I have previously documented how the purchase process for a family shopping for a college is like the search to find the perfect house, and how the college admissions office functions much like the sales offices of the homebuilders who attempt to sell new homes, with only a few models to show.
In both cases, college admissions and real estate, location is a major determinant of value.
Consider a house as a major investment. The houses that are worth the most tend to be closest to cities with strong economies, with many working professionals earning high salaries. Those professionals, more often than not, are well educated. Well-educated people demand quality from their public services from transit to trash collection, or they research private alternatives quite carefully.
Colleges are shopped much the same way. Not only do families often want schools in or near major cities; they also seek schools in educated communities aka “college towns.” It’s very difficult for schools in isolated locations to succeed unless those locations, through acts of the college, local government, state government and the business community decide that they want to be a college town. Visit places such as Burlington (VT), Davis (CA), Oxford (OH) and State College (PA) and you’ll get an idea of what this takes. The same holds true for places such as Saratoga Springs in New York (Skidmore College) and Amherst in Massachusetts (four liberal arts schools plus the University of Massachusetts), among others.
College admissions officers who work for colleges that are neither in cities nor college towns have a difficult time selling their schools unless past reputation, through a strong alumni base, can overcome the weaknesses of the school’s location. But these schools, such as Bates, Bowdoin and Colby, all in Maine, Colgate and Hamilton in Upstate New York, Grinnell College (IO) or Kenyon College (OH), are the exceptions.
Last year I attended a college admissions event hosted by the Colleges That Change Lives. These 44 schools are spread throughout the country. They run several admissions events together as a group. Most of these schools share location as a common problem.
The first question I have asked college admissions officers, when I have not visited most of these schools is: “where is that?” Not the best way to introduce myself to a college admissions officer.But if the school is in an unfamiliar location I have to ask. The next question is: “how do you get there?”
Then I ask if the school has had success attracting students from New Jersey. New Jersey has become a national litmus test for college admissions; so have California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois and Texas. If a college admissions office claims that it works for a national school and it cannot pull students from these states, there will be new people working there. Sometimes I get smiles, other times expressions of hope. I have sympathy for these people. The best and brightest students in New Jersey are more likely to have been to Europe than most parts of the Midwestern or Southern United States. Sad, but true.
In a technologically-connected world the location of a college should matter less. A student, for example, who goes to Cornell College, located in Mount Vernon, Iowa, should have a better chance to find a job in a major city in 2015 than s/he would have had in 1985. The Internet, through e-mail, Web sites and resources such as LinkedIn.com can help that student make connections that s/he would not have been able to make 30 years ago. Cornell has a beautiful campus, a one class-at-a-time curriculum, even an affordable price for a private college ($47,400 for all direct charges: tuition and fees, room and board) before aid comes into play. Cornell fulfills, on average, 85 percent of a family’s need, after starting from a lower sticker price. Aside from the location, there are many good reasons for a very good student who is serious about the liberal arts to consider Cornell.
But Cornell College is more than four hours from either Chicago or Minneapolis. If Cornell was in Eastern Pennsylvania or near Baltimore, for example, I would have a very easy time selling it to New Jersey, New York or Pennsylvania high school students who are interested in a liberal arts education.
But selling location is hard when the place is not familiar. I tell New Jersey families, for example, that a drive to Maine takes as much time as a drive to Atlanta or Cincinnati. The land will be no less foreign in any direction. But It’s a hard sell for me, and I’ve seen much of this country.
A good college cannot help where it is. It can only help what it does. But location will never cease to be a factor in college admissions decisions. It’s up to college admissions officers to sell not only the benefits of their location, but also the connections that their future students can make.