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  • Writer's pictureJason Flurry, CFP

Understanding College Sales Choreography

Knowing how colleges close the sale with their best prospects can help you avoid making mistakes and better position you for greater success

I’ve mentioned before that next purchasing a home, college is the largest financial transaction most people ever make. Certainly, owning your own home is a cornerstone to the American dream for most people, but being able to send their kids to college is also something that’s very high on most people’s priority list.

It’s pretty easy to understand why owning your own home would be valuable, but why has college become so important over the past 30 years or so? According to several polls out there, many people rank being able to send their kids to college as a higher priority than even their own retirement, even if they have to go deeply into debt to make it happen. That’s pretty incredible, don’t you think? It’s also pretty scary. Maybe that’s why there’s roughly $1.5 trillion in student debt in America these days. It’s the single largest asset on America’s balance sheet and it’s growing larger every year.

In this article, I’m going to show you why this is the case and help you see and understand the sales choreography colleges use to bring in billions each year. It’s no surprise when you see a company like Apple, Netflix, Amazon, or Microsoft reporting huge sales and massive profits, but a lot of people don’t think about college in the same way they do a business. Colleges, on the other hand, do think of themselves like businesses and plan their sales strategies accordingly.

Here are a few areas colleges have focused on that have brought them to the top of people’s list of “must haves.” The first one is making a college degree seem absolutely necessary for anyone to be successful.

Non-negotiable You’ve probably seen some of the studies that show how those who have college degrees earn more in their lifetime compared to those who don’t. As a parent, who doesn’t want their kids to have opportunities for success? If there such a direct link between learning and earning, it just goes to reason that making the investment to learn more will pay off big time in the future. To some degree that’s true. But, it’s not always the case, since the vast majority of people who do earn a college degree end up working in a field that is far removed from the actual major they specialized in at college. In many industries though, obtaining a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite to getting a job and that just reinforces the necessity to send their kids to college.

There are many valuable skills and tools students can learn and use to make a very successful living without having to go through the trouble and expense of earning a traditional college degree. Many of these are skilled trades that require specific knowledge in a very specific field of work, but others are much less technical and more related to a person’s ability to think critically, hustle, and have good communication skills. That’s where you find a lot of entrepreneurs excelling and in most cases, their college degree have very little to do with their success.

Please understand, I’m not saying that your kids should not go to college. Just don’t blindly accept the fact that they MUST go to college in order to have a rich, rewarding life. Not everybody’s college material and holding them back for four more years of school could keep them from moving forward in areas that are much more enjoyable and suited to their skills, interests, and abilities.

Now let’s look at the next area where colleges have promoted themselves. It’s in the area of positioning and branding.

What’s in a name Since most everybody believes they have to send their kids to college now, the question becomes which college do you choose? Colleges spend a ton of money branding themselves based on the level of academic knowledge they offer. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think of schools like Harvard, Yale, Vanderbilt, and the University of Chicago as elite academic institutions. And they are! But, how do you know that? The word had to get out somehow and the simple fact that you recognize that these schools are elite shows that somebody had intention behind spreading the news.

Another way colleges position themselves is by highlighting specific programs they offer, such as their medical school, nursing school, school of journalism, or business school. Colleges try to gain prominence regionally by standing out among their peers. In the southeast, for example, you see this with schools like the University of Georgia, Florida State University, the University of South Carolina, and so on.

Other colleges will try to distinguish themselves on a national level, like NYU, Georgia Tech, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and many others have done. Some colleges have even managed to establish themselves as a desirable choice on an international level. People all over the world know about American schools such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. And on the flipside, we know about prestigious international schools such as Cambridge and Oxford in England.

Sports is a big deal for colleges and many schools like Alabama and Clemson, are known for their dominance in football. Schools like Duke, Indiana, and Kentucky are known for their rich basketball heritage, and many other Division I schools have enhanced their brand through championships in baseball, crew, lacrosse, tennis, soccer, and more.

It takes a lot of special talent to be an athlete, but there are also other special performance talents and abilities colleges use to enhance their brands. You see that sometimes in the area of speech and debate or in the theater arts, for example.

Finally, the last very evident way colleges have positioned themselves in the minds of the masses is by creating a community of alumnus who proudly promote the school’s name in social circles and in their professional lives. These vanity credentials can open doors for people and be used as an indicator of credibility in their bio. How many times have you heard someone say, “So and so went to MIT,” or “This person is a professor of blah blah at U Penn, or Emory, or Johns Hopkins” as they were being introduced or described. The automatic assumption is that this person must be smart and qualified to talk about whatever they’re going to say - and the only qualification that makes you think that, is the fact that they went to a particular college.

Naturally, we want our kids to be thought of in the same high regard, so we push our kids to do well in school so they can have opportunities to attend these prestigious colleges too. But, for most people, where they go to college, especially during their undergraduate years, doesn’t really matter much five or 10 years after they’ve graduated. Their pedigree may help them get their first job, and to that extent, having a certain name on your diploma could be useful. But, to think that a person has to go to a particular college and bear the financial burdens associated with it just to have a fighting chance in life is a mistake. It’s no different than saying a person has to wear particular brand of clothing, have a certain type of car, or use a particular type of phone or computer to be successful.

It’s all branding and the colleges of done a great job and positioning themselves with it.

We want you So, now that we’re all convinced that we have to send our kids to college and we’re aware that some colleges are clearly better than others, the next step in the colleges’ sales choreography is to actively recruit those who may be good prospects for that particular college. One of the big ways colleges do that is by partnering with ACT, College Board, and high schools all over the country to get access to students’ academic and personal data. That information allows colleges to build demographically targeted marketing campaigns that include direct mail, email, traditional media ads, and a variety of ads and posts in social media.

It’s flattering to get stuff from some of these colleges, because who doesn’t want to be liked? These colleges have huge budgets, and if you’re in their target market, they can often use a very aggressive approach to get your attention.

You’ve seen colleges visiting your community through college fairs and high school development programs. Some have specialized programs, like Duke’s TIP program, and there are summer programs were students attend college campuses for summer camps, which sounds like a good experience and great preparation for college, especially if that college is one you’re considering. But, these programs are usually little more than creative ways for the colleges to use their campuses effectively in their off seasons and generate extra attention in revenue from people who may be a prospect for them in the future. That’s why there’s often the option to do a college tour while you’re there. And, of course all colleges do offer college tours, which is another way they actively recruit people in their sales process. Some will even mention during those tours how generous their financial aid can be, but you still have to do your homework to know how their averages will apply to you in your personal family situation.

Okay, I’m hooked – now what? Well, let’s suppose that their marketing efforts have been successful and you’ve decided to apply to that particular college. You can expect the sales choreography to continue during application season and beyond.

Colleges have designed systems of communication that keep you moving forward with admissions and financial aid once you’ve submitted your application. If you’re fortunate enough to be accepted, you can expect that college to show you a lot of love and attention through things like glowing letters from the president of the University or the Dean of Students praising your accomplishments. There can also be fancy looking certificates of admissions that are suitable for framing included with these letters too. I’ve even noticed a trend in recent years of colleges sending out handwritten notes of encouragement from current students, recruiters, and admission officers.

Almost every college will send your student text messages, emails, other stuff in the mail to keep them engaged. Sometimes the things you receive in the mail can be pretty interesting too. One of my sons applied to a college several years ago and one of the centerpieces of their campus was a beautiful library with stained-glass windows all around. As the date for making his final decision drew closer, he received a package in the mail with a brochure that said “See yourself” at their college and included with it was a majestic picture of that library and little square of richly colored stained-glass. Pretty clever, huh? Some of my other children have received scarves, T-shirts, and other swag with the college’s logo prominently displayed.

All of these efforts are designed to hold students attention and to foster your interest in them as you approach making your final college decision. And it must work pretty good since so many college do this as a part of their system.

Welcome home Once the admission offer has been made, colleges focus on trying to close the sale with you, and one of their common tactics is to offer some event on campus that will bring you back to see them under favorable circumstance late in the decision cycle. Usually these offers to visit their campus are sweetened with some kind of bribe, additional scholarship, or a perk like joining their Honors College. In other cases, they simply want to welcome you to the family and help you begin to see what life is like as one of their students.

And here’s something interesting I’ve observed. The wording in all of their letters and in their invitations is always positioned as though you have already made your final decision to join them. Even if you haven’t officially accepted their offer, they presume the close of the sale and refer to you as one of their own. That psychology can be very effective and it’s a smart move by the colleges to do so.

If you rank high enough in their draft pool, colleges sometimes will offer to cover your costs to visit them so they can get to know you better. That seems generous, but to the college what’s $1,000 dollars or so for flights and hotels if you can get what you want. They figure if you sign, they can charge you whatever amount, maybe $25,000, $30,000, or maybe even $50,000/yr. or more for the next 4 years – or maybe even longer. And, at that rate, spending $5,000 or $10,000 to get you on board provides them a great return on their investment if they’re successful.

You see this approach in full force with elite athletes at Division 1 level schools. In fact, many of them have gotten into trouble over the years by going too far. You’ve probably seen some of those stories in the news. Schools make bigtime money with their sports programs, so offering a free ride tuition scholarship plus giving away cars, trips, cash, or whatever the recruit wants can appear to be a smart business move for them. It may not always be legal, but just like in anything other super-competitive area, you can see why colleges risk getting caught sometimes when they make these offers. The payoff can be so big, it’s worth it to them to push the limits. In any other industry, people would say, “It’s just business.” It may just be “business” to the colleges too, but that doesn’t make it right.

Who’s the boss? Let me remind you one very important thing here. When it comes to choosing colleges, you, not the college, get to make the final decision. Colleges know this and that’s why they put so much money and effort into perfecting this sales choreography process. When you’re planning for college, use your position of power to your advantage. Negotiate with admissions and financial aid whenever you can, especially if you’ve positioned your student as the ideal prospect with that college. I’ve shown you several different ways to do that in previous articles here. Go back and check them out. I think they’ll really help you.

The colleges want to make you feel like they have the upper hand, but you know better than that. They’re just trying to close the sale on a big ticket item that meets their needs in a variety of ways, both now and in the years ahead as their successful graduates will foster interest in future students by the associations they’ll have and frequent mention of the school’s name in business and in social circles.

Think about it, how many of your friends have ever mentioned where they went to college? Do you know where your best friends, coworkers or bosses went to college. What about your neighbors? Who else do you know this information for? And why is this relevant?

Do you know where they went to high school? If not, why not? Did the high school have the same level of money to gain in branding themselves? Probably not.

Way back, people used to identify themselves by an association with the family name, by being the son of their father, by the province or town they came from or by some title that included a noble character trait they had demonstrated. Today colleges have placed themselves in that spot as one of the most distinctive qualifier of status and credibility. Isn’t that amazing? It proves how effective their sales choreography system actually is and why you need to be aware of it as you make your family’s plans for college.

Don’t let a college’s marketing machine suck you in and make you feel like they’re driving the bus. Sure their pockets are deeper than yours, and that can be intimidating. But, you have something they want and need to keep their business growing and healthy. They want you and there’s only one of you, so do your best to show them why you’re the logical choice for them.

Learn to speak their love language so they find you irresistible and then make them work as much as you can to persuade you that they are the right one for you. You’re the boss here and they know it. So use the strategies and tactics I’ve been sharing with you to master this process like a boss and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how rewarding it can be!



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