The Erosion of Your College's Greatest Asset in the Prospect Marketplace

By accident or design, American colleges and universities have positioned themselves as an 'experience'. Recent events are forcing their hand at delivering that to buyers.

I’ve been a slow convert to Disney World.

When I became a dad in 1995, Disney became the unstoppable force in our life. The lure of Disneyland in Anaheim when we lived in California, and now Disney World in Orlando since we live in North Carolina, was omnipresent. So once every few years, we’d head down to the crowds, lines and $6 sodas so my kids could sweat in line waiting to see one of the princesses or Pluto or something. I just didn’t get it.

Fast forward to last weekend in July of 2020:

I took the family to Disney World. We put on our masks, we social distanced, we washed our hands frequently, made our online reservation, and went. Our trip to California to visit family had to be canceled because of shutdowns, so this was our make-up trip to our kids.

What I observed there, once I had my temperature checked and got into the park, struck me. People were still having fun at Disney. Even with a mask, and the heat, and the rules, they were into it. I was into it! (Less people? Shorter lines? Where do I sign up??!)

They were there for the experience. And, no mask or temperatures screening or rules were going to get in the way. I mean, I’m to the point where I “like” Disney World, but there are some people who are downright obsessive about it. You may know someone like that…these are the people who go to Disney World during a pandemic.

But again, my point is this: They were there for the experience. That’s what you pay for when you go to Disney…not the $6 sodas. You’re there for the magic and the make-believe. It’s what kids get sold on, and buy in to.

Your college is judged on the same emotional experience.

This is where coaches, admissions personnel and college administrators push back on me a little bit.

They want to believe that college is about the eduction, the future, and the information imparted to the young students and athletes filling their classrooms and quad. They want to believe that the degree with their college’s name on it is what’s driving families to them, and certainly for a percentage of their population, that holds true.

But for the majority - and I mean the vast majority - it’s about the experience. The team, the dorm room, the parties, the internship, the networking, the new friends, coffee after class with the professor, tail-gaiting, the parties, 2am Taco Bell runs…(and did I mention the parties?)

Proof of this argument is easy to find. There are hundreds of articles - like this one - highlighting your customers (students and athletes) and their parents (the one’s being asked to pay the same tuition rate for online classes as they would for the traditional campus experience) questioning the value of this new emerging world of college life we’re trying to sell them. They aren’t buying into the idea that online learning has the same value as the in-person experience, and even educators and industry experts are up in the air about the effectiveness of that process. More than 9 out of 10 students say it’s not worth as much as the traditional college experience.

The College Experience = The Disney Experience

My kids could have watched YouTube videos of their favorite roller coaster at Disney World, but what would be the point? The wind in their hair is missing, the screams are missing, the increased heart rate is missing…it’s not the same.

Likewise, according to our growing database of Coronavirus recruiting research, your prospects and current student-athletes are coming to college - and playing sports - for more than just the information you have. Turns out, they just don’t see it being worth as much minus the experience.

This is where an important divergence in these two examples happens:

We’re willing to wear masks, obey park rules and get our temperature checked at Disney World because we’re bought into the experience. However, colleges are discovering that a significant and growing percentage of their prospective student prospect list are not bought into the idea of paying for college without going to college.

Why? My gut tells me, based on two decades of serious conversations and research on this topic, that most colleges haven’t given up on the 1950’s idyllic image of a college campus being primarily a place of higher learning that opens the door to a lifetime of professional success and wealth.

But that was then, this is now. If I just wanted information and instruction from the world’s best university - for free or way less than typical tuition - I can just click here.

Hear what I’m saying: Your students and athletes, along with their parents, are figuring out that they don’t need you to open doors to a lifetime of professional success and wealth. Most tech billionaires were college dropouts, and a teenager who is good at Call of Duty or Fortnite can make six or seven figures right out of high school as a professional. And you want them to pay $40,000 a year to take your online classes?

Not without the experience. The experience is what is still drawing students and athletes to college campuses.

The ominous implications for your college campus:

This whole topic is really ‘big picture’. It’s not my usual focus when it comes to what we spend time talking about with you, but if you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re probably smarter, and more interested in deeper ideas beyond just how to send an effective recruiting text message.

(Since I just mentioned that, Coach: We’ve started great recruiting training information delivered to you by text message almost every day. It’s free, and getting great feedback from the coaches we’re already training. Just text me at 661-218-2166 and you’ll be opted in to this new communication platform we’ve started using. Give it a try. OK, back to the topic…)

The on-campus experience is your college’s greatest asset, and it’s being eroded. That’s not blaming an individual, just the circumstances. Many campuses will be able to cite excellent reasons why they can’t see students returning to campus, and you have to respect those decisions made by leaders who are tasked with making the best call they can.

But those same leaders now have to make the arbitrary decision as to when to open campus back up for in-person learning, and that experience which we know the majority of prospects, students and athletes are ‘buying’ as the primary part of their college experience. How do you do that safely? When is the right time to do make that call? What if you, as the college president, makes a mistake?

When we ask them to buy our online college classes at the same rate as our traditional college experience, it erodes your greatest asset in the marketplace. You’re increasingly viewed as not being honest and trustworthy with them, and in the long term, it’s going to hurt college coaches and admissions personnel.

When we tell them their college experience online will be of equal value and quality to their on-campus experience, it erodes a college’s greatest asset in the marketplace: The feel of college life.

Right or wrong, they’ve largely defined college as an experience, not strictly as the next step in their intellectual development and knowledge database.

Controlling what you can control: What recruiters need to make sure they do this Fall

  • As we have discussed before, fast-forward your conversations to what their normal experience will be once they get to campus. Yes, Coach, this crisis will end, and when it does your prospects will be your student-athlete on campus. To get them on campus, you need to focus on your message and make sure it’s giving them a look at what campus life will be like. What the experience will be like. Keep telling the story.

  • I’m not suggesting you ignore the stresses and unknowns as we enter Fall 2020. In fact, the element of you and your prospect defining and verbalizing how this is affecting you, as well as letting them tell you how it’s affecting them. That provides the counter to what you want them to focus on, the future. Current crisis/brighter future: That’s the element of every good story we connect with as a culture, and it will serve you will as a recruiter if you introduce this balanced story-telling in your messaging to prospects.

  • Deliver bad news quickly, using simple language, and inviting conversation. Don’t wait and let them hear about the cancelation of a season, or a virus outbreak on campus, from the news or some other third party. You deliver it and define it. When you do, you’ll be seen as a coach they can trust.

  • Those first three items are under your direct control as a coach. That’s where your power lies, and where you’ll be able to directly impact your campus, department and team in a positive way: By getting more good recruits to choose you over the other coach who is reading this, but not acting on it. In addition to that, I strongly encourage you to be a thought leader within your department and on your campus when it comes to sharing ideas for action that match what we know your ‘customers’ want, as outlined earlier. What creative ideas can you come up with for making your experience better as a team, department and campus? What counter-productive, or just plain boring, messaging do you see being put in front of recruits by your campus? How does the culture on your campus, or within your department, or among your student-athletes, negatively affecting your ability to hit your quantity and quality goals as a coach? Those are all vital questions right now. Most coaches won’t develop answers for them. Don’t be one of them.

Right now, we’re living through historic times. This is a 100 year event that your great-grandchildren will read about in 2120, and here we are living through it.

Lucky for you, you get to be involved in college athletics…the toy store of American enterprises. Only .0001% of us have the opportunity to do that, so don’t waste it. And understand, if you want it to continue and to thrive and grow, you’re part of the equation. Whether your a veteran head coach, second year assistant, or GA, this is an incredible opportunity to become defined as a leader. It’s easy to lead when times are good, economies are thriving, and all you have to do is have your team all read a book and discuss it.

That’s not now.

Now, you and your campus are under incredible pressure - economically and socially. The college experience is under assault, not from a person, but from an event…and that college experience is the main driver to your personal economy, and your campus’ future existence.

It’s estimated that 100-300 campuses will close over the next five years due to the COVID-19 crisis, and the resulting economic battering that will result. Small college towns, and your favorite burger place near campus - all of whom depend on students and athletes flocking to campus for the experience - will also be at risk for closing. This is serious.

Be the leader your department, student-athletes and campus talks about in years to come as someone who was a positive, creative force for good in the life of campus. We’re counting on you, Coach.