John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Mystery Shopping: What does it Cost?

September 17, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

This posting is about “mystery shopping”, vacation hobbies, a “busman’s holiday”, and college cost!

One of the wonderful things about vacations is that you, ideally, have opportunities to do things you don’t do in your more normal work routines. My wife, Dr. Betsy Barefoot, and I have just had several weeks of vacation and we took the opportunity to do something we enjoy doing occasionally: mystery shopping a college campus! This is, if you will, a kind of busman’s holiday.

Betsy and I have visited approximately 700 different college and university campuses in our more than sixty years of combined work in the academy. One result of this is that we can case them out pretty fast. I find, not surprisingly, that my level of objectivity about any institution is greatest just before I enter the place. And the very first few minutes after I arrive on campus my objectivity begins to fade as my impressions begin to form.

Sometimes when Betsy and I are driving somewhere in the country (especially ours but internationally as well), and we spot a sign directing us to a campus we have never visited, we will simply follow whatever routing is available to the place, drive on, and the mystery shopping begins.

On our most recent vacation, we visited three states (New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont) and one Canadian province, Quebec. And we mystery shopped one institution, which led me to think about college cost.

Dear reader, I trust you are familiar with the concept of “mystery shopping.” It is a practice whereby someone poses as a customer, client, which he/she is really not. Instead, the mystery shopper is pretending to be a customer or client but is really trying to learn how the organization being “shopped” treats its customers/clients. Usually, the goal of this is to either gain information on a competitor, or gain information that can be used to make your own organization more effective. It is, ultimately a form of an “audit” of your organization functioning.

So in our case, on the busman’s holiday, how does this work?

Well, even before you get to the campus, you look for directional signage or other indications in the community that might point you to the campus. At the very least, this gives you some clues as to how connected the campus is to its host community.

Ok, you’ve found the campus. You drive into the place.

What about the signage (tasteful, tacky, conspicuous, whatever)?

What kind of “feel” do you get as you enter?

What about the landscaping and immediate appearance? Quality of the paving?

How do you rate the signage?

What are your initial impressions of the level of maintenance of the place? How much deferred maintenance is immediately visible?

Do you note the presence or absence of trash/graffiti?

What evidences of the student culture are immediately apparent that might differentiate the place from a corporate campus?

Can you draw any inferences from the makes and models of the automobiles that you see in lots designated for students?

What evidences of new construction do you see?

Are there students in evidence? How do they look? Who is hanging out with whom?

Are there any areas set aside outside for gathering, community (most fundamentally seating!)?

How easy is it to find the Admissions’ Office, signage, visitor parking? Is your sense that Admissions is in high or low rent space?

You walk in the Admissions office. How are you greeted? And by whom? How is the place furnished, decorated? What is displayed? Highlighted? What kind of feel do you get?

OK, so I walked in the Admissions’ Office of the place we most recently mystery shopped. I’ll give you one clue: This is a public four-year, residential, institution.

I asked the receptionist if I could have some literature. She cheerfully and politely indicated “certainly.” She did not ask me anything about the purpose of my visit or if she could provide anything else, was I visiting on behalf of a family member, what.

I thanked her and left and shortly thereafter reviewed the five different pieces of literature she provided me. Not a word about cost in any of these pieces. That really struck me. Was the idea to get me interested enough to make me want to then dig for the information on cost? What did the creators of this literature think: their prospective students were living on trust funds?

For years, when I am visiting, speaking, on a campus, I have often asked audiences how many of them can quote me with reasonable accuracy the current tuition rates for full-time students (in-state if the institution is public). Rarely do I ever find that even a third of the audience can do so.

Of more concern is the response to an even more important question I am fond of asking: “What is the median level of indebtedness of your most recent graduating class?” To that I rarely ever have anyone who can tell me.

I have to ask, is making it more challenging for prospective students to determine our pricing structure really in our best interests? And, more importantly, is it in our students’ best interests?

Why don’t more of us know what it costs our students for the privilege of being our students? Why don’t we know how much they are working? How much are families struggling to make the student’s presence possible? How much are our students borrowing? And at what interest levels, terms and periods of repayment?

What should we think about the fact that some many of us just seem oblivious to these questions? It has to be more than “this is just the way it is.”

I understand why Congress is paying more attention to college costs. And I predict that no matter who wins the upcoming elections, we are going to see more attention paid to these related questions. It cannot remain business as usual.

And I recommend you consider doing your own mystery shopping, especially at your own institution.

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