It’s that time of year again! High school students and their parents, aiming to assemble a list of colleges to explore, begin sifting through their memory banks, rankings guides, and Google results to help winnow the choices. But even in the most systematic of families, the process is largely unscientific, with teenagers, their parents, and even their guidance counselors drawing heavily on name recognition and word-of-mouth references.
Debra Chermonte, dean of admissions and financial aid at Oberlin, says that Oberlin and other top-tier liberal arts colleges are in heavy competition for the ideal demographic—intellectually engaged students eager to better the world—and that the process by which students select a college is complicated. “The [admissions] task for any institution is first to make itself known, and second to be understood—to have one’s distinguishing features and capabilities stand out from the crowd,” she says.
But a College-sponsored research study commissioned in 2005 indicated that Oberlin wasn’t, in fact, standing out from the crowd. Studies conducted by a Boston-based communications firm hired by the College to test the Oberlin “name” within groups of high-performing, 17-year-olds showed that many colleges are promoting like attributes, such as academic integrity, small classes, and a breadth of majors. Furthermore, there wasn’t a singular impression that seemed to embody the Oberlin name—the most common perceptions of Oberlin ranged from “conservatory” and “academic excellence” to “social justice” and “weird.”
“The findings were alarmingly clear,” Chermonte says. “Students, regardless of their background or capability, weren’t able to distinguish one liberal arts institution from another. Oberlin can claim excellence in many forms, but we are not as well known as we should be, and our claims lack any real distinction.
“For Oberlin to meet its Strategic Plan goal of competing with the best schools in the country for the best students, we need to find more distinctive ways of engaging students so that Oberlin will become a top choice for a greater number of students.”
The research was a real wake-up call for Oberlin’s leadership. “It proved the need for Oberlin to establish a singular voice, a focused message that would be differentiating and motivating,” says President Nancy S. Dye. “We know that Oberlin is unique in its willingness and ability to challenge convention, embrace differences, and create ‘firsts’ that better the world. And to some extent, the outside world does too. But we need to be communicating those things better.”
Edwards and Company was given the go-ahead to continue its work, which next included developing several “positioning statements”—or ways of describing Oberlin. “Finding the voice of an institution with the heritage and capacity of Oberlin is really a pro-cess of distillation,” says company president Mark Edwards. “Our goal was to take the stories of the past and the capabilities of the present and reduce them down to a singular message that is persuasive and true, but also memorable and powerful in the marketplace.”
Ultimately, the following statement was created:
We challenge the conventions that limit the evolution of understanding and social progress. We build bold bridges between music and the arts and sciences that lead us to profound intellectual destinations. We are intellectual risk takers, students for whom learning is measured by the intensity of the engagement. We embrace differences and are not afraid to take on the complex, the difficult, the taboo. We create firsts to better our world and each other.
We are Oberlin. Fearless.
The message, says Edwards, tested well with prospective students and encouraged Oberlin’s Board of Trustees to approve a three-year plan to revamp admissions pieces. “I don’t believe any other college could claim the idea of fearlessness, and I think most schools would be afraid to,” says Board of Trustees Chair Robert S. Lemle ’75. A few of the trustees are helping to fund the multi-year marketing plan, which will be added to College funds already set aside for admissions materials.
The first piece to undergo a major overhaul was Oberlin’s admissions viewbook, which is distributed to prospective students and their families. “We wanted to break through the clutter—to stand out in the stack of viewbooks that every high school student collects,” Chermonte says.
By minimizing the amount of detail, the book makes more of an emotional connection with readers than an informational one. The details, she says, are better suited for Oberlin’s web site—also undergoing renovation—which now has a temporary “fearless” entry point.
Testing of the new viewbook with prospective students over the summer was positive. “Students we interviewed said the viewbook got their attention and motivated them to want to learn more,” Chermonte says.
Campus reception to “fearless” has been mixed, particularly among students who were recruited to Oberlin under a different theme. As other communications vehicles are introduced, such as posters, videos, and web sites—testing will continue. Independent marketing consultant Steven Roth ’77, who has been hired to gather data at key points during the communications campaign, says he will measure if interest in Oberlin increases from an already determined baseline.
“While the idea of fearlessness is singular, the way it’s represented will change for other audiences,” says Edwards. “What appeals to a 16-year-old is very different from what appeals to a 60-year-old. It is the idea of fearlessness, what it stands for, that will stay the same.”
“Fearlessness is very much contained in the thousands of stories of our alumni, in their intellectual and creative risk taking and the resulting accomplishments,” says Alumni Association President Wendell P. Russell, Jr., ’71. “For alumni it’s the stories that will resonate. For a high school student it may simply be the idea.”