On the latest episode of Trusted Voices, Eric Hoover, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, joins Teresa Valerio Parrot and Erin Hennessy to discuss the trust issues facing higher education as well as his perspective on the experience of current students and prospective students.
Before that, Teresa and Erin discuss recent news out of higher ed, including Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi’s decision to cancel plans for a center for racial justice and the flawed communication around that decision. They also talk about TCU’s unexpected rise to college football’s national championship and the subsequent boost to both the school’s profile and its applications, despite the team’s calamitous performance on the game’s biggest stage.
- Penn State’s Diversity Dilemma (Chronicle)
- Empty Campus Communication Can’t Replace Real Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work (Higher Ed Dive)
- Georgia Blasts TCU 65-7 (NCAA)
- TCU’s $2.3B Bump in Media Exposure
- ‘A seminal moment in our history’: Saint Peter’s president talks March Madness impact (NorthJersey.com)
- Ringleader of College-Admissions Cheating Scheme Sentenced to 3½ Years in Prison (WSJ)
- US News Changes Law School Rankings (WaPo)
Read the full transcript
Hello and welcome to the Trusted Voices Podcast. I’m Erin Hennessy alongside Teresa Valerio Parrot and in each episode, we’ll discuss the latest news and biggest issues facing higher ed leaders through a communications lens. For these conversations, we’ll be joined by a guest who will share their own experiences and perspectives. This week we’re joined by Eric Hoover, senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
But before we get to our conversation with Eric, I wanted to point out a long story that ran just after the new year in the Chronicle about the president of Penn State and criticism she’s facing from students and faculty following her decision to step away from a Center for Racial Justice that was planned by her predecessor in the role. What really struck me about this piece is how much of it revolves around communications, what was communicated, when and how. Diversity, equity and inclusion remain top priorities for many institutional leaders, I would say that should be for most institutional leaders, and I think it can’t be overestimated how important communications are to moving forward with the trust and support of the campus community.
Of course, on the flip side, communications can never be a replacement for true progress on DEI, something that Teresa and I wrote about for Higher ed Dive last year and we’ll share a link to that piece in the show notes. Teresa, did you have a chance to see this piece?
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I did. Yeah, as you talk about the piece that we wrote, I think something that we continue to hammer is, for the two plus years of the pandemic, everybody focused so significantly on the pandemic and they said that they were working on DEI but obviously focus was on what was necessary in the moment. And that doesn’t mean that our campus communities put a pin in what they want to see at their institutions from a diversity standpoint. And we’re now at a point, as I go out in public and see people without masks, we’re at a point in the pandemic where people want to return to some of those issues that they hold near and dear like DEI and they are asking what has been done over the last two and a half, three years and we need to have good answers to those questions.
And this is a significant inflection point for all of us in higher education about what have we done, what can we do and what should we be doing.
I think you’re absolutely right and I’d add two things, one’s related and one is patented Erin Hennessy pivot. But the first one is I think you’re absolutely right that so many institutions felt like managing the pandemic was full-time plus and everything else was pushed to the side. But I think the smart institutional leaders continue to keep front of mind for themselves and for their institutional communities that the racial violence that we have seen and the systemic racism that we have seen for decades and generations can’t be entirely divorced from the pandemic. They are twin pandemics in a lot of ways. And so, if that issue of racial inequity and systemic racism wasn’t coming up through those conversations about the pandemic, I think that’s amiss.
The second thing I would say is that this is so important when it comes to context and having these conversations in context because stepping away from the Center for Racial Justice isn’t the only thing that was happening at Penn State related to racism and to political tensions because there was also a planned event where Proud Boys were going to come speak on the campus and the president continued to stand up for the right of students to have that event up and until there was a threat of violence related to the event and then she pivoted on that and shut down the event.
And so, I think, when you talk about stepping away from this Center for Racial justice and put it in this larger institutional context, it becomes an even more important and even more difficult issue for her to manage. In the Chron piece, she’s asking for grace and patience and I think that’s hard to ask for when students and people of color on your campuses and faculty are looking at this larger context and saying, “Wait a minute, how many times do I need to extend grace and how patient do I need to be?”
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I think that you mentioned a number of points that are worth thinking about including when do we get to a point where we don’t have surprise associated with speakers that we have coming to our campus and we don’t have surprise with the threshold being a threat of violence and we aren’t surprised with Ben having to cancel based on violence. So, so much of higher education is cyclical and we need to pay attention and we need to get to a point where we don’t just put this on a list of what we’re worried about, we put this on a list of what we’re ready for. And the other exacerbations from the pandemic that I would note is that the inequities that we saw in PK12 but also in higher education associated with who didn’t continue in education during the pandemic.
So, as we talk about racial and health and societal and systemic, I would say, and education disconnects and racism in this country, I think that we have some real work to do and that has to be something more that’s just in a statement, a list, an office or-
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
… something that you put, yeah, in your strategic plan as the sixth or seventh point, it has to be something more genuine.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We could do hours on this and I know we’ll come back to this conversation over and over again but I also wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about sports.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Yeah, let’s talk about something cyclical. Not surprisingly, I spent January, December and January, watching college football bowl games and then going through the national championship. And it gave me a bit of reprieve, I’m happy to say, from writing my dissertation which is on athletics. So, I have to say, it was a fun run for me to cheer on the underdog Horned Frogs so I’m so sorry to see how that national championship went. But I’m going to focus on the gain, not the gap, and I’m going to go ahead and say something that I saw interestingly on the TCU social media account. And that is that they say that the media attention that they received based on their run up to the national championship through the beginning of the year was worth $2.3 billion in ad equivalency. And I’ve also seen some early reportings based on their applications through January 1st, which is their deadline for applications, and those look extremely strong for them.
So, I do have to say, I’m always intrigued to talk about the inevitable admissions bump that we’re going to talk about and the dollar signs associated with successful athletics because, of course, this is going to be a conversation that we’re going to follow for a couple of years to see what happens. Whether it was St Peter’s and the bump that they saw this past spring as they had their Cinderella men’s basketball run or as we talk about institutions more holistically being the front porch of an institution, I think athletics always brings us opportunities to talk about what we hold dear and how we succeed on the field.
But I think, for TCU, my wish and my challenge for them is to think about how to bring this back around to academics, into program offerings so that they can have this bump become a sustained plateau. What are your thoughts?
It’s so interesting that you mentioned that because that was exactly the question I was formulating. I am a proud Villanova Wildcats men’s basketball fan and grew up on some great and storied teams. In the recent era, Villanova has been consistently really successful in runs at the final four and so what I was wondering is how the experience of a more Cinderella team and that staggering $2.3 billion ad equivalency number compares to what an institution that is consistently prominent in these playoffs and tournaments gets from that and is there, at some point, a drop off? Does a team that reaches the playoffs over and over again, I’m also thinking about the UConn women’s basketball team, do they just become, not background noise, but expected and so there’s less of a significant spike so they hit that plateau and just stay?
And I wonder, if we got some truth serum into folks in the Villanova or UConn basketball programs, if they would say that there’s something they’re looking for. Obviously, the championship but is there something else that they feel would drive them to another spike and then another higher plateau?
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I say wait until, hopefully, March and May of this year because my literature review for my dissertation actually talks about this and goes through some of this about where do you see the spikes in donations and in admissions, is it sustained and what does that mean. So, I think there is this perception of this long-term gain and it has to be something that is really fought for for it to be sustained or it’s a flash just like the run. And so, I think there really is this opportunity for TCU to capitalize on this and it’s going to take work. And to those other programs that have those long-term successes, they do reach these plateaus and you create these interesting stakeholder expectations for success that have to be fed in an entirely different way.
So, all of that is to say, I think we’re talking a bit about what some of these cycles look like, whether it is DEI and how we need to be thinking about progress on our campuses, it’s athletics and what these different cycles for championships and for Cinderella teams feel like and also admissions, looking at admissions. We follow those cycles very significantly because they play into what we pitch, where we pitch and how we’re positioning our leaders. But we also know that there are those who cover the topic year round because it is a year round process, there no longer is just an admissions season.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And you know, and I think a lot of people listening know, I started my career as an admissions officer straight out of college, I am still shocked and staggered both that a lot of responsibility for the financial health of that institution was placed on the shoulders of some very young, very goofy people but also that I was utterly unaware of that weight and responsibility. Certainly, we were tracking numbers all the time and looking at dashboards all the time but the ways in which this industry and these cycles and the sophistication of what we’re doing has changed since 1995 to today is just mind boggling. And so, I know you’re heading us towards this conversation that we’re going to have with Eric and I’m really excited to dig into some of the things we’re going to dig into with him.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Yeah, I think, interestingly, you and I have talked about this over many a Zoom happy hour but there is this renewed interest and we’ve now put admissions, in some ways, into that real housewives bracket as we think about some of the admissions stories and the flurries that we see coming through. We’re just now getting to some of the final sentencings associated with Varsity Blues. So, recently, Rick Singer was sentenced, we’ve seen a couple of others get sentenced since him and this story continues. So, please look to the show notes to see a piece from Melissa Korn who wrote the book on this topic and her piece about the sentencing for Singer.
And we also have another topic that ties so directly into this and also fits into these cycles and that’s the US News and World Report rankings and the shifts that we’re seeing in criteria that came about because some deans in the law schools said enough already. But as we’ve known, it had to be the deans at the very tippy top institutions that said enough already to get change.
So, I think that we need these institutional voices and we need these industry voices that can talk about what they’re seeing on the admissions front to give us a little bit of insight into where trust needs to be rebuilt with some of our students and families and also what some of the ups and downs are in the industry that we should all be thinking about. So, with that, looking at the news, looking at what was popping everywhere, thinking about what was top of mind for us related to admissions, there was really one person that we thought we should talk to about this.
We are excited to welcome to the show Eric Hoover, senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education who has written extensively about college access, admissions and student diversity for two decades. His journalism has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Monthly and Nautilus. Eric has received numerous journalism awards and is a two-time winner of the Education Writers Association’s Eddie Prize which recognizes distinguished reporting on the challenges facing low income and first generation students. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife Emily. Eric, thanks so much for joining us for this conversation.
Very happy to be here. Thank you for having me on.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
So, Eric, as a trusted voice, one of the things that I’ve observed is that I think that you have a bit of a different vantage point than we have. We have access to leaders and so do you but the conversations that we’re having are just a little bit different. And I know that higher education is facing a trust issue and we hear that we’re at a point that necessitates change. And to be honest, I’ve been hearing that for years, we’ve all been hearing that for years. But one of the things that I’m wondering is are we at a different point now and are we really at a point where something needs to change? So, do you think that the industry is at that inflection point and who and what will be the keys to creating change?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve also heard it for years, if not, I guess a couple decades. I don’t think that higher ed leaders across the board are realizing or agreeing with the notion that this is a pivotal point for restoring public trust but I do think I’m starting to see signs that this is a growing concern to institutional leaders. Many of those who’ve come through the Chronicle’s doors in the last year have wanted to bring this up, have wanted to bring up this question of eroding public trust nationally that we see in surveys and certainly the skepticism that they often encounter in their communities, they’re telling us, starting to see conferences with sessions built around the question of how to restore public trust. And so, I do think it depends on where you find yourself on a college campus. Is it business as usual or is there a growing awareness, as I think there often is, driven by all kinds of things. Reading the news, looking at your enrollment outcomes, looking at the battles in recruitment.
Yeah, winning back some level of public trust I do think is a major priority and I think that, I would say, slowly, gradually institutional leaders that hadn’t been thinking about this for years have come to think about it very recently. I’m definitely hearing more about it. What that’ll mean? I think it’ll just depend. Is this lip service, is there a real reckoning when it comes to taking a hard look at what your institution offers and to who and what would a better way, perhaps, of reprioritizing the wants and needs of an institution to better serve your community, your state, your region, the nation? Again, I think that’ll probably just depend on who stands where in the pecking order. If you’re comfortable, as many of the institutions that get written about most frequently are, if you’re comfortable with your place in the universe, what urgent incentive is there to change?
But I think for the bulk of institutions, this is something that is very much in the water. The problem is, or the challenge is, I should say, it seems that so many smart and really plugged in presidents and administrators that we’ve talked to at the Chronicle recently just aren’t sure exactly how to go about winning back trust. Can you do it with a big, new marketing campaign? Some institutions and associations have launched a marketing campaign to convince people the value of a post-secondary degree and a post-secondary experience. Maybe that’s a start but, if that’s all there is, I don’t think that is going to win back public trust across the board anytime soon.
So, I’m going to shift from questions that we talked about because you just brought up something that I’m interested and I’d love to hear from you. So, sorry for you putting you on the spot but here we go. And that is, with that, I think that there’s this tension associated with some campaign for all of higher education because, as we know, institutions need to be distinguishing themselves in this marketplace. In order to get their enrollment goals, in order to bring in the class that they have to bring in, they have to be talking about how they’re different.
So, how do you balance talking about yourself as something different while, at the same time, talking about higher education as a whole? You only get so much time and attention from people to be talking about what we do, how do institutions balance the needs between their own institution and having the dollars to keep the doors open in this bigger industry something that may help them or may not help them?
Right, that is a tricky thing to balance. I guess I would just be curious to know to what extent institutional leaders are really soliciting feedback, opinions, constructive criticism, really trolling for the concerns of people, whoever they might be, who they’ve identified as their core bread and butter audience or consumer base. You’re right, colleges, I think, often travel in packs in certain respects, they don’t want to be the first one to, in many cases, break off and start a new trend or introduce a wrinkle. That can be exciting but it can also be scary.
So, for each institution, I think the first order question is who are we in the eyes of the people who we most want to reach and for many, if not most institutions, that’s a largely local question or regional question. They’re not recruiting students from all 50 states and all continents in most cases. And what do we really know about how people see us and not just how we want to see ourselves? I do feel like that’s a place to start. We’ve talked to some institutional leaders who are really beginning that process in earnest where maybe they haven’t done it before or haven’t done it in quite some time.
What do you do with that feedback, it’s probably a kitchen sink of concerns that you would get. I don’t know, I think you have to make choices and prioritize the feedback that you feel gives you the best sense of what people in your backyard or types of students and prospective students in your wheelhouse, whatever that might be, and prioritize that. Beyond that, I do think institutions are competitors but they’re all in this together. And when it comes to thinking about what is the future of higher ed, that’s a question, not just for your institution, but for the ecosystem that you’re a part of and there’s a dependency among institutions. The more of them that suffer, probably, in a given year, more institutions will suffer down the line.
But I’m curious to see to what extent associations or affiliations of institutions can wrangle some collective action or voice but I guess I’m just skeptical of how much institutions are used to trying to market their way in and out of different phases. Remember a time before, colleges were talking all the time about ROI and some smarter people than me have suggested that some institutions have boxed themselves into a corner because they’re only seen in terms of ROI and if that ROI is hard to see down the line for students. I’ve certainly talked to families who are looking at a college only in terms of ROI and not about the experience they’re going to get there, they’re not seeing the multifaceted purpose of college that many institutional leaders might hope and wish that students see when they’re thinking about college or not or this kind of college versus some other kind of institution.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I just want to jump in for one second, Eric, because I think you raised a really important point and it’s one that resonates for me because I used to work in the association space. I have to wonder how many college and university presidents are expecting the association sector to step up and to have already been doing this. I know they’ve been doing polling and focus group work but I have to wonder if there’s frustration among institutional leaders that the associations aren’t already out there pushing back on this narrative because we’ve been cognizant of it for ages. We have all sat in ballrooms where someone has stood up and said that this is just a storytelling problem, we need to tell our story better.
And I think there is some storytelling that needs to be done and be done in a more creative, energetic way but I’m interested to see that, at least in my perspective, institutions have been a little slow to really engaging in this pushback against this narrative. Have you had any of those kinds of conversations with association leadership or institutions?
I have not really talked to association leaders about this question and, in my conversations with institutional leaders, I haven’t heard too much from them about what they expect or what they feel like they’re getting from association leaders. I guess, beyond that, I’d just say that, referring to something you just mentioned, a handful of presidents in the last few months and also enrollment leaders have said more or less, in the past, we’ve seen this as a narrative, fixing the narrative problem or the storytelling issue you just mentioned and a feeling that we’re way past the point of leaning on that strategy alone. And I think the one consistent thing I’ve been hearing is we’ve all heard of hundreds of colleges doubling down their outreach in some way, showing up at malls and churches and community centers.
There’s only so many strategies that an institution can embrace and I’ve heard a new round of that from institutional leaders, be they presidents or admissions and enrollment leaders, about getting out of the office, getting out of the bubble, getting off campus, getting into conversations with people that have a tie or a connection or a tether to that institution. And I don’t know if you call this a listening tour but I feel like there’s a lot more of that going on or at least more people talking about how to engage constituents that maybe aren’t people that the institution has engaged to the same degree before.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Yeah. I think I’m intrigued by that because I do think, if we look at this, if there is a storytelling problem that we have, I think we’re telling the story that we want to tell which may be different than what audiences need to hear. So, I’m going to go back to Eric, you being a trusted voice, and I would say you’re really a trusted listener because you have the ability to reach out to counselors and to students and to those who are making these decisions about where to go to college and if to go to college and you’re able to get them to open up about their own experiences and their own journeys.
And so, I’d be curious about how they’re talking about what we’re saying and what we’re doing and if it resonates. Because I feel like these I’m going to go out and meet with the people tours are so that I can tell you what I want to tell you about my institution which may not be what students are needing or families are needing to be making the decisions that ultimately we want them to be making.
Yeah, well, for sure. I think one, I guess, potentially powerful strategy is for institutions to let go of the wheel a little bit and, when they’re talking with people they want to, I don’t know, impress or build trust with. Are you just putting your president or vice president out there or are you … I think this is really effective when it’s done well in admissions recruitment when an institution can put, whether it’s current students or recent-ish graduates, whether in person or virtually, when those faces can be seen by people who are maybe on the cusp of college or parents who are thinking is all this worth it and those students are freed from, oh, too heavy messaging to talk about their experiences, to talk about what got them through, to talk about how they define their experience and the value of it.
And yes, maybe even their concerns or the things that they struggled with or the beef that they might have had with some aspect of their college experience. But to me, that is so powerful particularly as we’re talking about, generally speaking, underrepresented students, first gen, lower income students. Who can a college connect them with or show them or let them listen to who, I don’t know, might look like them or might sound like them or might come from a neighborhood that they can relate to? That’s storytelling and it’s, I guess, marketing in some respect but connecting real-life people who are tuition payers or who were with your audience, I do think that’s powerful.
I often hear from students and parents and guardians that those kinds of interactions generally are effective or powerful, got them thinking. Not the easiest thing to pull off but I do feel like there’s power in that and that’s something that resonates. I’m surprised that more institutions don’t do it or do it in a very controlled way. Easy for me to say.
I’m going to take us in a slightly different direction and go back a bit more to process. But as you talk about institutions connecting with potential students and other stakeholders and what resonates with them, we’re spending a lot of time within the higher ed space talking about test optional. Who’s going with test optional, who’s staying with test optional, who is never going to consider test optional. And I’m wondering, for those perspective students, for those stakeholders, do these conversations really matter and are they relevant outside of a small slice of elite institutions that are serving a really small slice of our students?
Yeah, great question and always important to remember which students are we talking about. Does X, Y or Z matter? Sure but to who or to who most urgently? Yeah, I would say that the relentless, obsessive conversation about testing is important, period. Next paragraph I would say, it is most urgent and most pressing for a relatively small subset of students. But it’s complicated because I think people would say, “Oh, there’s a subset of students who are going to take the SAT or ACT three or four times and they’re going to prep night and day for it, perhaps run themselves ragged and they’re going to obsess over relatively minuscule shifts in their scores. We’re talking about wealthy, White kids generally, right?” Well, sure, in general but then I’m in touch with school counselors and college access experts who are talking with me about the growing angst, as some of them describe it, that their low income, first gen students feel about test scores.
It doesn’t immediately follow that, just because you fit a particular description, you have a particular opinion about tests. I’ve talked to students of color who are the first in their families to even apply to college about how important their test score is to them even in cases where they would tell me, “I have this score and I don’t think it’s very high.” They might be proud of a score that another student might not be proud of. Again, just speaking in generalities so I think it’s important to remember that it’s complicated. But sure, whether or not MIT ever drops its standardized testing requirement is a fascinating question because MIT is a fascinating place that’s very important to this nation in so many ways.
But is it an outlier? Are handfuls of institutions insisting that they’ll never drop these requirements? Is that interesting? I think that’s interesting to many people. Does that have any bearing on the bulk of institutions that serve the vast majority of students? No. And I would say, with all those caveats thrown down, the testing story has gone around a corner and it’s not coming back and that plenty more people now are free not to worry about these tests or how these scores define them or don’t, say something about them or not or, perhaps most importantly, in so many more cases, students aren’t going to be hampered by the lack of a test score or lower test score when it comes to scholarship decisions. That’s not a universal change but that has been a major change in so many campuses.
And so, I think many more students that I talk to, and maybe it’s just who I talk to these days, are less worried about a test score, if they’re worried about it at all, than they are about affordability, than they are about the kind of experience they’ll be able to have even if, technically, they can get through the door with their aid package so that they can begin their first semester of college courses. What will their experience be like if they have to work more as opposed to less and how will that impact their ability to enjoy all the fruits of the college experience that we love to talk about? It’s not just being a student sitting in class, it’s being a part of a community of learners. I talk to so many students who are worried about how much they’ll be able to enjoy that once they’re in a campus and they’re seeing themselves as a student, does it conform with the way they’ve always thought about college.
That’s not to say that testing is important, I just feel like students now are generally thinking more about those questions and I’m not hearing as much about testing. Maybe I’m not asking them the right questions about testing but, yeah, this subset of the universe that’ll always be into these test scores, whether they work at colleges in admissions or as leaders of the institution and certainly plenty of students and families will always attribute great meaning to these test scores and find them, I don’t know, important, affirming, motivating, terrifying, dramatic, all that.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Yeah, all of the above?
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I feel like there’s a connection there, if you will, between how people think about testing and they think about rankings. You’ll always have those who want to focus on it and it’s going to be their priority but that may or may not reflect all of higher education and the opportunities we provide. But as you’re talking about these different student experiences and as you’re talking about what you’re hearing, the hallmarks, I think, of your writing is the humanity you bring to the stories. You do such a great long form piece talking about all of what goes into people’s lives and decisions. And one of the things that I think you do so well is to talk about how it is complex and it is messy and people do have anxiety and you just went over some of those pieces.
And I’m curious, thinking about all those pieces, if there’s anything that you wish administrators could take from what you’re hearing on that anxiety and how they should be applying that to admissions and the admissions process? Because you just shared quite a list with us and what should we be doing with that and how can we make this process more humane?
Yeah, portals. I think, if I’m listening to students and the adults who guide them through this process, whether they are parents, guardians, school counselors, college counselors, college access advisors, man, the portal problem, the number of electronic hoops that students have to go through to complete the many tasks. Colleges has talked a lot about simplifying the admissions process and, once upon a time, there was no such thing as the common app that ruled the admissions world. And there’s all kinds of simplification that has accompanied the rise of online applications and common shared application platforms and that’s great. But there’s been a counter trend of accumulating hoops that students have to go through to apply, to shepherd their application through, to make sure that these self-reported grades get here and then, oh my gosh, if you’re applying for aid and you have to fill out the FAFSA and, Lord forbid, the CSS profile and deal with IDocs, it’s just a lot.
And on the backend, colleges are living in this wonderful era of electronic wizardry whether they use Slate or any number of other CMS backend platforms that make their lives, hopefully, easier and it’s not necessarily the lived experience of an applicant right now. That’s a small thing that students, in most cases, get through, in some cases, they will not. But thinking about just the experience of applying on a very nuts and bolts level, it might seem like, well, that’s just the transactional part of the process but it has meaning for some students and it’s very much an impediment and a barrier. And I think, beyond that, this is an easy thing to say and a hard thing to actually put into practice but we hear this all the time, every marketer says it, every enrollment consultant says it, students have built in BS detectors, so be straight with them.
How can you be straight with students across the board when they’re coming with many different questions and perspectives in a way that you feel is specific enough to answer their concerns and to be, I don’t know, upfront while also staying on message? I don’t know. I’m really glad I don’t have to try to figure that out, that seems hard. But I do think listening to students, students and particularly counselors, do express concerns with colleges. And I know sometimes admissions offices feel bombarded, they feel maligned and they feel mistrusted and that would get anyone down but there got to be criticisms or concerns that come in every year about a particular part of the process or a particular thing that’s communicated.
These concerns may not always come from students because what student who’s under consideration for admission wants to complain about how something has gone but counselors are in a different position often, not easy for them to complain sometimes too. But what are some of those concerns? I’ve been talking to enrollment managers about a similar thing recently. What aspects of their aid process, of their aid offers, if they’ve done an internal audit, which some institutions have done over the last several years, what did they find was just wrong with their process that was too time consuming? What were they getting 20 calls about a week during March? Were they just going to accept the fact that those 20 calls are going to come in next year in March or are they going to try to listen to what those calls of complaint or concern or outright confusion were telling them? Was there something to fix? Did they see fit to fix it? Listening to complaints and concerns-
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Here’s what I would say. My daughter’s a senior in college now, that CSSI profile, we’re smart people, we’re college educated. We think we’re smart, let me put it that way. We’ve been through this process, that just about broke my husband and me as we went through that. That CSSI profile is not a joke. And in the end, we told her, “Do you really want to go to this institution?” It was third or fourth on her list and we said, “Okay, you got into one and two, do we need to finish this?” and we didn’t. So, that I always think is fascinating. Where you lose people and why.
Yeah. Every institution’s a little different, I guess, or it might be different in particular ways but I’m fascinated since you mentioned the CSS profile. There are some institutions that have created a simplified workaround form for that and I don’t think these institutions, though wealthy, are just nonchalant about throwing more money at families who don’t really need it. Why is it that some of those institutions swear by their simplified process? Again, just for that one form whereas others say they could never, ever, in a million years do without the CSS profile. Not saying one is right and the other is wrong, I just find that kind of distinction fascinating. One college can innovate and the next college says that very innovation is terrifying or impossible or completely unfathomable. I don’t know, [inaudible 00:36:08].
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
That’s higher education to me, right?
Yeah. But again, I think you can put students in front of prospective students in the admissions process and it can all add up to just superficial BS. But then you can put students in front of students in some way or another and in a way that feels really meaningful in general to prospective students. I’ve talked to many students of color over the years who have said they really have appreciated when an institution was able to connect them with a student of color or with maybe a student who had been the first in family to enroll in college or graduate from college.
And I’ve also talked to students who couldn’t believe that well-resourced institutions, in some cases, did not put them in touch with a student who maybe looked like them even when they were asked to do so. Again, that’s a really specific concern but it got me thinking about who are the students that prospective students and families get to hear from or at least have the opportunity to connect with. If you’re talking with a tour guide and you are a prospective student, that’s fine. Tour guides can be great but who else is the college trying to make available and how much control do they feel like they have to have over that process?
I know it’s a scary thing to make a connection between another human and a prospective student and to feel like, okay, now we’re going to be hands off in admissions because we have this message that we have carved and honed to perfection. I know it’s scary but I’d say there can be value in that even if the conversation doesn’t go swimmingly or fantastically. And I would say, again, easy for me to say, even if that conversation helps a prospective student decide that, you know what, maybe this college isn’t the best for me, and I know we’re getting into heretical territory, but I do think there’s such a well-orchestrated, on many cases, polished set of messages and messaging that students are bombarded with and of course they are.
Things you can offer a student that maybe hit a different note, that maybe are a little more organic, even if it’s putting students in touch with a current student or a recent graduate on Zoom. For some students, that may not matter but I do think, for a subset of students, those kinds of interactions really matter particularly those who haven’t grown up ambling around college campuses with their nerdy parents like I did.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I’m sure your parents are magnificent people and not nerdy at all.
Oh, they’re magnificent but they’re total nerds.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Well, I’m hoping they’ll tune in and hear that. We have taken up such a big chunk of your morning and we so appreciate it. I want to pitch one last question at you before we let you go and, really, I have to admit, it’s nice to be on the asking questions side with a journalist as opposed to on the fielding questions side. This isn’t a podcast about media relations but I feel like it’s such an opportunity to have you here and I feel like you’re so closely read by so many of our colleagues.
And one of the questions that we end up talking about when we’re talking about working with journalists and about media relations is that tension that exists in the relationship between reporters and PR people. And I wonder if you just talked for a minute about how you work with PR people, how you think about that relationship and how, those of us on the media relation side, can do our work to build a really good and strong relationship so it is a resource and a strong relationship on both sides.
Yeah, I think that’s an important question for people on both sides to think about and to maybe reinvestigate now and then. Some of my colleagues could tell you there was a time when I was way too fond, I think, of escalating conversations with campus communications folks and raising my voice and sometimes worse. There are times, perhaps, when that’s warranted or at least forgivable on both sides but I don’t know how productive that super confrontational setting is. I think the immediate answer that comes to mind is I think it’s important for both parties to remember that not all people on the other side of that conversation are the same and that is for journalists not to think of all communications people as being the same or exactly the same. If we’re communication-
Thank you. We’re going to run that on a loop. We’re just going to run that on a consistent loop.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Yeah, I’m going to tattoo that my on myself so let me know your favorite font.
Yeah, good. But for communications folks to keep that truth in mind about the reporters calling them. And I know, particularly at some institutions that are often in the news, the calls and queries, not just from old school publications, but from bloggers and whoever else, can be overwhelming. But not every journalist is operating the same way, on the same deadline, with the same agenda. And by agenda, I just mean set of goals. Some journalists have an actual ax grinding agenda.
But my point is that, I think, sooner or later, institutions or people who work in communications are going to be dealing with a handful of reporters regularly or at least occasionally, they’re going to be aware of certain publications more so than others to keep in mind that all those reporters are different. The communications person might think, “Well, some of these reporters are better than others,” I don’t mean that. I just mean this reporter writes these kinds of stories about these issues and here are the kind of questions we get from her but this reporter over here maybe does a different kind of thing. Maybe we think it’s better or maybe we think it’s worse but just different and to be open to conversations about what a reporter is trying to do.
Now, if there’s a heavy investigation going on, of course, a reporter is not going to put all of her or his cards on the table but I do think in many, if not in most situations, a reporter should be able to answer, at least on a basic level, the question of what are you writing about or what are you trying to do here. And I often tell people, “I’ll tell you at least to some extent, if I know and, if I don’t know, I’ll tell you that, too.” And that’s not meant to be coy but to say that, yeah, sometimes I just want to talk to a bunch of people about X, Y or Z and I’m not sure what I’m writing but I’ll tell you why I’m interested in questions that I’m asking.
Again, I know communications folks are busy, journalists are busy. Sometimes I get off the initial call with someone, I’m looking into something that’s not, in my opinion, a deep, dark scandal but I just want to talk to the admissions dean about, oh, I don’t know, a prevalent tension in the field or a universal challenge and how he or she’s thinking about that challenge and working on that challenge. And I’ll get off the call with the gatekeeper, with the communications officer and I’ll think that seemed unnecessarily tense to me or defensive.
And again, sometimes I’m surely wrong but sometimes I think that’s a fair response and I feel like there’s been a rush to react as if I’m calling for some reason that I’m not. And sometimes journalists can do a better job of explaining what they’re trying to find out and how the university can be helpful. Many times, it’s my deep feeling, that the institution does not want to be helpful, does not want to be a part of even, I don’t know, a relatively innocuous trend story.
Or I’m trying to get some humanity into my story here, I want to talk to your admissions director about why she’s so passionate … This is a real life example. Why she’s so passionate about recruiting first generation rural kids. No, you can’t do that because we don’t want our people quoted unless they’re the heads of divisions. Anyway, I’m rambling. But I do think, even on a busy day, no one has time to have an hour conversation but can there be a 90-second window where there’s, I don’t know, some discussion of a version of a story that may be less than the reporter wants but more than the institution, on first blush, is inclined to give.
Some level of access or a conversation where the communications officers, at least momentarily, open to the idea that this journalist on this day is not calling for the most outrageous set of reasons ever and that maybe the institution should not be so skittish or hesitant about talking with a particular reporter. Often I think the resistance that I feel doesn’t match the kind of story that I’m calling about, if that makes sense.
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Yeah, that makes sense.
Yeah. No, I appreciate that perspective and I think one of the things that we often counsel folks is that building that relationship with a reporter will help you understand those motivations, that approach to reporting. That you are somebody who sometimes is just gathering string and not necessarily going to put my social security number, birth date and my mother’s last name in the paper of record. But, Teresa?
Teresa Valerio Parrot:
But other times you might. So, with that, I want to thank Eric Hoover for spending some time with us and for providing us with lots to discuss during our debrief. We’ll be back in your feed shortly to share what resonated with us and what we hope you’ll take away from this episode. Between now and then, you can find links in the show notes to some of the topics and articles that we referenced and make sure to follow Trusted Voices wherever you get your podcast feed. Until next time, thanks from me, Erin Hennessy, DJ House Child, Aaron Stern and the Volt team for a great episode. Thank you to Eric Hoover for talking with us and thank you to you for listening.