Those of us with children in school know this is the time of year that classes shut down for spring break. If you’re like me, it is also the first time since the New Year that we’re able to take a family vacation. Last year we traveled to California which is a big deal for an east coast family. This year was quite different as we took our 11th grade son on a road trip to visit colleges.
Spending hours in a car with our son gave my wife and me the opportunity to ask him a lot of questions. We figured we had a captive audience with our son trapped in a car with us for hours and would take advantage of it. We drilled him with questions. What did he think of the schools we visited? What did he like most? Dislike? What we learned is that a 16 year old boy has no idea what he likes and what he doesn’t like when it comes to choosing a particular college. Campuses are all beautiful and the tours are designed to highlight the college’s particular strengths. What I learned about major universities is that they are run a lot like businesses where the successful ones are able to distinguish themselves on a highly competitive playing field. Here are my takeaways from last week’s road trip.
Most students love their college. There is nothing quite like the energy that students radiate on a beautiful spring day on a college campus. Their passion is infectious. Those who are touring their campus know there is no place that those students would rather be than right there where they are. Even with a tough curriculum, students find a way to have fun. The same can be said for how employees view a successful business.
Colleges are constantly expanding. The colleges we visited are reinvesting heavily in the form of campus construction. New buildings are going up and old buildings are being renovated at an astonishing pace. Expansion is the name of the game in business and on college campuses as well.
Attending college is very expensive. The financial investments that families make in their children’s college education are staggering and the cost of attending college has increased even during the worst recession in 100 years. In a down economy, many businesses are negatively impacted by decreased revenue but not colleges. Our tours were overflowing with people who were confident their money will be well spent on a college education for their son or daughter. What a great business model!
First impressions are important. Some schools we visited, including University of Maryland and Virginia Tech, provided complimentary parking in lots that were conveniently located next to the admissions building. At UNC however, we had to park far away at a metered spot on a busy street at a rate of .25 per 10 minutes. At University of Virginia, we had to wait for a spot to open up in a parking garage and, as a result, we missed the first part of the presentation. What is the first impression that potential employees and clients get when they visit your business?
Dare to be different. Most colleges follow the same cookie-cutter model for their campus tours; a one hour presentation given by a young admissions person followed by a 90 minute walking campus tour given by a current student. Wake Forest broke this mold and, as a result stood out from the rest of the schools we visited. They had the students attend a classroom lecture conducted by a real professor, away from their parents. Some schools did not even bother showing us a classroom and those that did had us visit an empty classroom. Wake Forest knows their local competitors are Duke and UNC and they are very good at playing up the differences. Businesses that compete against the big boys know their competition and highlight their strengths to distinguish themselves in their market.
College enrollment mirrors today’s job market. Enrollment at a major 4 year university is very competitive. UNC, for example, accepted 800 out-of-state students last year out of 20,000 applications. This level of competition starts to get students ready for the real world when it comes time to landing a competitive job. Applicants have to be able to distinguish themselves to be competitive.
Tell a story to make an impact. Sharing a real-life experience is one of the best ways to make an impact when giving a presentation. Our UNC tour guide hit the mark by telling an emotional story about how her friend found a terrible roommate through an online search while hers, which was great, was randomly selected. Other tour guides simply pointed out campus buildings without sharing any of their experiences. Presenters that are able to convey real-life stories with emotion are able to make an impact on their audience.
I am thankful that we were able to visit colleges last week. My son was able to gain some perspective on what his life would be like in college. As a businessman, I walked away with much more.