5 ‘Dirty Words’ Admissions Offices Should Embrace

Chicago — Brian Wm. Niles didn’t cuss, but still a few people winced.

At the ACT’s annual Enrollment Planners Conference here on Thursday, Mr. Niles, founder of Target X, recommended five “dirty words” colleges should use regularly. (Squeamish romantics fond of quaint words like “learning,” be warned.)

Customer. Many people who work at colleges dislike the word, preferring to call students “students.” But as more Americans question the value of higher education, Mr. Niles said, institutions must think more like businesses, with customers to please, customer-service to enhance: “It gives you a sense that you have a responsibility to them.” Colleges exist to serve students, he insisted, and not the reverse. It’s worth noting the terms used every day in admissions offices include “inquires,” “prospects,” and “suspects.”

Sales. Admissions officers often use the word “counseling” to describe what they do. “You are a business,” Mr. Niles told his audience. “Why do we think that’s a bad thing?” The more admissions leaders think of their staff members as salespeople, he argued, the more attention they will pay to training them well to understand the needs and wants of prospective students. Everyone in the room seemed to be with him until he described the importance of the “elevator pitch,” which prompted one enrollment official to shake his head. He shook it again when Mr. Niles posed a question: Can your admissions officers explain the institution “in 30 seconds”?

Competition. Colleges always talk about their “peer institutions.” It’s more useful, Mr. Niles said, to think of them as competitors. (A former admissions officer himself, he recalled losing a prospective student to another institution many years ago, and the memory seemed to sting.) Just because your president likes to think of particular colleges as peers doesn’t mean those institutions are the same ones taking away your students. “You need to be honest about who your competition is,” he said.

Experience. Sure, your ranking is impressive, your application numbers are staggering. So what? “You have to sell the idea of going away to college, and it’s pricey,” said Mr. Niles, who believes that, above all, students remember how a campus visit made them feel. He urged colleges to scrutinize the basics. How easy is it to register for a visit? Are directions to your campus clear? What about parking instructions and directions to the visitors center? Are campus buildings marked for all those families using smartphones to navigate? And what about your bathroom for visitors? “It better be awesome,” he said.

Accountability. Top-level admissions and enrollment officials are accountable to presidents and boards. But what about all the people who report to them? Mr. Niles suggested finding ways to make all of them responsible for specific goals and results, too. “Committees cannot be held accountable,” he said. “Only people can.”

Finally, Mr. Niles asked for other words that colleges should embrace. “Closing,” said one admissions official (as in, closing the deal with an accepted applicant). “Fire,” said another (as in, letting an ineffective staffer go). “ROI!,” someone else exclaimed. “ROI!”

And then, just maybe, everyone went and washed their mouths out with soap.

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