How Schools Get Hot

Rachel Hartigan Shea

August 28, 2006

It could have been a public-relations nightmare. Last year, SUNY-University at Buffalo officials found out that MTV planned to film reality shows during rush at two of the school’s Greek houses. It wasn’t necessarily the image most schools want to project, but Buffalo decided to make the best of it by allowing MTV to film on campus during the day–slipping in some academic and campus life between the parties.

It worked: Sorority Life and Fraternity Life turned out to be public-relations coups. “The campus experience that everyone says they have on their brochures, we saw it from 10 to 11 on Wednesday night,” says Dennis Black, vice president of student affairs. “It made it real.” High school kids around the country pestered admissions officers for details about the show, traffic to the prospective-students page of the university’s Web site tripled, and a larger-than-expected percentage of kids who were accepted decided to attend.

Buffalo, a rust-belt urban campus in chilly western New York, is hot.

Which raises the question: What does becoming hot have to do with what it’s really like on campus? And why do some schools shoot up in popularity while others that are equally good escape mass notice? Clearly, a TV program featuring real, live students having a fabulous time helps. So does a celebrity student or a big athletic win. “Whenever there’s major publicity, it always affects admissions,” says Pat Armstrong, the director of admissions at Buffalo. But schools manage to catch students’ eyes for lots of reasons, say college counselors, many of them far removed from popular culture.

Colleges make themselves hot with some savvy self-promotion. “It’s the college sending out stuff that starts it happening,” says Bev Taylor, a college counselor in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. A flood of glossy brochures will make some kids consider a school they hadn’t thought of before. “Some schools do an excellent job with marketing,” says Marilyn Emerson, an independent college counselor in Chappaqua, N.Y. “They’re constantly in touch with students, and they create warm and fuzzy feelings.” The school that’s the master of this technique, say many counselors, is Washington University in St. Louis. While Nanette Tarbouni, the school’s director of admissions, says the university does not mail more materials than other colleges, kids report being inundated. The number of applications to Wash. U. has gone from 10,000 a decade ago to more than 20,000 today; the acceptance rate is down to 20 percent.

Sometimes a college just capitalizes on a characteristic that has become a teen favorite. Thanks to urban TV shows like Friends as well as the perception that cities have become safer, metropolitan schools are hot these days and have been for the past few years. Occidental College, a small liberal arts school in Los Angeles, rode that wave to a 155 percent increase in applications since 1997. “One critical philosophical decision was to position the college as a ‘player’ in Los Angeles life,” says Vince Cuseo, director of admission. The school did so “not only because it would help raise Oxy’s visibility but because it was considered the right thing to do as an educational enterprise in this city.”

But kids latch on to schools for reasons that schools can’t often predict. “All it takes is for one class leader to come home from a college visit with stars in her eyes, and she’s got 10 classmates who are suddenly excited about a college they’ve never seen,” says Joan Bress, an independent college counselor in Worcester, Mass. That happened last year at Seven Hills School in Cincinnati. After Alex Maggio returned from a summer visit to Yale, he couldn’t stop talking about how cool the students were. His enthusiasm, combined with that of a few other kids, spread throughout the senior class and persuaded 13 people out of a class of 66 to apply. Seven enrolled this fall. How does Maggio feel about being Yale’s pied piper? “I like it,” he says. “It legitimized my choice.”