We can trace the inception of the campus visit, as it is currently known, to the Baby Boomer Generation. That’s the 72 million strong group of Americans born between 1943 and 1962 who birthed the 82 million strong Millennial generation born between 1982 and 2000. They invented the college tour road trip, which has become such a part of our culture that it’s been dramatized in movies such as Disney’s College Road Trip and television shows such as Modern Family. Millennial children were loaded into the family minivan with their Boomer parents and visited colleges and universities across the country in search of the perfect fit.
An industry is born
During this heyday of the campus visit, positions were created in admissions offices to handle the volume of visitors and all of their special requests. Boomer parents had high expectations of what a campus should offer their children, and they expected the red carpet to be rolled out for their offspring at each campus they visited. We named these parents ‘helicopters” because of their hovering nature. The sky was the limit and we worked hard to give these families the experiences they sought in the hope that the students would enroll.
A building arms race
Around the year 2000, colleges and universities began a so-called building arms race to add new residence halls, wellness centers (including the famed lazy river), and state-of-the-art academic facilities in an effort to attract as many of these millennials as possible to enroll at their institutions. These were competitive times for admissions offices, and they all wanted to enroll more than their share of right-fit students.
The housing collapse and a recession
We continued to welcome Boomer parents and their Millennial children to our campuses well into the 2010s. Visit numbers were big in those days, and many institutions built beautiful and expensive welcome centers to accommodate the high demand while making a good impression at the same time. We got used to big campus visit events and large tour groups along with feeding families catered meals or lunches in the dining hall. But around 2009, we started to see a drop in campus visit volume as many families had to tighten their belts during a time of parent layoffs from work and housing insecurities. When the Great Recession was declared over, we all prepared for a return to the high Boomer/Millennial visit demand.
Hello X and Z
But something had changed. In mid-2014- 2016, we started to notice a change in what prospective students wanted in their college visits and how they and their parents behaved during their time touring campuses. A new generation of parents, called Generation X, and students, called Generation Z, had arrived at our visit events, and we weren’t prepared. Students were frequently quiet and uncomfortable, and parents were often boisterous and disruptive. We stopped calling parents helicopter parents and coined the term “stealth parents or lawnmowers” because they would swoop in unseen, drop an atomic bomb, lay waste, and then fly away or mow down everything in their child’s way. If you study generations, you know that Generation X as a group tends to be more skeptical than other generations. They want the truth without spin, and this puts stress on campus tour guides, who were often the targets of their “stealth and lawnmower” behavior. Lazy rivers were no longer of much interest, and no one cared how many volumes you had in your library anymore. They wanted to know how the college would support their student academically and emotionally and how they would work to ensure their student was ready for the workforce and able to get a good job after graduation.
What began before COVID has continued post-pandemic, and institutions are finding that they need to shift what they offer to campus visitors while also struggling with declining numbers of families who visit due to declining birth rates and less confidence in higher education. As a result, we’re hosting fewer of those big red carpet events, offering tours during the day and night, focusing on showing our career development and counseling centers, and making sure our tour guides can handle the barrage of often invasive questions from Generation X parents. In short, we’ve had to change the playbook to ensure we are meeting the needs and wants of our Generation X parents and Generation Z students.
Welcome the next generation
Whether this is good or bad news for you, there is another generation that is preparing to descend upon your campus in the coming years. While this generation may not have lived long enough for us to get a full picture of what will define them, they’re being referred to by many names, but for argument’s sake, let’s refer to them as Alphas. According to Jean Twenge, author of Generations, the children of Millennials, Alphas are born between 2013 and 2029. When the pandemic hit, the first Alphas were in kindergarten or first grade and had to move quickly to school in front of laptops and iPads. We know all about the two years that followed and now life is pretty much back to normal; however, Alphas will not remember a time before the pandemic. They won’t remember a time before smartphones and conversations about climate change. Importantly, they will be the first American generation with a non-White majority.
What do we know about them?
According to Howe & Strauss, authors of the well-known books on generational theory, Generations, Millennials Rising, The Fourth Turning, and The Fourth Turning Is Here, like their Baby Boomer grandparents, they will be an “idealist” generation, meaning they want to make things better and fix everything. While they are still individualists who have struggled, like Generation Z before them, with mental health concerns, they want to be the generation that heals the world. And also, like their Generation Z predecessors, it is predicted that they will seek out careers where they can help others and make a difference to society. A dichotomy with Alphas is that because they exist in a post-pandemic world, they value safety and security above all else. So while experts predict they will choose careers in health professions, social work, and the law, they also, due to a perception of security and stability, desire positions with large organizations.
A “somewhat” new twist
Remember our Boomer parents who invented today’s campus visit experience? Many of our consulting clients have reported that they’re coming back to their campuses once again; this time with their Millennial children and Alpha grandchildren in tow. Boomers were the OG best friend and co-purchasing parents to their Millennial children, are living longer, their children are having fewer children, and they want to be involved with the college search and the campus visit. We’re calling this the multigenerational campus visit. While not a new phenomenon in some cultures, multiple-generation activity has been increasing over the years across many sectors. In fact, multigenerational travel is a hot topic in the travel industry right now, and articles can be found about it in Forbes, Travel Advisor, and The Travel Current, and others. But up until recently, we weren’t seeing multiple generations on our campus tours in big numbers.
8 strategies for success
Grandparents are going to come along on visits in the future and you need to re-think your campus visit experience to embrace them. Create programming that is specific to them and gives them insight into and knowledge of the college. Remember, Boomers have always been celebrated, and they want their Millennial children, and Alpha grandchildren, to be celebrated as well. Here are some thoughts to consider:
- Resist the urge to limit the number of guests you allow your prospective students to bring.
- During the visit sign-up process, ask for the names and emails of all those joining the visit.
- Send confirmation emails and texts to grandparents, parents, and the student. Let them know what to expect from their visit and how to dress for comfort. Demystify the campus visit.
- Create a post-visit communication created for parents and grandparents. If you take time to develop relationships with family members, they just might become your advocate in the recruitment process.
- Offer accessible tours – via golf cart, van, or shuttle – for less mobile family members.
- Offer additional special interest tours or sessions for grandparents, such as a tour of the rare book room, the stadium, a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater, or let them make something in the maker space.
- Offer a session during your events on how to grandparent a college student and other topics that might be of interest to this demographic. Or have one of your most interesting faculty members offer a course on an area of their interest, such as winemaking, birdwatching, or the campus arboretum.
- Consider campus visit giveaways that are specifically designed with parents and grandparents in mind. A book on the history of the college, a list of important contacts on campus, a button that labels them as “(insert mascot here) Grandparent.”
Embrace and celebrate
We experienced parents and their children as a co-purchasing unit for over 20 years with our Boomer/Millennial and Generation X/Generation Z visitors. With the Alpha Generation, we will experience three generations, or multigenerational campus visitors, most likely resulting in a tri-purchasing cohort. This presents a new opportunity for those of us in higher education to rethink the experiences we offer our visitors and how we embrace what’s important to them. Let’s not be caught off guard. Let’s prepare now to offer an experience that resonates with all of our visitors.