Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Why Are Colleges Losing Applicants?

There are so many schools of thought about what the collegiate marketplace should look like, there’s really no way to pick a side without picking a fight. Some believe college should be transformative. Some think it ought to prepare students for a vocation, others that any education is best if “well rounded.” The prevailing wisdom holds that highly competitive schools produce the best prospects for students after graduation. So, traditionally, the list of applications to get into these institutions has been much more than actual capacity. Thousands – tens of thousands – get turned away every year.

But, after decades of media coverage of this phenomenon coupled with rising tuition prices, “branded” colleges are reaping huge benefits while some traditionally exceptional colleges are seeing applications decline at a rapid rate. The numbers and names are equally stunning.

More than 20 million high school graduates are expected to walk the halls of colleges this year, up nearly 25 percent over 2000 numbers. Almost entirely, this increase has been absorbed by so-called “popular” colleges, both Ivy League and state schools. However, some schools renowned for top academic rigors are suffering huge declines in applications.

At the top of the list? Believe it or not, Boston College. That hallowed hall has seen nearly a 28 percent drop in applications, followed closely by the United States Air Force Academy, with a nearly 22 percent loss.

Other colleges in the top ten include such esteemed names as Wofford College in South Carolina (15 percent), Rhodes College in Tennessee (14 percent), the University of San Diego in California (11 percent), Whitman College (9 percent) and Brigham Young University in Utah (9 percent).

Each of these schools was once considered – and still are in their circles – to be excellent institutions with a strong and proud tradition. Some might argue that football’s to blame for falling popularity. They might decry ignorant, tubby Americans who only care about Saturday afternoons in the fall. Well, they’d be wrong.

Both Boston College and BYU have proud football traditions, and the Air Force Academy builds much of its student social calendar around “beating Army” and “beating Navy.” So, it’s not a declining society that has these top private school losing applicants.

So … what, then? In a single word: exposure. Today’s marketplace, in addition to being highly competitive, is also incredibly consumer driven. People go looking for the schools they know about or recognize most. They compare the results they searched. Name recognition matters more than tradition.

The lesson here? Longstanding reputation in your industry means little and less in a media-saturated, social media driven market culture. If people aren’t talking about you – a lot – you will find yourself at a distinct market disadvantage, no matter what industry you are in.

Could your business stand a twenty percent decrease? Each day you wait is one more chance for your “popular” competition to gain ground or even pass you.

Jonah Engler is an entrepreneur from New York City.

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