Every day at universities and colleges across the country, hopeful candidates for admission pay homage to iconic statues at the end of the campus tour. Their thoughts are less focused on these legendary early architects of our extraordinary system of higher education and more on the possible luck that may accrue to them for having done so as their applications for admission are reviewed. The shining boots of the statues attest to the volume of annual visitors and the power of the traditions that surround the appeal of assimilation into these exceptional communities.

The fact is that the shiny boots belie the missteps experienced by candidates, their parents, and the other important mentors they often bring with them to campus visits. However regrettably busy, understaffed, preoccupied, or under-resourced university and college staffs might be, the fact is that the campus visit is the single most important yield optimization opportunity. And it likely happens long before there is any chance to assess the “fit” or “appeal” of the visiting party to the institution.

So what? What’s new here? The reasons why candidates, their families, and their advocates visit campuses – and invest considerable time and resources to do so – have to do with the desire to explore institutional “ethos”, vet environment and resources, and validate everything they think they know about the community from virtual, print, and other resources. They come with eager anticipation and incomplete background hoping to truly witness a “day in the life”. Their experiences are frequently disappointing, rushed, limited in scope, and misrepresentative of the deeper significance of the institution’s mission and values.

Why? There are often two fundamental, missing dimensions to the campus visit—the ethos of the institution is often under-represented and hospitality goals are frequently under-achieved. Ethos is the fundamental character of the spirit of a culture, the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society. Hospitality is the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, and generous way.


Where and how do we fail visitors in terms of ethos? Here are seven framing questions for consideration at your institution:

Question 1: During information sessions, how can a single representative adequately represent the full range of diversity goals, initiatives, and accomplishments at your institution? At a very minimum, a panel of community members representing students, faculty, and administrators should be involved.

Questions 2: When presenting a well-planned overview of the institution during these sessions, are your key strategic goals represented in the program and the environment? For instance, is the focus on math, science, and technology discussed in a dusty, crowded room devoid of any animation or technology?

Question 3: During the campus tour, are the groundbreaking initiatives in terms of living and learning environments discussed or, better yet, discussed and showcased? Are visitors allowed to “see” these programs from the front door of buildings or, more appropriately, are they allowed inside access and a brief moment of actual experience?

Question 4: Without knowing anything about the actual route visitors took to arrive on campus and acknowledging that some bring concerns about surrounding neighborhoods, is the campus tour providing the essential exposure to nearby areas that are important to the community as frequented sites for entertainment, internships, and community service projects? Is transportation provided (ideally a trolley, at the very least an audio guide book for self-tours) on an optional basis before or after the formal tour?

Question 5: As some fundamental values regarding community, traditions, and respect for individuals are shared in information sessions as well as on tour, why is so very little asked of visitors in terms of who they are, why they came, and who they chose to bring with them on the visit?

Question 6: Knowing that a single visit involving a sizable group can never accommodate the varied academic and other interests of prospective students or, for that matter, the impressive array of those opportunities offered by the institution, why are so few information sessions offered around themes (i.e., life sciences, social activism, global issues, and environmental studies)? Why are most information sessions so large and generic?

Question 7: Acknowledging that visitors seek a glimpse at “a day in the life”, why are tour groups not always allowed entry into dining halls, study areas, fitness centers, and student lounges? Security concerns are not insurmountable and the general practice of “peeking in” from a distant door or window can be extremely disappointing, say nothing of off-putting.


Ethos and hospitality are interrelated. Institutional character is both expressed and evidenced by the way visitors are received. Where and how do we fail campus visitors in terms of hospitality? Here are some additional framing questions:

Question 8: While greeting, sharing information, touring, and saying goodbye to campus visitors, why not embrace the notion that most came a considerable distance and enact gestures for all not unlike those we would offer in our own homes? What would you change if you assumed that every family in the audience for the next information session missed a meal or morning coffee just before they arrived? Or got lost on their way? Or feel collectively nervous because the college search has just begun? Or did not get to see or experience aspects of the institution most important to them through the formal program offered?

Question 9: How would the larger campus community present itself if most folks on campus from the president’s staff to groundskeepers to faculty to students to food service workers embraced more than a casual responsibility to notice visitors and greet them in welcoming ways? How would the information session or tour be conducted differently if hosts for these activities assumed that most rather than few of the prospective candidates who visit would be admitted?

Question 10: How would the institution express and invest in its own version of hospitality for visitors if it embraced the notion that in every session and during every tour, the newcomers to campus are key influencers in their own communities? What if we acknowledged that there exists a real probability that these groups are populated by exceptional candidates for admission as well as parents and mentors who have a story to tell themselves about their respective roles as professionals, church and school leaders, and volunteers to non-profits and other organizations where the institution desires to have more friends?

It is time to re-imagine the campus visit in terms of both ethos and hospitality. To examine a long-serving set of recruitment tools for new and higher purposes where the concept of homage can become so, so much more than shiny boots.


Related links:

“How to Build A Brand Religion” Harvard Business Review

“Ethos: Using Values to Define and Differentiate Your Brand”  (Video)

“Taking Direction From Disney’s Customer-Care Philosophy” Fastcompany.com


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