Through the Looking Glass: When Enrollment Professionals Become the College-touring Parents

Insights from:

  • Stacy Gato: Vice-president of Enrollment Management, Averett University; parent to Emily
  • Lisa Magnarella: Executive Director of Enrollment Services, Marist College; parent to Sarah
  • Ken Anselment: Dean of Admissions, Lawrence University; parent to Ryan

When you’re a leader in higher education enrollment management and a parent, the day comes when you find yourself walking behind tour guides on college greens, sifting through mailers, and giving advice to the most important prospective student of all—your own child. That shift in perspective brings new insights.  Brian Niles, TargetX founder, spoke with Stacy Gato, Lisa Magnarella and Ken Anselment about stepping through the looking glass—reflecting on mailers, tour guides, parent engagement, and the scourge that is college fairs.

Why Me? Bursting the Mailer Bubble

Mailers, mailers, mailers. They cost a fortune and after awhile, they can start to look the same. Yet, for a prospective student receiving the first one or that special one from that school, they matter. Lisa Magnarella said her daughter Sarah experiences mailers as “colleges personally reaching out to her.”

Enrollment professionals know how the gravy is made. They understand why certain mailers go to certain students (SAT-purchased lists, survey information, Chegg data, etc.)  For young people, however, it’s often a mystery that makes them feel selected and special.

For Gato, Magnarella, and Anselment, watching their children receive mailers is an enjoyable information-gathering process. What do they respond to? What falls flat? What communications become a nuisance over time? How much is too much? Stacy Gato said, “If I like a piece, I’m always cautious because I’m not the audience I’m trying to appeal to. So, it’s fun to see what resonates with my daughter, Emily.”

Bringing Work Advice to the Dinner Table

It’s been said that you shouldn’t bring work to the dinner table. However, when admissions is your job and your child is going through the process, it’s almost impossible not to indulge in giving advice.

Magnarella explained that her dinnertime guidance has mostly been about managing expectations and pressures. She’s seen a lot of students put undue burden on themselves to reach a certain test score or write a more perfect essay, not eating and losing sleep in the process. Her advice to her daughter and all students is to “not settle, but also not overreach to the point where the pressure is unhealthy.”

Ken Anselment wants his son Ryan to chart his own course in the college search. He is fighting the urge to give his two cents at the dinner table, taking a more hands-off approach to the process, and offering advice to his son’s friends instead.

The Weighty Responsibility of the College Tour Guide

Like Atlas shouldering the weight of the world, such is the responsibility of the college tour guide. A bad day for a tour guide can have a huge impact on how a student views an institution, said Anselment.

Magnarella admitted that many individuals have crossed colleges off their list because of a negative experience with a tour guide, which “saddens me because tour guides are young, trying, and may just have had a tough, stressful day, which is not a reflection of the entire institution.” She strongly encouraged students and families to reach out to admissions counselors, have more conversations, or even come back for another tour.

Brian Niles added that Open Houses are better opportunities to see the diversity of a student body. A tour guide is only one student. That’s why the enrollment professionals urged students and families to find time for unguided observations of the campus and the student body in places like the dining hall, bookstore, and quad to get a better sense of the larger school culture.

Another tip from Magnarella for parents is to encourage young people to go on college tours with their friends. This gives students a “whole different perspective than if they went with their parents.” This is particularly true if the parent is also an enrollment professional who will inevitably approach tours with a more critical eye.

Surprises from the Search: Parents Aren’t Getting Enough Attention

A surprise universally shared by the enrollment professionals is the dearth of attention paid to parents in the enrollment process.

Niles noted that higher education is seemingly leaving parents out of the communications loop. No one asked for his information or personally involved him in the process. And since parents have influence over their child’s college decisions, this is a missed opportunity.

Magnarella wondered if higher education should find a way to collectively attain parent information to better communicate with them directly. Also, since technology is king with students, she believes higher education needs to consider how parents may access technology differently than their children.

Additionally, the transition from K-12 to college is not only a shift for students, it’s also a change for parents. Gato believes higher education needs to do a better job helping parents make that adjustment. Currently, she can view her daughter’s grades on a portal and is accustomed to getting alerts on her phone. “There’s a tremendous amount of access,” she noted. She understand this is going to shift when Emily goes to college, but she wondered if other parents are necessarily ready for that shift. “I’ve started having this conversation with parents and it really resonates. It’s important to manage those expectations early.”

What Should Stay or Go?

Niles asked what the others would add or drop from the enrollment process. Answers included ridding higher education of antiquated enrollment practices and ramping up authenticity in marketing.

The group agreed that the college fair experience needs a reboot. Anselment noted that every booth has “similar pitches across the board and students fill out the same inquiry form to get a nifty something.” He wondered if it’s an outmoded tool entirely. Niles concurred that the fairs look the same as they did in 1989. Yet, Anselment pointed out he can’t imagine any institution being the first to exit from this time-honored tradition.

Magnarella would like to add more authenticity to student recruitment and marketing with additional social media outlets that leverage the authentic student voice. Gato agreed. She added that her daughter laments not being able to find student videos that don’t feel “heavily produced and scripted.”

Niles is fully on board with authenticity. He said, “We need to drop the tricks, the fast applications, the quickie scholarships, the messages like “we’re a small, personalized institution, but we have 50,000 students.’ That’s not authentic.”

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