John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Do It: Mystery Shop Your Own Institution

John N. Gardner

Summer is normally a time when my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I convert our mountaintop home in the western Blue Ridge Mountains into summer camp for visiting grandchildren.

But this year we did something different. We took two of our grandchildren on trips for college admissions visits. It was a real eye opener. Let me get right to the point of this posting: if you haven’t been on the Admissions tour of your own campus, do it. But “mystery shop” it if you can pass incognito. You need to know what your prospective students are being told to expect. The process of creating expectations for your incoming students is tremendously important for influencing the outcomes you want for their college experience. This is when you can begin to spell out what is the history and traditions of the place, its market niche, its core values, its promised experiences to come.

I want to report on one visit we made to a national, competitive, selective, research, university (not my own).

My 17 year-old granddaughter especially wanted to visit this institution. She is an outstanding student, academically and athletically. She had heard in her peer group that—let’s call it University X or UX, was “awesome” and that students there had a great deal of “fun.” We also had a fourteen year old grandchild along who aspires to be an engineer. He is also a high performing kid.

When you arrive at UX for the Admissions tour you enter a “Vistor’s Center.” The lobby and waiting areas feature many posters and symbolic messages largely revolving around X’s athletic programs. There is one prominent display in a case under glass reporting X being named as the “#1 tailgate” in the region. That point was driven home verbally at least three times on the subsequent tour. In my way of thinking “tailgate” is code for excessive consumption of alcohol before, during, and after football games. I am sure some others on the tour made the same connection, particularly the prospective students. However,  the tour guide made it clear that tailgating was not just for students. She reported that everything associated with football was also for the “family.” We were told repeatedly that coming to X is like belonging to a family.

When you go to a big place you might as well start out being processed in large groups because that is going to be the way the place works. On this summer Saturday morning, the “tour” consisted of approximately 130 prospective students and their families. This cohort was definitely drawn from a national population base.

The formal introduction began in an auditorium style configuration. We were asked how we were that morning and when we did not reply in a sufficiently loud and enthusiastic manner, we were instructed to repeat our answers to that question, several times. The expectation was clear: the X leaders wanted us to show some enthusiasm.

X did not have any professional staff from Admissions or elsewhere. This group of 130 had four undergraduate student leaders. I reasonably assumed that they had been carefully selected, trained and scripted.

As we waited for opening remarks, a slide show rotated on one screen. There was print material on some of the slides, but no accompanying music or voice over. The font for much of the print was too small for me to read and I was sitting in about the fourth row back, in the center.

The student master of ceremonies rattled off some basic information about admissions procedures and then asked if anyone had any questions. It was my interpretation that the sub text from the group leader was that this was not really the time or place for questions and the student leader answered them brusquely and impatiently, obviously wanting to get on with the tour.

Thankfully, not all 130 were going to tour together. We were split into four groups. As each prospective student’s name was called out to effect this division, the students were instructed that when their name was called they were to respond as loudly as possible “GO —(Enter name of X’s mascot)! That set the tone. We were going to hear a great deal about athletics on this tour.

The first stop on the tour was a large open grassy area. Here we were told about what would happen during the opening week of the term during an extended welcome orientation, and in particular, how a “student activities fair” would take place in this very area, under a large tent, where students could choose from over 400 clubs and organizations to get involved with. The objective of all of this we were told was to have “fun” and to get “involved.” We were told that in a national survey X ranked very high because over 90% of its students reported that they were “happy” at X. I was pleased to know that the taxpayers of this state were making such an investment to produce “happy” students.

Throughout the two-hour tour the only references made to the purposes of the institution were to: having fun, being happy, and eventually getting a good job. Considering this was a place I thought was especially noted for its STEM work, I found this scripted presentation of the purposes of the University to be particularly puzzling. To reinforce my cognitive dissonance, our tour guide repeated on multiple occasions that she had changed her major (to Communications) in her first year because of her challenges with Chemistry. As she put it “I don’t do anything with numbers.” She apparently was in the right place to go through college that way, even though I found that hard to understand.

Totally missing from the tour were any references to any other possible purposes of higher education, such as preparing for a life of leadership, civic responsibility, service to society, support of the arts, you name it. In fact, with reference to public performances in the arts space, the closest we heard was reference to great rock concerts that were brought to campus.

And next came a residence hall. We heard a great deal about on campus living options and food choices. The virtues of food options were extolled as was “free laundry” meaning no charge to students for use of the laundry machines. That was described as a big hit. It was explained to us that the one area of campus life that had not been rated high historically was the food service and thus, how that had been a focus for special attention for improvement in the past two years. Universities have all sorts of distinctions and I would assume on such tours would tout what they are proudest of. In this case, X is now proud of the food it provides its students.

We also heard about another student concern: parking, and how much more available and less expensive it would be than at many competitors.

We moved on to the Student Activities Center where it was explained to us in more detail what were the opportunities for students to engage in organized group activities. This building was separate from the student union building which we were not shown.

We were also not taken to any classroom or research laboratory facilities. I found that strange given that this is a world-class research university. There was no information offered on any types of research being conducted at this university or what the purposes of a research university are. The only references to academic requirements were to final exams, but in the context that the University food service provided what in the military I came to know as “midnight chow” served up late at night before finals the next day.

We were not taken to any facility where artistic performances of any type would be presented other than the movie theater in the student activities center.

We also did not see the football stadium although we heard many references to it and how we should all look forward to game Saturdays.

Nor did we tour the physical recreational activities building, although that was pointed out to us. In so doing the guide exclaimed that X was really a place for “jocks.” I did not ask her if she understood the male related aspects of that language which she was using generically.

Very late in the tour we got to the Library. We were only shown the foyer. But we were told that the library housed a student success center “upstairs” where students could receive free tutoring.

At another point there was reference to a health center, but none to the availability of counseling, or the fact that the college experience might lead some students to seek counseling.

While there were multiple acknowledgements that students were coming to university to get jobs, strangely, we were never shown the career center. I am sure both students and families would have liked more attention to that, actually, any attention to that.

At some point on the tour, I had this recollection of an experience I hadn’t thought about in years, a pitch for a timeshare. It was probably about 30 years ago and I was over at the blue collar Riviera of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, literally on the beach. And I don’t know what possessed me, but I agreed to attend a pitch for a timeshare—probably for ten beach dollars or something. As I recalled this otherwise forgettable experience I realized the similarities to this college admissions visit and tour. I was really being pitched a vacation experience, fun, recreation, generous and good food, plenty of entertainment, all in a safe environment, even free laundry thrown in. And not inexpensively—all for about what I could purchase a timeshare. Not only was what was being sold similar to the timeshare, so were the strategies being used in the pitch. This was truly déjà vu.

Of course, I know that those responsible at X for enrollment management are not trying to sell a timeshare. But assuming that what is said on these tours is not left to serendipity, and hence is carefully scripted, I had to wonder what was the rationale for what was covered/not covered. And without asking those responsible, all I could conclude was that this was the outcome of an exercise using Maslow’s needs hierarchy into an operational process. So what we got was information on very basic shelter and security needs but nothing much higher up on the aspirational ladder towards self actualization—-unless we accept the proposition that these prospective students had no loftier aspirations than to spend four or five years in a resort as a way station before true adulthood. No, I don’t think so. These students are high performing high school students. I believe they came in not knowing quite what to expect, but still expecting more than they got. I don’t believe they are really aspiring to an extended resort stay.

So how does your place stack up in comparison? What is the pitch being given prospective students? What is/is not on the campus tour? Who writes the tour guides’ script? Who trains and supervises them? What are the criteria for their selection? What is the story being told about your institution? Who is in charge of the front door to your institution? You need to know.

I must admit that for the three decades I was at the University of South Carolina I never went on the tour. I never heard the pitch. But I have now done so and am pleased to report it bears little similarity to X. I should have done this while I was employed full-time and had responsibility for first-year students. I knew very well what we were telling the students during Orientation but knew anything about the messaging that had preceded that. Shame on me.

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