The first day of the 2017 TargetX Summit included a Student and Parent Panel entitled “A Change Would Do You Good,” sponsored by Render Experiences. The panel highlighted first-person perspectives from students and parents who have recently been through (or are currently going through) the admissions process to provide attendees with real feedback, straight from the source. The discussion was moderated by Jeff Kallay, Principal at Render Experiences.

Panelists included:

  • Laura Laughlin Packer and son Dylan, a high school senior at IC Catholic Prep and the youngest of four siblings
  • Tom Dell and son Luke, attending Michigan State in the fall and one of three brothers
  • Brittany Roller, an Averett University nursing student and admissions student worker
  • Oliver Chaine, VP of Technology at TargetX with three children going through the college search

*The following is edited for clarity and brevity. To see the full conversation, visit:

How did schools get on your radar?

Brittany: I was looking for a smaller school size, close to home with a nursing program.

Dylan: Word of mouth and my siblings. I also visited with my high school counselor every spring.  Also, through sports I am able to visit a lot of different campuses and colleges.

Luke: Mainly through word of mouth and through emails and mail. But, a lot of friends and family as well. 

Parents, did you visit websites and what were you looking for?

Oliver: If websites all looked the same, I forget which school was which. A website has to be memorable and it has to be clear what the school stands for. I want to know right away that this school will be great for my kid.

Laura: I’m looking for basic facts. How much does it cost, it’s driving philosophy, how many students? I find that it’s really hard to find this information on these websites. I have to spend 30 minutes on websites just to get this information before I go further.

Tom: I didn’t visit a lot of the websites; finding the information I wanted as a parent is difficult.

Students, websites? What did you look for?

Brittany: I checked the majors, information about the campus like fun facts. I wanted to get a feel for the atmosphere of the campus. With some websites, you can get a sense of that, if you do a little digging.

Luke: When I went on college websites, I looked to understand the personality of the colleges. I found it difficult to find on the websites. I usually would go to outside sources to find this because I worried the websites might not be authentic representations.

Dylan: I mainly used College Confidential or Naviance, which helps you narrow down by location, population, and other things. It helped me get a feel. I only go to the websites to understand campus life, but they feel kind of inauthentic. 

Were you interested in seeing videos of the schools on their website?

Luke: I didn’t look at the website videos. I looked at the photos to see what the campus looked like and to skim information.

Overall, what grade would you give higher education websites?

Oliver: C+

Brittany: C

Luke: C

Tom: C

Dylan: C-

Laura: C

Where else were you going to learn about schools?

Brittany: Social media, like Instagram. There, you are not seeing propaganda.

Luke: I would talk to people that I knew who went there, alumni.

Dylan: Same as Luke. Consulting with people that went there.

Tom: Once my son visited schools and narrowed it down, I would set up additional meetings via LinkedIn with alums or students to get a real sense of the schools. I don’t know if schools really take full advantage of their alumni network. I’ve never met anyone who loved their college experience and didn’t want to talk it up to prospects. Through this, we got the most meat about schools.

Laura: I agree with Matt. I would add that any mailings or paper that comes through gets put into the trash. Emails reach me.

Oliver: My oldest daughter benefited from her high school counselor. I would agree that unless a college was already on her list, the mailings only went into trash. Most didn’t even make it in front of her. Some of the websites made it really difficult to schedule tours. We spent a lot of time trying to schedule. A lot of the time, we put out word on Facebook and would bypass the school processes.

Tom: Big schools have an advantage because they are often on television for athletics and whatnot, while there are so many diamonds-in-the-ruff small schools who don’t get that level of exposure. That’s the challenge, getting those schools that might be even better opportunities for students, in front of them. I think that is where they really need to tap into the alumni.

How are you accessing websites and secondary sources online?

Laura: A laptop because I can’t see very well. You get bumped around on a device. It’s convoluted.

Dylan: A laptop because when I am on my mobile device, most of the college websites are not made for mobile.

Brittany: When I was looking for schools, I used a laptop because I could toggle between multiple screens easily. But now that I am a student at Averett University, I use my mobile device because their website is designed for mobile. It’s very easy to use.

Luke: I know a friend who didn’t even visit the school he chose to attend until after he was admitted. He just did the virtual tour.

Laura: Kids are definitely taking photos with their phones on campus tours.

What cuts through the clutter?

Brittany: Something that is personalized. When I receive an email, I don’t want to feel like it is for everyone. The reason I chose a smaller school is because I wanted a direct experience. I didn’t want to feel like a number, I wanted to be a name.

Oliver: I would echo that. My kids were interested in water polo, economics, and international relations. If we received something generic, we didn’t pay attention. But if it brought out interesting articles or speeches related to their specific interests, that stands out. My daughter chose her school because the messaging about international relations spoke to her.

Laura: When I had a face-to-face meeting with people on campuses and then they followed up with me, that was a big deal and it got back to my kids.

You’ve been through this with three children, are most schools being human with you?

Laura: No, it is all a numbers game.

What can colleges and universities do to earn the trust of this generation of parents?

Oliver: If a school can create connections, that creates a more authentic feel. Get out of the way, but help enable the connections. Make it more human.

Laura: It feels like on these visits, you are put in front of screens and are robots. It feels staged.

Tom: I would try to capture more of that alumni and their network. I would spend dollars to tap them to help recruit.

What cuts through the clutter for students?

Dylan: You can easily see when a name is just a cut and paste on an email. I want to feel valued. When I would search for a great STEM school, if I didn’t feel like they would really personally help facilitate my career, I’m not interested.

Luke: You can easily tell when it’s an email blast or personalized asking about your visit, for example.

What are colleges missing in the recruitment process?

Laura: Personal experience. You can’t call anyone anymore. What if someone texted you on your phone or emailed you personally? What if you could have one-to-one text or email conversations? That would go a long way.

Matt: I think schools are missing out on very early on in the recruiting process. They should start in freshman year. Educate the parents and student early on about the process and the financials.

Luke: Personalized, individual messaging.

Brittany: I don’t think schools sell the experience and the atmosphere of schools well. Have current students make personalized connections with prospects.

Oliver: I think schools don’t hone in on the individual programs that are of interest to students.

If you were in leadership, what would you change?

Oliver: I would get the broader community involved: existing students and alumni.

Brittany: Connecting alumni with applicants.

Luke: Push more honesty, show strengths and weaknesses.  Don’t try to fluff it up.

Dylan: Create personal experiences.

Laura: Scale it down. We don’t need big, long events. People are busy. We need authenticity, brevity.

What do you wish colleges and universities knew about you?

Dylan: I’m not just an athlete. You can’t just label me with one or two labels.

Luke: I’m a human being, not just some millennial. I’ve seen the posts where they try to “connect with us” and its cringe-worthy.

Brittany: I think you need to look at each individual student and understand what’s happening on the home-front Understand their concerns, medical issues, etc. At Averett, we work to meet their challenges and get to know them as individuals.