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Stop Micromanaging Your Campus Tour and Take a Look at Your Deeper Problems

For years, we’ve felt like every problem at a college or university has been blamed on the enrollment department, and the enrollment department has been expected to solve all of the college’s or university’s problems. 

What if the problems reside elsewhere? Could it be that leadership is out of touch and wants the institution to be like it was when they were students in the 70s or 80s? Or, the academic offerings are out of date and no longer desired by today’s high school graduates. It could be that the campus has millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and the buildings are moldy, the lawns are full of weeds, and the classrooms and labs contain outdated equipment. Or maybe, just maybe, the college hasn’t worked to differentiate itself from the 4,000 other colleges and universities in the country, and no one knows about it.

Tour guides caught in the crosshairs.

“Feel free to ask your tour guide absolutely anything.” These words, which I admit to having uttered many times in my career, and which are meant to open up an honest and authentic conversation, have led to Generation X parents doing just that — asking absolutely anything. 

More and more, tour guides are reporting feeling uncomfortable by parents’ questions, such as, “How much financial aid did you receive?” “What were your GPA and SAT scores in high school?” And other equally invasive queries, often laced with a snarky tone. And then there are questions meant to catch the tour guide off guard, such as, “What do you hate about this place?” 

So, why have our Generation X parents given up their lawnmower parent status (mowing over everyone in their path) for stealth parents status (dropping bombs and flying away)? My fellow Generation Xer, and self-proclaimed generational expert, Jeff Kallay, has much to say on this topic. “Generational behavior is influenced by the shared experiences of that generation. Generation X was failed by every institution designed to protect them, and they are angry and distrustful, and they take this out on institutions, and when they’re on a campus visit, the tour guide and the admission staff bear the brunt.

Tour guides are storytellers.

The job of the tour guide is to be a storyteller, allowing the prospective students and their loving adults to learn about the college through their own experiences. Easy peasy, right? Not so much when families on tour are trying to derail the tour by asking irrelevant or inappropriate questions. Enrollment friends, stop telling tour groups they should ask their guide anything. They can’t and shouldn’t.

Enrollment professionals under pressure.

As we all know, higher education across the board is facing stressors unlike anything in the history of higher education, with arguably the most pressing being that of uncertain enrollment numbers. This resulting pressure has been placed squarely on the shoulders of this industry’s enrollment professionals, who have, albeit indirectly and unintentionally, shared this pressure with, you guessed it, tour guides. 

On our visits to campuses during 2022, we observed more and more instances of college and university leadership inserting themselves into the campus visit experience, historically the domain of the admissions department. We’ve seen this manifested in tour routes designed by trustees, tour guide scripts written by members of the marketing department, and faculty pressuring enrollment staff to have guides spend more time in, and talking about, their departments.

So, when we read a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek, “How Apple Stores Went From Geek Paradise to Union Front Line,” we couldn’t help but notice some similarities. The article begins with, “Store employees helped create some of the most valuable square footage in the U.S. now they feel more like regular salespeople — so they’re unionizing.” The focus of the article is on the employees of the Genius Bar, the smart name for the Apple Store help desk, that “has felt like something of a personal concierge service.” 

Genius Bar staffers were trusted to fix your Apple products and, in most cases, did so with a geeky friendliness that was part of the authentic Apple experience. But Apple’s expectations have changed, and these same staff members are being asked by the company to focus on upselling instead of fixing, effectively changing the culture of the Apple store. So much so that employees at several Apple Stores have successfully unionized, and others are considering doing so. In this article, Joe Pine, co-author of the book The Experience Economy, was quoted as saying, “The mistake that so many companies make, as I think Apple has started to do, is they commoditize themselves.”

Are colleges and universities starting to commoditize themselves?

Back to our tour guides, who became tour guides because they loved their college experiences and wanted jobs where they could talk about what they love, and get paid for it. This is much like the Apple Store staff, who loved Apple products and got paid to do what they love to do, which was to fix Apple products. 

Are colleges and universities following in Apple’s footsteps and starting to commoditize themselves? If tour routes are being created by boards of trustees and scripts are being created by marketing departments, they just might be headed in that direction. As we’ve all heard over and over again, the children of Generation X, Generation Z, are all about authenticity, and we see them responding to brands that find ways to communicate their brands in authentic ways. It seems that such curated campus tours are antithetical to what Generation Z is looking for.

The symptom, but not the cause.

Attend any enrollment conference and you’ll find a vendor exhibit hall with hundreds of companies selling enrollment-related products that make up what has become an estimated $30 billion industry. Colleges and universities are constantly on the lookout for the silver bullet, the product or products that will solve all of their enrollment-related problems. But are all of their enrollment problems related to enrollment, or could it be that enrollment issues are the symptom, but not the cause?

Ask the right questions.

To our friends in academia: we urge you to hold up a mirror and take a look around. 

Can your enrollment issues really be fixed by scripting your tour guides and heaping unrealistic pressure on your enrollment teams? Or is a deeper dive called for? Is your campus in tip-top shape, with your facilities up to date? Are your programmatic offerings in demand? Do you have a robust wellness program that supports student mental health issues? Have you invested in a robust retention program? Have you clearly articulated your distinctiveness to your market? 

If you answer no to any of these questions, chances are you’re better off leaving enrollment to the professionals and focusing on the big-picture items that will have big impacts on your enrollment.

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