The Professor's Role in Admissions

October 16, 2006

A clear distinction has always existed in academe between a faculty member and an admissions officer: One teaches; the other recruits. But in these consumer-oriented times, academics are being asked to take on more marketing responsibilities in order to attract potential students.

Research shows that one of the reasons a student chooses an institution is because of quality faculty members who take an interest in the student. At my small private college, the admissions director says that 85 percent of visiting students request a meeting with a faculty member.

The admissions office justifiably wants professors to make a personal connection with potential students, hoping to seal the deal. But many faculty members have resisted the suggestion that they become salesmen (or women) for our institutions. They are too busy, they feel uneasy about meeting touring families, or they feel unqualified to answer their questions.

To those academics who question the need to add marketing to their classroom duties, may I suggest that they make a few campus visits of their own to see how meeting a professor can make or break a student's decision to attend. After six campus visits this past year with my collegebound daughter, I can say that most of our encounters with her potential teachers were discouraging.

No matter how far ahead we planned, or how clearly we stated that we wanted to meet with a professor in my daughter's chosen major, we often left the campuses either ignored or depressed.

The Florida leg of our college visits didn't start well. We arrived to find that part of the campus had been destroyed by a hurricane. But the institution seemed to be adjusting well. The admissions staff member talked about plans for rebuilding and even walked us through a portion of the campus that had been engulfed in water just months earlier.

As we sat in the admissions office, waiting to meet with a tardy faculty member, my daughter said she liked the place and could see herself enrolling there. But that quickly changed when the brusque and standoffish young professor arrived, coldly staring down at us and simply saying, "So what do you want to know?"

His responses were terse to the point of being defensive. He seemed to know little about his own program, told us some of the advantages of other colleges that we said we were considering, and seemed intimidated when my daughter shared her work experience with a major company in the field. We quickly concluded that he didn't want to be engaged in this conversation -- he obviously had something much better to do, and in less than five minutes, he was gone. My daughter walked to the car saying that she had gone from liking the place to "no way" wanting to attend there after meeting the professor.

The next day we headed to another Florida campus where an admissions representative escorted us to our scheduled meeting with a professor. Along the way, the staff member asked us how we liked living in Indiana (we are from Iowa), and when we arrived at the faculty member's office, no one was there. We stood in the hallway for 10 awkward minutes until the admissions rep left to "make some calls."

After another 10 minutes, it became obvious that the guy wasn't going to show, and the admissions rep returned to announce that she had found someone else for us to visit with -- a faculty member down the hall who taught in a different major other from the one my daughter wanted to pursue.

Although the person we met with was jovial, he couldn't answer most of my daughter's questions. After hearing about her experience working for a major company, he looked her in the eye and commented, "I really, really encourage you to take the time to look at different colleges and find the place that's right for you."

It was obvious to me that he was sending us faculty "code" for "Don't even think about coming here." I thought there must be something going on with the program -- and, sure enough, a few weeks after our campus visit, I saw the missing faculty member's position advertised in The Chronicle.

Certainly our negative experience with the no-show faculty member was an anomaly and wouldn't happen again, right?

Two months later, we flew to a Tennessee university where we waited for 30 minutes in the drizzle outside a locked building to meet with a professor who never arrived. When we returned to the admissions office to ask the receptionist to find someone who could at least get us into the facility where the major is housed, she said there was no one else available other than the absent faculty member. When we asked to see an admissions rep, the receptionist refused. Instead we were sent on a campus tour with a student who took us into only two buildings and knew nothing about the program we were interested in.

Thankfully we had a second meeting scheduled with someone from a secondary major my daughter was considering, and we arrived at that office on time -- to be greeted by a non-faculty adviser who had just started the job that day. We were her first appointment.

Because of my academic background, I was armed with questions. She, unfortunately, couldn't answer any of them. She found a secretary who eventually gave us some vague information on what courses my daughter would need to take. But after a 1,500-mile round trip, we left the campus having never met with an admissions person or a faculty member, never seeing the department facilities, and knowing nothing more about the program than we had when we arrived.

Another college visit occurred closer to home, where we thought we had scheduled a meeting with a professor at a well-known Iowa university. When we arrived, the admissions rep confessed that she had tried to find a faculty member to meet with us, "but no one was willing to come in during the summer." She said that if we came back in a few months, we could make an appointment around the professor's schedule. It's no surprise that my ignored daughter has no interest in returning.

That was the same university where the campus tour guide thought she was bragging about the personal attention students receive from faculty members there when she said, "I even had a professor who called on me by my first name once by the end of the semester."

Of our six campus visits this year, four were failures, and two were positive experiences. At one Iowa private college, the admissions office cheerfully worked out a midsummer meeting with a professor who drove in from out of town during his vacation. He personally walked across the campus with us to look at the building where my daughter's preferred major is housed because the building was not normally on the campus tour. He also shared inside information about program changes that had not been announced to current students. We felt well-informed and cared for.

At a private college in Florida, two admissions people took us in an air-conditioned minibus on a tour of the campus. When we arrived for the scheduled meeting with the professor, he had a student at his door but asked the student to return later so he could meet with us. The faculty member gave my daughter a lot of attention, asking her questions as well as providing full answers to any of her questions, and made lots of eye contact with her. He discussed a new campus organization he had started that he thought she could be a part of. At one point, he handed her a class packet from a pile he had prepared for his students, so she was walking out with something from one of the classes in her major -- a great sales technique.

Those two institutions are now at the top of her list because the visits involved teachers who didn't try too hard but did act interested. They also talked with her about how she could take leadership positions in their programs. She was sold. I was sold. Hey, they got points just for showing up for the appointments.

She wasn't won over by those colleges because their campus gardens were well-kept or their buildings looked new. It wasn't because of the course offerings or the pretty viewbook pictures. Her interest wasn't a result of the perky admissions staff members or the numerous computer labs that grace every campus. Instead she is picking a college because she established a personal relationship with a professor whom she felt she could trust.

I have learned that professors hold a key role in recruiting students, especially at private colleges and small public institutions. It is part of our jobs to set aside a small amount of time to meet potential students and showcase the academic programs that we have worked so hard to build. We need to make sure we treat potential students the same way we would want colleagues at other institutions to treat our own children.

Stephen M. Winzenburg is a professor of communication at Grand View College in Des Moines.