TOPOLNICKI Reporter associate: Rhonda Johnson

(MONEY Magazine) – If your children are easily swayed by the slick advertisements for designer sneakers or sodas, just wait until college admissions officers start messing with their heads. Faced with a shrinking pool of applicants, more colleges are inundating impressionable kids with glossy brochures, photo-filled publications called viewbooks, videotapes -- like the Milwaukee School of Engineering's, scenes from which appear above -- and even telephone sales pitches from alumni. There's nothing wrong with schools trumpeting their virtues, especially if their aim is to help students understand the significant differences among America's 3,125 colleges and universities. But most marketing material seems designed to obfuscate rather than inform. At its worst, college marketing distorts the facts. Viewbooks and videos paint every campus as a lush, green paradise, every institution as a bastion of academic excellence; they suggest that all big schools are small enough to bathe you in personal attention and every small school is big enough to serve up whatever you want to study. Moreover, even when schools present the facts accurately, they tend to stress themes that will appeal to students' emotions, glossing over academic issues and selling themselves as places where romances and friendships flourish. Says ) Jay Amberg, an educational consultant in Chicago: ''College marketing tends to focus on life style, not education.'' Indeed, the come-ons are notable for what they leave out. Viewbooks and videos won't tell you how many freshmen are crammed into Psych 101, whether you'll have to learn calculus from a graduate student or that a campus housing shortage might force you to live in a trailer. Laments Roland King, a college marketing consultant in Columbia, Md.: ''We're forcing people to make what is probably the biggest decision of their lives -- next to getting married -- with less hard information than if they were buying a $20 toaster.'' It doesn't have to be that way. By doing some homework, you can make an informed decision. This MONEY Guide is packed with the facts that your child will need to choose the college that offers the best education for the buck. And this article will help you understand the sophisticated techniques behind college marketing campaigns so that you can screen out the hype and concentrate on the factors that will make a real difference. The marketing blitz begins when a student takes his first entrance exam and doesn't end until his parents write their first tuition check. Naturally, the cost of this sales job -- estimated at $2,500 per enrolled student by college marketing consultant Lorna Miles of Newtonville, Mass. -- is paid for by parents, in the form of higher tuition. Marketing mania spread during the 1980s as competition for applicants heated up. But it isn't just obscure liberal arts colleges that are resorting to aggressive marketing. Even the most selective institutions sell themselves, in part because they must continue to attract -- and reject -- large numbers of applicants to retain their reputation for exclusivity. Kids help fuel the marketing machine when they take the PSAT, SAT or ACT. Before answering the questions on these college entrance tests, they complete extensive questionnaires that ask about their ethnicity, high school grades, extracurricular activities and college plans. More than 80% of all students who take the exams check a box that gives testing companies permission to sell the data. Kids might think twice if they realized that they were inviting an avalanche of college brochures. One of the techniques admissions officers have borrowed from the pros who hawk cars and deodorants is targeted marketing. To focus their promotional attacks, colleges buy names of particular types of students from the testing companies. Topflight schools seeking a diverse student body, for example, can buy a list of all minority students who score 1,200 or above on the SAT from the College Board's Student Search Service. Cost: $150 plus 17 cents a name. The American College Testing Program, which administers the ACT, provides similar services. Last year, the College Board sold lists to 1,100 schools; the American College Testing Program had 550 customers. Disturbingly, some admissions officers aren't after diversity. Using zip codes and other data, they want to pinpoint prospective applicants whose socioeconomic characteristics will make it easy for them to blend in with the student body. Reason: such kids are most likely to enroll. That may be a cost- efficient way to recruit, and may promote a good fit between school and student. But it may lead to some worthy kids being ignored just because they don't live in the right neighborhood. There are signs of such discrimination already. ''Our research shows that colleges are increasingly interested in students who are able to pay the full cost of college,'' says Arthur Affleck, director of the College Board's Student Search Service. Adds Martin Nemko, an independent educational consultant in Oakland, Calif.: ''If schools are trying to find students who will be a better fit, that's okay. But if they're targeting only the rich kids, it's indefensible.'' Since neither the College Board nor the American College Testing Program sells lists of students classified by family income, some colleges are turning to research firms for the information they crave. For instance, last year George Washington University in Washington, D.C. hired College Information Systems (CIS) of Northfield, Ill. to develop detailed profiles of students who asked for brochures and viewbooks. The idea was to single out those most likely to enroll and remain. CIS gleaned family income, assets and buying habits from credit-card companies and other sources. Says Anthony Pallett, GWU's executive director of enrollment management: ''It's amazing how little privacy we have these days.'' Increasingly, schools are supplementing direct mail with broadcast and print advertising campaigns that can be as questionable as those pitting two brands of painkillers against each other. Consider how Long Island University, a New York school that accepts nearly 75% of applicants, sought to boost its reputation recently with provocative ads that appeared in New York subways, were mailed to New York area families and ran in the Eastern regional editions of People and Sports Illustrated last spring. The ad showed two young women, Valerie Kellogg, an LIU art history major, and Lori Etter, an English major at an unnamed Ivy League school. The headline read: BOTH ARE EDUCATED. ONE IS PREPARED. In the text, Kellogg says: ''Long Island University is a great place to learn. My advisers really know me, and they're always there for me. I've made good money through Co-op and even worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My Co-op job helped me focus on a career.'' Etter, who in fact goes to Princeton, grouses: ''I'm at one of the best schools in the country. My adviser signs my course cards and makes sure I do my junior paper. I worked as a waitress but still owe $7,500 in student loans. I'm really not sure what I'm going to do after graduation.'' It turns out that Etter is a chum of LIU president David Steinberg's son Noah. Etter says the ads are truthful -- to a point. ''That part about me not knowing what I'm going to do after graduation -- the real truth is that I'm trying to decide whether I want to go to graduate school in English or to medical school,'' she explains. ''It's not like I'm at a total loss.'' LIU spokesman Steve Bell says: ''It was our intention not to denigrate or criticize another school. In fact, the reason we chose Ivy League schools is that we know they're beyond reproach.'' If your child asks for more information after reading an ad or brochure, the college will send out a viewbook, a slick pamphlet that has replaced the traditional course catalogue as colleges' primary means of conveying basic information to interested students. Much effort goes into making such sales literature seductive. In most cases, that means photos of animated professors, students peering into microscopes and loving couples strolling across the greensward. At Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., however, extensive market research suggested a different approach. After conducting about 50 interviews, Communicorp, a college marketing firm in Atlanta, learned that students and alumni were proud of pursuing their studies under conditions others might find difficult -- Wabash is a men's college in an out-of-the-way location. So to attract the cold-shower-and-stiff-upper-lip set, Communicorp created a plain, gray viewbook with this macho exhortation emblazoned on the cover: ''GUTS (Persevering); BRAINS (Learning); SPIRIT (Playing); STRENGTH (Winning); WABASH.'' Of course, such tactics can be defended on the grounds that they attract students who will fit in at the school. But wouldn't it be more straightforward if Wabash simply came out and said that prospective students should prepare themselves for an isolated, all-male environment? Most colleges also produce videos that they send directly to students or distribute through independent companies such as College Home Videos, which charges kids $4 a tape. Here's where the pitch really sheds its subtlety. No video is complete, it seems, without scenes of small classes, cheering sports crowds or shapely dance students at the barre. Indeed, some schools make blatant appeals to teenagers' hormones. In the Milwaukee School of Engineering's video, a sonorous announcer who sounds like Don Pardo of Saturday Night Live touts the college's coed dorms while a bevy of beautiful young women bounce across the screen; he does not mention that men outnumber women by nine to one at the school. And in Fordham University's production, a young man who lives on the Jesuit college's main campus in the Bronx is charmed by a young woman he meets in a subway station who miraculously turns out to attend the school's Manhattan branch. He later calls her to ask for a date. The hard sell won't let up even after your child gets in. Admissions officers sweat during the so-called summer melt, the period between March and April when acceptance letters are mailed and registration fees are collected, usually in August. To entice students to enroll, alumni are rounded up to cajole kids on the phone. Some schools send special videos to students they really want to snare. For example, last spring the University of Hartford mailed to 150 honor students 12-minute tapes on which university president Humphrey Tonkin addressed individual students by name. Richard Zeiser, Hartford's director of admissions, says that the school used the videotapes ''to say that if you come here, you will be special. This year we've doubled the number of honors students who have sent in pre-registration deposits.'' While high-powered marketing seems appropriate when selling toothpaste and tacos, don't you think colleges ought to adhere to higher standards? Congress thought so in 1976 when, concerned mainly about deceptive advertising by vocational schools, it financed a truth-in-packaging experiment. Eleven colleges won grants to create educational ''prospectuses.'' Barat College, a Roman Catholic liberal arts school in Lake Forest, Ill., published a 33-page booklet that included detailed information about its budget so applicants could see how the college spent its money, and even admitted that the school had only a small library. (Officials can't recall whether applications dropped or rose.) But the truth-in-packaging movement died when government funds dried up. Don't expect a revival anytime soon. Says Theodore J. Marchese, Barat's former director of institutional research: ''Administrators figured that if no one else published prospectuses, why should they do it and take a chance of driving away potential applicants?''