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August 22, 2010 11:00 PM Campus Tours Go Disney

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.

Eric Hoover is a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Comments

  • Emily on April 13, 2011 12:43 AM:

    Disney is, without a doubt, one of the world's greatest marketing machines. It's smart for colleges to emulate some of their tricks of the trade. After all, it's the most wonderful place on earth - isn't that exactly the impression that educators are trying to impress during campus tours?