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Small Colleges : 'Marketing': a Sales Pitch for Students

December 17, 1985|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Education Writer

Bill Morris, a prep school counselor from Watertown, Conn., enjoyed a respite from cold weather last week on an all-expenses-paid trip to Southern California.

He wasn't here to appear on a TV game show and hasn't won any contests lately. He does, however, have something to say about the college plans of several dozen bright students, and for that, nine small colleges in the Los Angeles area were willing to fly him here for a visit. Morris was here with 28 other counselors from around the nation to take a look at colleges that "you're not going to read about on the Sunday sports page," as one official put it.

These schools, stretching from Occidental College in Los Angeles to the University of Redlands, have to fight hard for new students, and it's no wonder. Most will admit only students with extremely good academic records. And they charge them an average of $14,000 a year.

'Sticker Shock'

"We do have a problem with 'sticker shock,' " said Fred Zuker, admissions director at Pomona College in Claremont, although grants and loans reduce the cost for many, if not most, students.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 19, 1985 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
In a chart accompanying the Dec. 17 article on private colleges, the average math Scholastic Aptitude Test score for Pomona College students should have been listed as 630, not 530.

Still, California has a host of well-financed, highly rated state universities where students can enroll for a fraction of the cost of a private school. But the small colleges also say they have something special to offer: the best in undergraduate education. Unlike the University of California, these colleges have small classes and a faculty whose first commitment is teaching, not research and scholarship. And since most students live on campus, the colleges have a sense of community that is lacking at commuter institutions.

Each year, however, the competition for new students seems to grow more intense, both because of the high cost of private education and of what college officials refer to as the "problem of the shrinking pool." This has nothing do with cutbacks in the athletic department budget. Rather, fewer 18-year-olds are coming out of high school than a decade ago, a trend that won't reverse until the early 1990s.

As a result, the colleges are forced to sell themselves like never before.

Matter of Marketing

"The buzz word today in college admissions is 'marketing,' " said Stirling Huntley, admissions director at Caltech in Pasadena.

The colleges are striving to find a market niche for themselves, he said, a special identity that will allow students and their parents to distinguish one school from the dozen others that are bombarding them with brochures and invitations to apply. For some, the first challenge is becoming known outside the region.

"We're always answering the 'Harvey who?' question," said Duncan Murdoch, admissions director of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont.

Others are creative in explaining why a student should spend four years on their campus.

"We like to say we're centrally isolated," said Stephen Hankins, admissions dean at the University of Redlands near San Bernardino. "We're close to some amazing attractions--the mountains and the desert--but we're far away from the madding crowd."

Caltech doesn't exactly have a problem with finding a niche. It is, by reputation, the most intense math and science college in the nation. Last year's freshmen class at Caltech had an average combined score of 1,440 out of a possible 1,600 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the highest average in the nation.

Then why is Caltech paying for the high school counselors to come for a visit?

'Normal College Life'

"We're not well known at a distance. Everyone in the country seems to know of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), but many people haven't heard of Caltech," Huntley said. "The other message that we want to get across is that life here is not all grim, hard work and no fun. (The image of the goggled-eye math whiz or the computer nerd) is just not accurate. We have a normal group of kids who have a normal college life."

Last week, all of the colleges got half a day to show the counselors their campus and talk up what makes them unique.

Occidental College, in the quiet Eagle Rock neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, is regarded, along with Pomona, as one of the best liberal arts colleges in California.

"We think we offer the best of two worlds. A small liberal arts college with a sense of community, but also part of a very vibrant city," said Charlene Liebau, Oxy's admissions director.

Walking around Occidental, one visiting counselor noted that the neat, tree-lined campus looks like the Hollywood version of a college campus, an apt observation since the college has often been used as a movie backdrop.

'Caring' Atmosphere

Representatives from Whittier College and Redlands talked about the diversity of their student bodies and their "caring" atmosphere.

All five colleges in Claremont--Pomona, Scripps, Pitzer, Claremont McKenna and Harvey Mudd--advertised a distinctive academic focus, but each also relied on the appeal of Claremont, whose tree-shaded streets and Victorian homes look more like New England than the San Gabriel Valley.

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