The recent controversy caused by a tip sheet for prospective cheerleaders at the University of Washington doesn’t just show bad taste, it’s more evidence that colleges aren’t focusing on what really matters in appealing to students: whether or not they’ll get a job after graduation.
On Tuesday, April 26, 2016, the University of Washington’s cheerleading team posted what they considered to be a helpful infographic on Facebook listing the “dos” and “don’ts” for potential cheerleaders prepping for tryouts. The image, shown below, shows a tan, blonde woman wearing a sports bra and shorts surrounded by a list of what UW Cheer considers acceptable (an “athletic physique” and “Girl About Town lipstick”) and unacceptable (“visible tattoos” and “tops that cover the midriff”). Unsurprisingly, they were overwhelmed by negative reactions and quickly pulled the graphic. This marketing fail doesn’t just make the UW Cheer Squad look bad, it’s evidence that colleges are out of touch of the real concerns of college students.
— The Seattle Times (@seattletimes) April 27, 2016
Sports are an important part of “the college experience” for many students and alumni. And they can bring in revenue – according to the Washington Post, collegiate sports netted the Huskies a whopping $10 million dollars in 2014. (It should be noted that UW is one of the few schools who actually make money from athletics after the cost of running such programs.) But this recent marketing fail from UW’s cheer squad shows that there is a disconnect between what schools are focusing on in efforts to attract students and what students and their parents really want when it comes to choosing a college.
The typical college marketing materials feature images of happy young students smiling amidst verdant school grounds or soaking in inspiration from a lecture in a well-lit, cutting-edge classroom. Colleges boast about easily manipulated statistics like selectivity and classroom size. They advertise guest speakers, state-of-the-art fitness facilities and, of course, athletics, to entice perspective students. They don’t give nearly enough attention to is the one thing that students and parents care more about than ever before: career outcomes. On UW’s homepage, the only piece of information relevant to career goals is a statistic buried at the bottom of the page about how many hours students spent at internships in 2015.
But for actual students who are trying to decide if and where to enroll in college, luxurious campuses and sufficiently tanned cheerleaders aren’t the factors that ultimately make their decision. According to the Princeton Review’s 2016 Hopes and Worries Survey, 42 percent of students and 38 percent of parents said that their number one factor in choosing a college is finding the best program for the student’s career interests.
If colleges want to appeal to the real concerns of parents and students, their marketing needs to focus more on outcomes-based data and less on making sure that cheerleaders don’t show up to tryouts with a ponytail. Marketing to today’s students, a generation of digital natives who face skyrocketing tuition and unsure post-graduate outcomes, needs to tell the stories of what happens to students after they graduate. And keeping in mind that 26 percent of millennials think that a person should start looking for a new job within a year of starting a position, 12-month outcomes aren’t enough. Schools who want to reach students need to report on data about long-term alumni outcomes, like the kind PayScale reports on.