Every day they come. Usually three or more a day, substantially adding to the bulk of mail that gets stuffed in our curbside box. Some come in plain envelopes, some in gaudier expensive mailers. Some contain color-rich trifold brochures, others a simple letter on high-end stock. Each one makes a case for the uniqueness of what they offer, yet they are all remarkably similar — both to one another, and to every other direct mail offer we get. The difference is that these are all addressed to my son, who recently had the poor sense to do well on a standardized national test and thus open the floodgates of the college recruitment process.
Not so many years ago, I wrote these earnest pieces for a couple of different schools, and while I can’t say that I necessarily believed everything I wrote for those places, I did believe that somehow my words could capture a prospective student’s attention — at least enough for them to take a step to further the dialogue and thereby increase the volume of mail we sent them.
It’s a time-honored tradition in higher-ed marketing, this war of the mailboxes, and while it seems like an anachronism in this day and age — and schools are clearly moving on to newer technologies for recruiting — our daily mail provides ample evidence that it still works, or at least that old habits die hard.
All of these mailings conjure up images of the purity of intellectual pursuit set against the backdrop of meaningful personal relationships and a rich and vibrant social life. There’s usually a hint of ivy in there somewhere, too.
But tell me — is that what your college experience was like? Did it match up with the literature?
I’m grateful that I attended a small rigorous college but, despite the ivy and brick campus, my experience there hardly lived up to what I imagined it would be when I arrived as a freshman. I learned to think there — something I’d never thought would need to be taught. But I didn’t really learn much about what to think about. That came much, much later. Over the years, I’ve used that thinking skill again and again and again — far more than I recall ever using it while I was there, but I’ve sometimes struggled — and still do — with what exactly I should be thinking about.
Maybe that was just me, struggling with my own lassitude and uncertainty about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Surely today’s students — more driven, more connected, more accustomed to the advantages higher education offers — have a different experience, right?
Different? Yes. Better? Well …