Why universities are marketing like never before, prospecting from coast to coast, and giving scholarships to even average students

SANDY FARRAN November 19 2007


Why universities are marketing like never before, prospecting from coast to coast, and giving scholarships to even average students

SANDY FARRAN November 19 2007



Why universities are marketing like never before, prospecting from coast to coast, and giving scholarships to even average students


Max Weinert graduated from J. L. Ilsley High School in Halifax last spring with a 98 per cent average. The previous fall, Weinert had applied to six universities—Dalhousie and Acadia in Nova Scotia, the University of New Brunswick, and Carleton, Waterloo and Queen’s in Ontario. After completing the applications and sending them off, Weinert estimates he received “at least” 80 emails during the following months from the six universities, plus dozens of letters and several phone calls. “I really got excited when I got an email or letter from a university,” says Weinert. “It made me feel that I was more than just a number.”

Among those who contacted Weinert were alumni, registrars, department heads and even the chancellor of Acadia, who called with news that he had won their most prestigious scholarship, worth $60,000 over four years. In the end, Weinert turned down Acadia and ended up choosing to become a first-year arts and science major at Queen’s, where he was offered a scholarship worth $36,000.

“It took me a month and a half to make the decision, and it was very difficult,” says Weinert. In the end it boiled down to what he saw as “more opportunities” at Queen’s, both inside and outside the classroom, including the opportunity to participate in Model Parliament and to do research with a prominent physics professor.

Weinert’s high marks elevated him into a select group of those competing for the country’s most prestigious scholarships. But his story of being wooed by competing universities is not at all unusual anymore. Throwing scholarship money at the very best and brightest is old hat, but in recent years the competition for students has broadened. Universi-

ties, which used to be like the local public high school, are now undertaking extensive— and expensive—marketing and branding campaigns. They’re launching recruitment drives for students outside of their regions, especially if they happen to be in areas of the country—Atlantic Canada, northern Ontario and rural Canada—whose pool of young people is declining. And they are offering

scholarship money to students who never would have received merit scholarships in the past: not just superstars, but thousands of kids whose high-school marks are merely slightly above average, sometimes even no better than average.

“Those institutions that happen to be situated in a place that is not experiencing a growth in young people have to go outside their local catchment area to recruit students,” says Ken Steele, a marketing and recruitment specialist and senior vice-president with Academia Group in London, Ont. “Essentially they go from being a local commuter school where they are the first choice of anyone

within a two-hour drive, to needing to attract students nationally and internationally.”

Savvy students, together with their parents, have grown up in a consumer-driven society, and they expect a certain level of product and service in exchange for their hard-earned cash: co-op programs, international learning opportunities, health-club-level athletic facilities, and guaranteed residence spaces for firstyear students. In addition, students on many campuses have voted for ancillary fees to support health plans, dental plans, transit passes and other perks.

Yet Academia’s Steel says these have become the “minimum price of entry.” In order to distinguish themselves, universities have had to come up with new recruitment and marketing plans. “I think it is critical if you are trying to recruit a student from two provinces away, and they have to pass 16 universities on their way to you, that you have something

better to offer,” says Steel. “It may be that you can offer the ocean or an exciting urban capital, but you better have something to draw them past those 16 other schools.”

Last year, Memorial University of Newfoundland launched a new ad campaign aimed at prospective students. The “Rant like Rick” campaign, based on comedian Rick Mercer’s TV-show rants, showcases a student raving about things prospective students should consider when choosing a university. The ad aired in movie theatres and on television in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Ontario, as well as on YouTube.

“I know I’m university-bound, but they all

feel so identical,” ranter Mark tells the camera. “My choices? Well, there’s university of Smiling Faces, or Ivy-Covered U, or there’s always the Urban Jungle college or Middleof-Nowhere Campus. They all say they’re different, but when I line them up, and I do, well, they have the one thing in common. They all seem the same.” The ad invites prospective students to produce their own rant, with the chance to win free tuition at Memorial. When 18-year-old Brandon Copeland from Wolfville, N.S., saw the ad in a theatre, something about it just clicked. “I did a lot of public speaking in high school and I knew that I could do it,” says Copeland. “When I was trying to think of what was really bugging me at the time I decided to write about just how tough it is deciding on a university.”


Not too long after Copeland sent his rant to Memorial, he got a call to say he had won the contest along with an invitation to the award ceremony, including airfare for him and one other person. Copeland’s parents, sister and girlfriend all flew to St. John’s for the ceremony, which Copeland describes as “Oscar style.” Copeland stayed at one of Memorial’s residences, and he and two other contest winners, plus several honourable mentions, got the royal treatment with tours of the university and city and special meals. “I fell in love with the place,” says Copeland. He ended up choosing Memorial over two other universities.

Universities in Atlantic Canada have no choice but to aggressively seek students from outside of the region. Thanks to a declining local population of young people, university enrolment in the Atlantic provinces fell by three per cent this year, a trend that is expected to continue. The Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission projects a 10 per cent drop in enrolment by 2018. To make up for the drop in local students, Acadia has been recruiting in Calgary for several years, and last year set up an office there. Other Maritime universities have followed suit, including the University of New Brunswick, whose travelling recruiters and admissions officers

are linked to a software package that can offer on-the-spot admission to Grade 12 students with superior transcripts. Last year, UNB also offered “Alberta-only” incentives to lure Alberta students, including large single rooms and draws for tuition credits, calling cards, and free flights home.

Universities everywhere are also doing something they never did before: they’re advertising. A lot. Marketing and recruiting budgets have increased substantially over the past few years, though it’s difficult to nail down exact dollar amounts because university administrators are generally reluctant to disclose those figures.

Richard Fisher, chief marketing officer at York University, who spent 20 years in advertising in the private sector before joining the Toronto university five years ago, says that budgets for “pure advertising”—spots on radio, television and print—are costing some universities in the “hundreds of thousands.” York ran an ad in Toronto-area movie theatres three years ago, showing a simple shape that morphs into York’s logo, with a print message inviting viewers to “Redefine the Possible.” Schools such as Trent University, Memorial and Lakehead have been regular advertisers on Toronto public transit. And a high-profile campaign last year for Lakehead University depicted U.S. President George W. Bush and the slogan “Yale Shmale,” followed by the statement, “Just because you go to an Ivy League school doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart.” The campaign—its point being that a less prestigious school (like Lakehead) might be able to offer a better education—turned into a story that was picked up worldwide.

Some recruiting strategies, like Memorial’s Rant like Rick approach, require that a stu-

dent register at the university in order to get the prize. But there is another tactic that York and many other schools use: offering smallscale prizing, such as the free music downloads that York offered at the recent Ontario Universities’ Fair, in exchange for a prospective student’s contact information. Once a university has a prospect’s contact details, the recruiting process starts in earnest, with the student receiving emails from the university outlining opportunities such as high-school visits, informal meet-and-greets, alumni parties, and so on. “I think what has also happened is that students have grown up with marketing and they expect the same level of marketing as IBM,” says Fisher.

Held in a cavernous hall in the Toronto Convention Centre, the annual Ontario Universities’ Fair attracted more than 80,000 prospective students and parents over three days in late September. One of the most popular attractions, determined by the length of the lineup, was at Lakehead’s booth, where high-school students stood patiently in line for a free black T-shirt emblazoned with the university’s latest slogan, “Do Something.” As students queued, university staff answered questions and sold them on life in distant Thunder Bay. “Do you know where Lakehead is?” asked one staffer to a group of giggling girls. “We are located in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which is a one-hour and 15-minute plane ride from here. But don’t let that scare you. It’s a very beautiful city, it’s a university town.” By the time a prospective student reached the man handing out the T-shirts, he or she had a brochure in hand and other tidbits of information about Lakehead. To get the Tshirt, they also had to enter their name and contact information in a computer database: a relationship had been born.

Yet another increasingly prevalent feature of university recruiting: the automatic scholarship. At Carleton University, a student with an entering average between 80 and 83.9 per cent is automatically awarded $1,000, renewable over four years as long as the student maintains an Aaverage. As the entering average increases so does the money; an average between 95 and 100 per cent is worth $4,000 per year. Universities across the country are offering similar arrangements. At the University of Winnipeg, for example, an entering average between 80 and 85 per cent automatically earns you an $800 scholarship; an average over 90 per cent is worth $2,250.

A few universities, like Nipissing University, offer similar incentives but with a twist: 90 per cent and over automatically gets free tuition for the first year, and $3,000 in each


subsequent year as long as you maintain an 85 per cent average. Students entering with averages between 85 and 89 per cent automatically receive a $2,250 scholarship, renewable each year for $750; averages between 80 and 84 per cent are worth $1,250, renewable each year for $500.

Though most universities are now offering more money to a broader range of students, those with the highest averages still reap the greatest rewards. At the University of Calgary, high-school students with averages over 90 per cent and who apply for early admission automatically become members of the Scholars’ Advantage Program. Perks include a guaranteed room in residence, early course registration, complimentary use of the fitness facilities during the summer before registration, and discounts at the university bookstore. The University of Saskatchewan’s Greystone Scholars’ Society is similar: highschool students can apply for membership as early as Grade 11 provided they have averages over 95 per cent. Perks include a personal recruitment officer to guide the student through all steps of the admissions, the waiver of the $90 application fee, and an invitation to attend a Greystone campus day in January where high-school students can meet other members. Students are also automatically guaranteed a $2,000 scholarship if they enroll at Saskatchewan. Once on campus, the

Greystone Scholars’ club is an exclusive place for them to meet and socialize throughout their undergraduate experience.

But even middling high-school marks may be enough to qualify a student for some merit scholarships. At Lakehead, a student with a 75 per cent high-school average is automatically given $250, renewable over four years. (In Ontario, nearly half of all students graduating from high school have an average over 80 per cent.) At the University of Lethbridge, students with a decent academic standing in the 70s, and who demonstrate community leadership, volunteer service, or qualities such as artistic abilities, can qualify for Early Entrance Awards worth between $1,000 and $5,000, and High School Entrance Awards worth up to $2,500.

Although these kinds of strategies are useful, universities still need to distinguish themselves, says Fisher. “What branding can do for a university is differentiate it and elevate it, creating a destination instead of a commodity.” In York’s case, the university has positioned itself as Canada’s leading interdisciplinary university where one can “Redefine the Possible.” Other marketing slogans include, “Canada’s Green University” (the University of Northern British Columbia), “The Best Student Experience Among Canada’s Leading ResearchIntensive Universities” (Western), and “Inspir-

ing Minds” (Dalhousie). Other universities are using a single word as their brand, as in Memorial’s “Become.”

Universities are also putting a lot more money into the design of websites that are interactive and feature student voices, virtual campus tours, student and faculty bloggers, and in the case of the University of Calgary, a president who blogs. On Acadia’s website, students can take a tour of a residence room

with “Hilary,” who moves around the room highlighting the view and other nice features. The website also offers the Boarding Pass program: Acadia will refund a prospective student’s one-way transportation costs to visit the campus, from anywhere in the country. The only caveat: you have to enroll at Acadia to be reimbursed. So far the response has been “great,” says Shawna Garrett, Acadia’s director of enrolment services. Since the program launched last January, the university has hosted over 200 prospective students via the Boarding Pass. Just how many actually registered at Acadia as a result of the program won’t be known until later this year, when reimbursement slips must be submitted.

Matt Garner, a first-year recreation management student at Acadia, first heard about the Boarding Pass program during a presentation at his high school in Calgary. He subsequently attended another Acadia-sponsored event, where he met Garrett, and eventually he talked his mom into travelling with him to Wolfville to see the campus.

“It was a big deal for my mom for me to leave home because we are so close,” says Garner. “So it was good for her to see it too, and we did a huge campus tour and some activities. I stayed at the residence and I was able to talk to people in admissions about what options were available.” Before the end

of the weekend, he had registered. “It was definitely the Boarding Pass program,” says Garner. “It really sold me.”

Four little words a recruitment officer longs to hear. M

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