Souls for Sale

By W. Kent Barnds

Colleges across the country — the revered halls and the more recent — have caught the media spotlight lately for undertaking new branding and marketing efforts. Much of the attention has been negative and concentrated on campaign specifics rather than a greater reliance on the marketing industry. I believe this focus on the details acknowledges that all colleges are increasingly tuition-dependent, and now subject to demographic swings not experienced in a generation. Compound these facts with a weak economy, overbuilt infrastructure and increased calls for accountability, and all of a sudden it makes sense that marketing and market solutions will become more common.

My perception is most colleges understand the threats, and marketing has become increasingly accepted and expected around campus and beyond. However, there is a gentle war in my own profession that has me wondering about all of this.

Recently I attended a session about marketing, market forces and their impact on college admissions at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. The session was titled "Selling Our Souls? The Ethical Dilemmas Surrounding the Commercialization and Marketing of College Admission." I admire my colleagues who led this conversation in a jam-packed room of guidance counselors and admissions officers; yet I admit that after sitting through the discussion on manipulative ad campaigns and disingenuous marketing leading to rushed, ill-informed decisions, I hastily updated my Facebook status with the following: "W. Kent Barnds just found out that one is evil if they market to high school students as part of an admissions strategy. EVIL."

I will admit the world of college admissions has become increasingly multifaceted and some of the complexity can be attributed to marketing. But I left the conference thinking to myself, is it really as bad as what my colleagues and others said? And is it really just college admissions offices? Gee, I hope not.

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