Think Selling the Liberal Arts Is Hard? You Should Try It in Texas

Wyatt McSpadden for The Chronicle

Abigail Dunn, a high-school student who will be attending Southwestern U. in the fall, displays marketing materials she received from the university.
February 28, 2010

In a state where higher education is dominated by flagships and football, Southwestern University is a bit of an outlier. Just about 30 minutes away from the University of Texas at Austin, it has only 1,300 students, all of them undergraduates. Football there is intramural—and flag.

So even though things were humming along at Southwestern, the university's leaders decided in 2005 that to remain strong it should do a better job of explaining itself to high-school students and their families. They hired a consulting firm to conduct market research. The consultants, the Art & Science Group, recommended that the university focus on communicating three main messages: Southwestern is affordable; its graduates go on to do great things; and it has strong academic departments.

The university took the advice and, so far, its leaders are pleased with the results, though some are tricky to measure. Applications, for instance, are up: 2,490 came in for the class starting in 2009, compared with 1,955 for the fall of 2006. But so many factors influence application numbers that the impact of any one change is hard to tease out.

As the weak economy puts even more pressure on liberal-arts colleges to explain their value, Southwestern's example is worth looking at. If you can sell the liberal-arts college in Texas, you can sell it anywhere.

Putting Price in Context

Even before they hired the consultants, the university's leaders knew they had to talk about its price tag. All told, student expenses come to more than $40,000 a year at Southwestern, which for Texas is on the high end. If the university were in New England, says Tom Oliver, vice president for enrollment services, "we'd have almost no trouble convincing families that this is a good value, because there are lots of schools in New England that have $50,000 costs of attendance that are comparable."

Since nearly 90 percent of Southwestern students come from Texas, that argument gets the university only so far. It has to find other ways to put that $40,000 price tag in context.

Of course, the first thing the university says about the sticker price is that most students don't pay it. Eighty-five percent of Southwestern students receive financial aid. For years, Southwestern has publicized the merit-scholarship amounts students could expect to receive based on their high-school class rank and standardized test scores.

Since the market-research project, Southwestern has created an online financial-aid calculator to help families estimate what they would pay to send their children to the university. While all colleges will be required by law to have a similar calculator available by the fall of 2011, Southwestern was an early adopter. And about two years ago, the university changed its financial-aid-award letters to show families various financing options and how much using each option would cost.

The research showed that despite being in the shadow of the University of Texas at Austin, Southwestern competes for enrollment primarily with other private colleges in the state. That means that the university must not only make the case for the value of a pricey private education in general, but also show how it is different from universities like Baylor, Southern Methodist, and Texas Christian—and from other small liberal-arts colleges like Austin College and Trinity University, too. That means highlighting distinctive offerings like its Paideia program, in which selected students take seminars in small groups with one professor for three years and participate in related out-of-the-classroom experiences.

The university also compares its price tag to that of the University of Texas, which many of Southwestern's applicants apply to, at least as a financial backup. Southwestern points out that while a student at a public university might be paying less tuition than a student at Southwestern, she is less likely to graduate in four years. That means not only paying tuition for additional terms, but also waiting longer to enter the work force.

To show how Southwestern contributes to its students' success after graduation, the university plans to move its career-services office closer to the center of the campus. "We want to put it on the admissions tour," where parents as well as students will see it, says Jake B. Schrum, the university's president. The parent newsletter also contains updates on what career services is up to so parents "can push a little" and get their students to attend the office's events, he says.

Southwestern also talks up its successful alumni, featuring the ways in which their Southwestern experience led to their successes and highlighting the strengths of the various departments. For example, the department Web page for classics links to a profile of Ryan Parks, a 2001 graduate who double majored in accounting and Latin and is now the chief financial officer for a cycling team. In the piece, Mr. Parks says that his understanding of Latin has helped him communicate with the French, Italian, and Spanish speakers he meets through work.

Southwestern was on this path before the economy tanked, but now families are even more interested in an education that is affordable and prepares students for successful careers. Paradoxically, that makes measuring the impact of the university's efforts more difficult. More families are applying for aid. But does that mean the university has convinced them that aid is available, and that it's OK to apply, or simply that families are more worried about money? It could be years before Southwestern knows.

The research project is completed, but marketing is a continuing process. Southwestern is in the midst of strategic planning and is revisiting some questions that it wrestled with before. One question that is back on the table is the institution's name. Lots of college names include "southwest," a cause for some confusion. And, the university's leaders believe, selling the liberal-arts college isn't helped by a name that sounds for all the world like that of a regional public university.