Spencer Brown sought out a college small enough to really know him. Yet he wasn’t expecting the question on one application: “What is your favorite candy?”
Baker University asked for a reason.
Last year on Valentine’s Day, after Brown had applied but was still considering other colleges, he received in the mail a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
They arrived with well wishes from Baker’s head of admissions, who had loaded up a Wal-Mart cart with each prospective student’s top treat.
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“Something so small, but it left an impression,” said Brown, 19, of Overland Park. “It made me feel better about my ultimate choice.”
Which was Baker, in Baldwin City, Kan.
Every college has its ways of wooing prospective freshmen, now arriving at campuses everywhere. But nowhere is the sales pitch more critical than at small liberal-arts institutions, where the expense and value of a four-year degree have never been so questioned.
Despite being around for as long as the communities that surround them, Baker and other area campuses with enrollments of 1,000 to 3,000 struggle just to get on the radar of Kansas City high school students.
During and since the Great Recession, the challenge has stiffened, admissions directors say. College costs and real-world careers are at the front of most high-schoolers’ minds. And while they may have applied to three colleges a generation ago, today it’s seven or eight.
For some of our private, not-for-profit colleges — charging north of $25,000 just in yearly tuition before scholarships and grants slash the sticker price — maintaining enrollment is a matter of knowing their own strengths and distinguishing themselves from the pack.
William Jewell College in Liberty, for example, offers most students a “guarantee” they’ll graduate in four years.
Avila University pitches its smorgasbord of health-related courses, with careers waiting to be filled. At Baker, the message is about belonging to a tight-knit “family,” clad in orange and committed to every student’s quest to succeed.
Rockhurst University touts its return on investment.
“The recession did a lot in terms of shaping what students value in a college education and how much debt they’re willing to take on,” said Lane Ramey, Rockhurst’s associate vice president for enrollment. “You will have to pay more to have that return on investment.”
Sure enough, Rockhurst’s website includes an independent study that ranks the Jesuit university fourth among Missouri colleges for “ROI” (return on investment) 20 years after graduation.
The problem is that the top ranking goes to the public Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, a less expensive school known more for its engineering degrees than for its liberal-arts courses.
But many say the death of liberal arts is greatly exaggerated.
“There will always be a need for people to communicate well, to write well, to critically think in ways that create the answer to a problem,” said Maria Furtado, executive director of Colleges That Change Lives, a consortium of 44 private institutions.
“Those skills work in every industry.”
Certainly, colleges of all kinds face daunting times. Enrollments and budgets are mostly flat when not declining.
The big bubble of millennials born in the 1980s and early 1990s has already passed through the high school portal, meaning fewer juniors and seniors out there to attract. Demographers say this year’s crop of high school seniors in Missouri and Kansas is the smallest in a decade, and it will remain down for the rest of the 2010s.
A tougher marketplace demands that small, lesser-known colleges know their weaknesses as well as their strengths and that they be honest with prospective students, Furtado said.
“Cost is the first challenge” for those schools, she said. “And general visibility can be a challenge … just getting people to know you exist.”
At Baker — the oldest college in Kansas — recruiters know well the difficulties of making their university stand out to today’s fully wired, cost-conscious student, said Kevin Kropf, senior director of admissions (and procurer of applicants’ favorite candy).
“I wouldn’t call it a crisis. But I’d call it a challenge,” Kropf said. “We know for the most part that students who don’t choose Baker are going to go to KU, K-State or Johnson County Community College,” where they’re apt to save thousands of dollars their freshman year.
And thanks to the Internet, colleges no longer control the message.
Web-based college shopping sites — Cappex, College Board, College Navigator — allow families to swoop up data and compare institutions without saying a word to admissions counselors. Sometimes the sites include public comments, good and bad, which studies have found young people are inclined to trust.
“Baker is your home away from home,” writes Brittany from Gardner on Cappex’s site. “Terrible people who mislead,” counters Tim from Manhattan, Kan.
The Internet and social media also have given rise to what colleges call the “stealth applicant,” meaning those prospective students who’ve made no personal inquiry to the place they’re applying. All they’ve learned has been gleaned online or from friends.
The stealth applicant presents a problem to small colleges that stress the personal touch when luring future freshmen into the fold, said Paul Hassen of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
“The whole deal for these colleges is getting folks to tour the campus,” Hassen said. “Everyone believes if you can get families to visit, you make that personal connection and then you can make the sell.”
Baker last month had its shot at showcasing itself to the class of 2020.
Thirty-five prospects and their parents attended an open house on a Friday morning. Almost all students were entering their senior year in high school.
Awaiting them were Baker staff and 20 current students paid to be UAAs, or university admissions assistants. At least three of these students will be rustled up when an interested family visits: one to conduct a campus tour, another to lunch with the visitors, a third to escort them to counselors and faculty offices.
Among the UAAs is Brown, now a sophomore, who’s studying business but isn’t certain about a career.
Like many Baker students, Brown attended a large suburban high school.
“At my graduation from Olathe East,” he said, “I watched students cross the stage whom I couldn’t remember seeing in four years at high school. You felt a little like a number.”
So he chose a college he had never heard of before he started looking.
Key to him was Baker’s smallness: This week 185 freshmen from 16 states start classes. There’s a faculty member for every 11 students. “That small student-teacher ratio should help in my exploration process,” he said.
It’s how Baker sells itself: We’re small.
The messaging begins in the parking lot. On the morning of a scheduled visit to campus, the prospective student’s name appears on a sign at a reserved spot.
Personalized. Tailored to you. Small colleges increasingly stress customized learning, and market research shows many students demand it, given what they’re paying.
Many want to go places, too. Baker has rolled out a three-week “interterm” between semesters that encourages immersion in one course, such as foreign studies or even flyfishing, and travel is a common feature.
But with smallness comes expectations, Kropf said. Students are prodded to be involved in campus life. The average undergraduate at Baker participates in 7.5 clubs, organizations or teams.
Join a club and get a scholarship for participation.
Write for the newspaper, get another scholarship.
“Ideally we’re looking for students with a B or better average,” Kropf said. But it’s not all about academics and GPA: “We need trombone players, too. We need a shortstop for the softball team. We need actors to play the lead in our plays.”
The takeaway is that Baker will not let you get lost in the crowd. You’ll be proud to wear orange. Music professor Robin Liston, wrapped in an orange scarf, told the visitors that faculty “will be there to give you a tissue when you’re crying” over a failed exam.
“That’s what some call the high-touch model,” used by many small colleges, said Hassen of the independent colleges association. “High touch. High opportunity to excel. High opportunity to be involved in a campus’ social and spiritual life.”
Handwritten notes just checking up on prospects are a part of high touch.
The strategy doesn’t appeal to all students. But to many parents footing the bill, Hassen said, high touch can bring assurance, the inference being, “Here, we’ll pay close attention and make sure your child gets through in four years.”
After touring Baker, Paola, Kan., high school senior Megan Stover said she planned to schedule another visit and enroll.
She liked the family feel and the opportunities to get involved. The amenities helped seal it: A snazzy cafeteria includes nine stations — from pizza to soup, salads and “home cooking.”
And bathrooms in the dormitory suites are shared by only three or four roommates, not an entire hall.
“Oh, that’s nice,” Megan said when tour guide Brown mentioned it. And important, since she’ll be required to live the first year there at a cost of $8,270.
With her strong grades in Paola, she’s hoping scholarships and grants will lop at least $10,000 off the $27,000 tuition.
It’s her decision, said dad Sam Stover. He’s willing to pay more than the cost of KU (“Actually, that’s the kind of place I’d attend”), especially if smallness helps keep students engaged and on track as Baker says it does.
Other small colleges in the Kansas City area convey a similar message. But data available on search sites don’t always support the contention that low student-teacher ratios keep students from drifting.
At William Jewell, where the average class size is 16, 23 percent of first-year students don’t return as sophomores, according to the College Board’s website.
At Avila, 29 percent don’t return for their sophomore years. At Baker, one in every five freshmen doesn’t return, an exit rate similar to what the University of Kansas and Kansas State University see.
College officials say the reasons for freshmen not returning are varied. Many transfer to a less costly community college and come back in a year. Others fail to qualify for second-year scholarships.
“It could be cost. But a lot of it probably comes down to students recognizing that a certain college just wasn’t the right fit for them,” said Cory Scheer, William Jewell’s dean of admissions.
Part of being the “right fit” at William Jewell: Undergraduates must reside on campus throughout the four years of their studies. It can be a deal breaker for hometown students whose parents are happy to house them for free.
But for students who sign up and stay, “that campus community component at Jewell is a very, very special thing,” Scheer said. “A very different experience.”
That word, “different,” is what marketing for small, private colleges should emphasize, said Tom Abrahamson, chairman of the Chicago-based consulting firm Lipman Hearne.
“When you look up close to get an understanding of each of these colleges, you find they have absolutely distinct personalities,” he said. “But they can be poor communicators.”
Faculty and staff tend to strongly believe in their schools but frown upon marketing budgets that steal resources from areas of study. Abrahamson said a typical nonprofit college spends less than 1 percent of its operating budget on communications.
Most of that goes toward maintaining a website and producing online ads. A tactic called “retargeting” directs ads toward people who browse college search sites.
Still, one of the most crucial factors for small-college admissions is word of mouth, now less spoken than texted and posted.
That can be a curse for little-town colleges such as Baker. Some applicants take the tour, leave encouraged and tell their friends. “Never heard of it,” friends post.
“Not a positive reinforcer,” said admissions director Kropf. “Nobody wants to attend a college if their friends never heard of it.”
Rockhurst University hasn’t had that problem in Kansas City, partly because Rockhurst High School funnels many students there. The university also draws heavily from Catholic schools from Omaha and St. Louis. It’s one of only 28 U.S. colleges rooted in Jesuit tradition.
Park University sets itself apart by catering to veterans and nontraditional students, so much so that the College Board site lists its undergraduate population at nearly 18,000. Its Parkville campus serves fewer than 2,000 full-time students, but Park also has classrooms at 34 military bases.
Avila? It touts its affordability, though one recent survey found Rockhurst’s net price to be comparable after discounts.
Avila also prides itself on schooling students who are the first in their families to attend a U.S. college. That’s a priority of the school’s sponsors, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet.
One such student, freshman Isaac Alberto, just arrived from New Jersey.
“Where I’m from, a pretty bad neighborhood, nobody knows Missouri exists, let alone Avila,” Alberto said.
Through NCSAsports.org, which connects college coaches with high school prospects, Avila track coach Anthony Boyer read Alberto’s profile and pegged him a good fit for the squad. Other athletic scholarships were thrown in; the football team made him a punter.
Need-based grants and more donations brought Alberto’s costs to “practically nothing, which is the only way this could be possible,” said Alberto, 19.
First-generation students are a challenge, said college spokeswoman Ann O’Meara. That’s part of the reason that only half of Avila’s students graduate within six years, she said.
“But we feel called to serve them. … It’s one of the special parts about Avila.”
For sure, every little college is special if you just hear out the admissions people.
They’ll say you have to visit to believe it.
Please. Just visit.