THE COMPETITION TO ATTRACT NEW STUDENTS TO A CAMPUS IS FIERCE.
Imagine you are a wide-eyed 18-year-old presented with one of the first major decisions of your life. What makes you choose one campus over another? Schools collectively spend millions trying to figure that out and find any competitive edge. So you can imagine the interest and discussion that this report generated when it was released, “How Do Campus Sustainability Initiatives Affect College Admissions?”. I think the information it presents shows both an opportunity and a risk for campuses.
The opportunity is that, whether it is via a specific academic curriculum or just promoting sustainable aspects of everyday campus life and operations, sustainability has provided a new pathway to market your campus to prospective students.
The risk is that you may find yourself over-selling your sustainability efforts and find that you don’t get the bang for your buck that you were hoping for after reading the report’s conclusions. Take for example, one of my former schools. They were growing their sustainability efforts and had a very passionate core of sustainability advocates on campus. Based on that 2009 study, the campus went “all in” on sustainability messaging, displaying sustainability as one of the most prominent aspects of their website and incorporating it into a wide variety of campus messaging. But there was not a corresponding pop in enrollment. In fact, in their own follow-up research they found the sustainability wasn’t even a top-five issue for prospective students at that school.
So was the report wrong?
No, I don’t think so. But I think the reality of what “important” means to students is nuanced and varies from school to school. I think it’s important to know yourself. There are some schools for which sustainability and environmental studies is a primary focus of the institution. At those schools, the preponderance of students will be pursuing a future path in the sustainability field. As such, the “all in” approach may be critical and the school’s sierra club ranking may be of paramount importance.
For other schools, sustainability is more of an e-pluribus-unum factor. It’s not that sustainability isn’t important. It is. But so are a bunch of other things. Remember, as with recycling participation, sustainability fits along a bell curve. And often, it’s not that the “apathetic middle” of that curve doesn’t care, it’s that they have enough other things that they care about that they cannot prioritize that one issue. That is the other risk for schools – to misread the lack of bang in applications for apathy about sustainability. Sustainability may not be the deciding factor for many students, but it is a factor. At this point, it has reached the level of an expectation, a negative checkmark that can hurt you in comparisons with your peers if you don’t have any focus on sustainability – perhaps even more than a positive checkmark if you do.
But sustainability is more than just words in a report. Once you get beyond the big issues of “do they have my field of study, can I afford to go, and any family alumnae issues (e.g. I’d be the 5th generation of my family to go to this school and there’s a lot of family pressure on me to do so)”, a big portion of a perspective student’s decision comes down to the vibe that they get from visiting the campus, meeting folks at outreach events and reading about the school.
What are you doing so that students see sustainability when so many aspects of sustainability are unseen? Have you incorporated those efforts without compromising the aesthetics that are so important to someone’s visual impression of the school? If not, it may cost you a student you wanted.