Campus Tours Go Disney

Washington Monthly
September 2010

By Eric Hoover

Jeff Kallay digs the Magic Kingdom. Growing up near Orlando, he spent many sunny days at Walt Disney World, riding the Space Mountain roller coaster and splashing in swimming pools. On “Senior Nite” in high school, he danced at the resort as the Pointer Sisters sang “I’m So Excited.” He has since returned again and again. Now forty-seven, he figures he’s visited the place more than 150 times.

None of these details mean much unless you or your children plan to attend college. But if the latter is the case, Jeff Kallay’s story matters a lot. This Disney kid grew up to become an influential consultant whose clients include more than 100 colleges and universities. He applies lessons he learned at the theme park to an American rite of passage: the campus tour.

This ritual has never been more important, for colleges and applicants alike. In a bleak economy, tuition-dependent institutions face increasing competition for paying customers, and administrators are pulling out all the stops to recruit them. In turn, the choices applicants make have lifelong consequences-and often come with big price tags. For both parties, the tour is crucial. Research shows that nothing influences a student’s decision about where to apply and enroll as much as the visit. So plenty’s at stake when families pack up the minivan and drive from college to college, hoping to glean something at each stop.

For decades, most campus tours were as plain and standard as notebook paper. But recently, many colleges have turned the traditional tour into a more intimate, more elaborate event. Some colleges have full-time “visit coordinators” who preside over tours with personalized touches, quirky diversions, choreographed “signature moments,” and even souvenirs-the stuff of theme parks. Such changes have made tours more fun and engaging, and families tend to get multiple options for who to meet and what to see during their visits. But what are they really getting?

You might think that touring a campus is like test-driving a car. Both give you a chance to kick the tires, form a few emotional impressions, and ask some pointed questions. But car buyers have something that college applicants don’t: bottom-line measures of quality and value. Before you buy that shiny new sedan, you can look at hard numbers-gas mileage, safety tests, reliability, and so on. You can turn to independent car ratings, like those in Consumer Reports, to see how similar models compare on such measures, or consult the Kelley Blue Book to determine what a particular vehicle might fetch in the resale market. You can then weigh this objective numerical data against the emotional ooh-and-ahh you experienced behind the wheel.

The problem in higher education is that there is a dearth of useful, easy-to-compare bottom-line data. What kind of learning occurs inside classrooms? How well do professors teach? After students graduate, what do their career paths look like, and how much do they earn? U.S. News & World Report’s popular rankings can’t answer such questions because they mostly look at inputs, like incoming freshman SAT scores, not outcomes. (Although reliable measures of learning and “student engagement” exist, few colleges and universities publicize the results of those assessments.)

This absence of objective outcomes data means that students and families are left to rely almost entirely on subjective, experiential factors when deciding what college to choose. This has overinflated the importance of campus tours and fueled the costly arms race of building at colleges in recent years. All those luxurious dorms and state-of-the-art recreational centers do little to improve learning, and have helped drive up tuition. But administrators feel they have to build them to impress prospective students and, in some cases, fill classrooms. How else are they to compete? These days, almost every college has a new gym and cafeteria to show off, not to mention shady lawns and pretty trees. And so colleges are under pressure to find fresh ways to stand out.

Jeff Kallay is a pioneer in this new frontier of college recruitment. Campus tours, he preaches, should not only relay information, but also create a memory. What makes a company (or college) great, he believes, isn’t just products or services: “It’s all about the experience.” To that end, he encourages colleges to tell stories that will distinguish them from competitors, to engineer an experience that will stick in consumers’ minds. Call it the Gospel According to Mickey.

Above all, Kallay advises colleges to embrace “authenticity”-which might sound strange coming from an avowed devotee of Walt Disney. Kallay, who calls himself the “Apostle of Authenticity,” urges colleges to throw away their scripts and allow student tour guides to talk about their own experiences. What’s most important, he says, is to create a sense of genuineness-an intimate experience unique to the campus. That fleeting sensation is worth more than all the expensive marketing in the world.

For weary campus-hopping families, the changes Kallay promotes are welcome in many ways. In nine years of covering higher education, I’ve taken the official tour at about fifty campuses. Most were bland, rote, and robotic; the memory of them evaporated almost instantly. Today, tours of two different campuses are less likely than before to seem eerily similar, which, for folks visiting ten schools in five days, is very good news. Moreover, when prospective students visit colleges, they’re not just seeking information about outcomes; they want to know what it would be like to eat, sleep, and socialize at a school for four or more years. So tours designed to convey that “experience” provide something consumers want.

But make no mistake: the newfangled college tour is a more sophisticated sales pitch than ever. Behind the scenes, many tours include an increasingly large cast of participants, including administrators, professors, and students, who think long and hard about what visitors see and hear. Traditional tours included a litany of statistics, all meant to convey the college’s quality. Now, tour guides appeal to your emotions with personal stories and anecdotes. It’s recruitment by eye contact. At their best, modern tours are more candid and conversational-but at their worst, they’re just more artfully manipulative.

Recently, York College of Pennsylvania hired Kallay to help transform its tour. As a result, the college enacted a series of small changes. Previously, visitors gathered in the cramped lobby of the administration building. Now, the college directs them to the welcome center in the student union, where they will find coffee, cookies, and light conversation. Student guides are trained to tell stories about their time at York, the more specific, the better.

When guides see a faculty member walk by, they’re supposed to stop and introduce them. When prospective students go inside dorms, they get to sign their name on a wall. Before leaving the campus, they can take a York Peppermint Patty (created just a few miles from campus) and a York College water bottle. “The goal is to create a warm memory about the York College culture,” the college’s Web site says.

Choosing a college is often an irrational decision, based partly on the judgments teenagers and their parents make as they stroll down brick walkways and stare up at bell towers. Students can sour on a college because they have an argument with their parents in the car, or because they don’t like the tour guide’s hairstyle or clothes or sense of humor. Sometimes, a rainy day can drown a student’s interest in a college, or vice versa. One high school counselor tells me that her husband chose his alma mater because it poured during his first visit, soaking the T-shirt of his buxom tour guide.

Simply put, the tour is the blind date of the admissions process. Looks matter a lot to the beholder, and first impressions do much to shape future actions. That’s why admissions officers have long called the tour the “golden mile” and the “million-dollar walk.” This walk has been a way to promote college as a place of contentment, beauty, and plenty. A generation ago, Ernest L. Boyer examined this ritual while conducting a landmark study of higher education, for which he spent three years visiting thirty colleges and interviewing professors, students, and parents. In 1987, Boyer, a former U.S. commissioner of education, published his findings in College: The Undergraduate Experience in America. He concluded that colleges’ priorities had drifted away from teaching.

In a passage on campus visits, Boyer described how the tours tended to whisk students past the library, only to linger inside student union buildings, where there was much to eat, buy, and do. Riffs on dorm living and social activities were more common than mentions of the instructors who taught undergraduate courses. “One had the distinct impression that the campus was a place with abundant social life,” Boyer wrote. “Education was ignored.”

When Boyer and his fellow researchers asked students what influenced them most during visits, about half mentioned the “friendliness” of other students they had met. Yet nothing was more important than the appearance of the campus. “We gained the distinct impression that when it comes to recruiting students,” Boyer wrote, “the director of buildings and grounds may be more important than the academic dean.”

Since then, college officials have thought harder about the experiential elements of the tour. One reason: parents have become co-purchasers, a constituency for a college to impress during a visit. Students themselves have become savvier consumers, applying to more colleges (and visiting more of them) than they did a generation ago. Finally, the Web allows shoppers to learn the basics about a campus before setting foot on it. This is why many campus administrators now believe facts-and-figures information sessions just won’t cut it anymore.

For a long time, there was safety in the sameness of college marketing. In the quest for diverse applicants, many colleges have promoted themselves as offering all things to all people. Daniel M. Lundquist, who has worked in admissions since 1976 and is now the vice president for external relations and enrollment management at the Sage Colleges, in New York, says traditional tours tend to be “vanilla and rah-rah” for that very reason. “Colleges are risk averse in their storytelling,” says Lundquist. “They like to talk about their brand pillars. The problem is those qualities are so universal that they’re not distinctive: study abroad, a low student-to-faculty ratio, career counseling. Most people visiting the campus probably know those things already, but those things don’t reveal the elusive personality of the campus.”

That’s exactly what Jeff Kallay began trying to capture way back in the 1980s. As a student tour guide at Lee University, in Cleveland, Tennessee, he liked nothing more than sharing anecdotes about his experiences on the campus. He spoke frankly-pointing out, for instance, where the geeks and “troglodytes” lived. After graduating with a degree in communications, he worked as director of recruitment in Lee’s admissions office, and then moved on to jobs in marketing and advertising. One day he read The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage, published in 1999 by James H. Gilmore and Joseph Pine II. The book expanded on the idea that companies must create experiences for their customers. Memories of those experiences, the theory goes, cause consumers to form a lasting emotional bond with a product.

Kallay had found his bible. Years later, he wrote a business plan that would bring the principles of the experience economy to campus tours. In 2006, he went to work for TargetX, a Pennsylvania-based company that specializes in student-recruitment strategies. Calling himself an “experience evangelist,” Kallay was soon trekking from college to college to conduct “campus visit audits.” At each stop, he took the official tour, and then shared his first impressions with admissions officers. He followed up with detailed reports, with recommendations for improving parking and signage.

Because appearances matter, Kallay noted things like cracks in walls and dust bunnies in stairwells. Yet he saved his sermons for the subject of human interaction. Listening and eye contact matter more than climbing walls and glitzy dorms, he told his clients. He encouraged security guards to wave, secretaries to smile, and tour guides to ask open-ended questions (and to stop walking backward). In presentations, he has even suggested that tours should deemphasize their facilities, even if it means skipping the library. “Everyone’s got one,” he says.

By early 2009, Kallay had worked with more than seventy colleges, charging between $2,500 and $20,000, depending on the number of work days required. With demand growing, he hired a young assistant named Trent Gilbert, who had helped him develop the business plan for a campus-tour consulting business. Gilbert, now thirty, has since taken over the week-to-week tour evaluations. Like Kallay, he has a background in college admissions, and is an electric speaker who makes his audiences laugh. Gilbert’s title is CXO: “Chief eXperience Officer.”

“For hundreds of years, colleges have been staging themselves as places of experience anchored in education, entertainment, aesthetic, and escape,” Gilbert says. “But many visits are not operating on all those levels.” To change that, Gilbert encourages student tour guides to share personal stories. He emphasizes the importance of anecdotes that reveal three things: students’ conflicts, their coming-of-age experiences, and their unique impressions of the campus. They should talk about how, for instance, they overcame homesickness, a difficult roommate, or a challenging course. Gilbert encourages them to describe the snowy night when they went sledding with their friends on trays they borrowed from the cafeteria, or the time a history professor texted an encouraging message about that twenty-page paper. If the tour guide likes to study under a particular tree, then, Gilbert insists, he or she should show families that tree.

Also, pronouns are crucial. Gilbert tells students to use “we” a lot instead of “I” and “you.” “We try to inspire tour guides to tell stories that will become shared experiences with families,” he says.

Gilbert suggests that colleges think about creating a “signature moment” during tours. Moreover, he urges them to consider ways of engaging the five senses (taste is usually the trickiest one). At the University of Akron, visitors gather around a forty-foot-tall statue by Dale Chihuly, a blue glass tower known as the “rock candy” sculpture. Later, guests receive a stick of blue rock candy, with a tag that thanks them for visiting and directs them to information about the artist and the university. (It’s the kind of marketing that might just crack your tooth.)

Kallay and Gilbert have also worked with Alfred University, in New York, where visitors may now tour the school while pedaling a Conference Bike, a bicycle built for seven. The experience is supposed to convey the kind of communal experiences students can expect to have on the small campus. At the University of Louisville, visitors are told to bring their cameras and keep an eye out for the rare white squirrels that live on the campus. Parents and students who snap photographs of the creatures get a free T-shirt that says, “I spotted the white squirrel.”

Students who visit Ohio State University’s main campus in Columbus may have their picture taken with a likeness of Brutus, the mascot. Before leaving they receive the photo in a themed card, as well as a chocolate-and-peanut-butter “Buckeye” candy. Later, the university sends thank-you notes to visitors. “You’re looking for takeaways that they remember,” says Mabel G. Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions and first-year experience. “Yes, you want them to be great students, but first they’ve got to feel comfortable at the university.”

American University in Washington, D.C., recently relocated its visitors center to the breathtaking new visual and performing arts building. Each prospective student now gets a lanyard and a badge identifying him or her as a “VIP.” The badge accompanies a brochure about American and, as Kallay writes on his blog, “becomes a valued piece of memorabilia.”

Sharon M. Alston, executive director for enrollment management at American, says the consultants have helped the university officials understand that it’s okay for tour guides to take greater control of the tour, even if means sacrificing some of the pro-AU messaging. “It’s the authenticity piece,” Alston says. “If you’re asking people to invest forty to fifty thousand dollars a year, I think that we have to make an emotional as well as an intellectual connection to get them to make that decision.”

Adam Bigott made an emotional connection with Hendrix College last November. After he and his parents pulled into the parking lot, they discovered a spot with a sign that said, “Reserved for Adam Bigott.” They smiled. “It got me super excited,” Adam says.

By then, the Bigotts, who live in Illinois, had visited several small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Adam had applied to Hendrix, in Arkansas, but he was unsure about the college, which was ten hours away from home. His feelings changed after he spent a day and a half at the school, which epitomizes today’s campus tour like no other college. At Hendrix, each preregistered visitor gets a personalized pamphlet and itinerary. He or she chooses one of eight classes to attend; borrows a backpack and notebook; takes a guided walk of the campus; eats in the cafeteria; and meets with a faculty member and an admissions representative. Parents and students are split up, leaving teenagers free to ask all those questions about dating and drinking.

There’s a dash of sensory programming: visitors walk on a stretch of campus covered with pecan shells and dip their hands into fountains. When they leave, they will have met with at least five students from a vast team of volunteers. High school seniors will also find a package waiting for them in the mailroom. It contains a tie-dyed T-shirt bearing a slogan (“Are You Experienced?”) that evokes a famous Hendrix named Jimi.

Adam Bigott enjoyed all the fanfare, but what he liked best was the time he spent with the head of the physics department, who took him to the basement to show him high-tech laser equipment. That night, he stayed in a dorm with students, whom he peppered with questions about what was good about Hendrix and what wasn’t. The next day, he received an envelope containing an acceptance letter-and plenty of glitter. He accepted.

“Hendrix never lied to me-they said this is who we are and we aren’t for everyone,” Adam says. “At a lot of other schools, it felt like everyone was pushing the school on you, like cheerleaders. I felt like they were the ones deceiving me.”

Bigott seems pleased with his experience and his choice of college, but of course even the most “authentic” tour is unlikely to reveal a school’s real warts. A campus tour guide is not going to admit that, say, cheating is rampant among math majors, any more than a prospective applicant is going to admit that he cheated on his last algebra test. So asking personal questions of tour guides will only get you so far, says Steven Roy Goodman, a D.C.-based college “admissions strategist” who makes a living helping students describe themselves favorably to admissions committees. Goodman thinks that tour guides’ life stories are of little use to visitors trying to determine how well they would fit in on a particular campus. So he suggests describing your own interests to guides, and then asking them if they know anybody who’s similar. “The question forces them to get off script,” he says.

Goodman is often reminded of how today’s tours push consumers’ buttons. Recently, he scheduled a visit to Chapman University, in California. He received a confirmation that looked just like an old-fashioned movie ticket, stamped with the tour’s start time. “The tour’s become an event,” he says. “There’s a reason Disney World is one of the most popular tourist destinations. Americans expect a show.”

Like many counselors, Goodman encourages students to consider where the information they hear is coming from. At all but the most selective colleges, admissions officers have a difficult job: filling campus beds with the most qualified students possible. This doesn’t mean they are bad people-just that they’re under a lot of pressure. Failure to meet enrollment goals has severe consequences, financial and otherwise, for colleges. So families should know that they are on the receiving end of messages shaped, at least in part, by competitive instincts.

All the more reason why visitors should do as much homework as they can-and ask a lot of questions. For instance, the federal government now requires all colleges to report their graduation rates. Schools that do well on that measure usually brag about it in their tours, but those that do poorly tend not to reveal the information without prodding. And unless visitors ask, they probably won’t learn anything specific about how academic advising works, or what happens when students find that a required course is full, or how the college helps students who struggle.

Whatever cues they take from Disney, Kallay and Gilbert aren’t your smooth-talking slicksters from central casting. On the contrary, they’re thoughtful students of pop culture who think in terms of narratives. Their idea of selling college as a life-changing, sensory experience might offend academic purists, who could ask, “Isn’t college supposed to be about education?” But families’ decisions often don’t hinge on perceptions of academic quality alone. Most also consider costs, as well as all the intangibles-the feel of the campus, the vibe on the quad, and the kinds of people they meet there.

Although colleges can and should give families much more revealing outcomes data than they do, it would be impossible to quantify everything that students experience once they enroll. The friendships they make. The conversations they have. The books they read. To choose a college is to make a leap of faith in a world where some things aren’t measurable. Kallay and Gilbert provide a useful service to the extent that they help prospective students get a better sense for those intangibles.

So go ahead, take the tour. But also take this advice from a father I interviewed who visited seven colleges this spring: “Don’t leave your bull…. detector at home.”

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