Local colleges reject school-branded ‘swag kits’ in favor of expanded orientation | Together

College-bound seniors this month let out a collective sigh of relief. May 1 was “College Decision Day” for many — a common deadline for students to make their admissions deposit to the school of their choice.

But all those decisions about tuition, financial aid, majors, campuses and admissions requirements were preceded months ago by an avalanche of school-produced mailers, brochures, emails and college fairs, which may have influenced students’ decisions.

There were more than 22 million undergraduates enrolled in college in the 2016-17 academic year, according to the nonprofit College Board, which prepares and administers admissions tests.

And there are 4,500-plus colleges, universities and other institutions of higher learning in the U.S., reports the National Center for Education Statistics.

That means it can be hard for everyone, students and schools alike, to figure out how to stand out from the crowd.

Luring students

In other parts of the country, some schools have started to think outside the box — by thinking about what to put inside boxes.

Welcome boxes, custom made by several colleges and universities, aim to give students they’ve accepted a better idea of what that school has to offer — and, perhaps, a bit of incentive to enroll.

University of the Ozarks, for example, revamped its marketing package to emphasize its rural Arkansas setting and its opportunities for outdoors experiences.

Its goal was not only to find more students, but more students who would fit that campus’ culture.

So inside each accepted student’s gift box was a canteen-shaped water bottle, a custom combination scarf/headband, a 32-page “Scout Book” about the school and its surroundings and buttons for local attractions.

And, of course, all of it branded with the University of the Ozarks logo.

The result? A 29 percent increase in students for the 2017-18 school year when compared to the year before.

So far, that trend hasn’t hit local students or Pennsylvania higher-ed schools in a big way, even though NCES reports the commonwealth is among the top four states in its number of higher-ed institutions (California, New York and Texas are the other three).

“I have not heard of (our) students receiving these types of gifts,” says Edward Krasnai, lead guidance counselor at Lampeter-Strasburg High School.

“One student received a sweatshirt for being accepted. Another received a thing of confetti they could throw to celebrate after being accepted at Shippensburg,” says Jeremy Raff, coordinator of college and career services at McCaskey High School.

“(Some) students (receive) T-shirts and things like that, but we haven’t seen a lot of it.”

Local schools’ gifts

Local colleges and universities often do provide some swag to their new students, but they aren’t taking the plunge into extravagant offerings before stepping on campus.

“I’ve heard of a number of colleges sending out boxes of things” to incoming students, says Jared Yoder, director of admissions at Lancaster Bible College. “We’ve toyed with the idea” of sending a more elaborate package, Yoder says, but as of now the college simply sends each accepted student an LBC car decal and a poster of the school mascot.

Once a student pays his or her deposit and commits to attend, Yoder says, LBC does send them a college hoodie along with a gift card to the college bookstore.

Franklin & Marshall College hasn’t picked up the box trend, either.

Students may pick up a few small items if they attend an open house or event for admitted students, says Jason Klinger, F&M’s senior director of creative and brand strategy. But otherwise, he says in an email, the college limits what it sends accepted students to “a traditional admit packet … a letter of acceptance, financial aid package (if applicable), an invitation to come to campus in the spring and some information about hotels and dining” in Lancaster.

Millersville University students get a few gifts when they arrive on campus for orientation, as opposed to in a welcome box.

Along with bags of flyers and coupons, says Janet Kacskos, the college’s director of communications, students at orientation get a Millersville lanyard with a nametag pouch.

Orientation instead

Local school counselors and college officials don’t see the college swag trend coming here anytime soon. Local colleges, instead of focusing on elaborate recruitment tactics, are training their sights on concrete ways to acclimate new students to campus and college life and to retain students once they’re enrolled.

Expanding orientation instead of recruitment tactics is a more useful service, college officials say, in an age that sees increasing numbers of nontraditional students, a diverse college population and more involvement by parents and guardians.

Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology exemplifies this local focus on orientation, says Adam Aurand, the college’s director of marketing and communications. This summer the college is expanding its new-student orientation program.

Elizabethtown College’s summer orientation next month will provide incoming students with a knapsack of college-branded welcome gifts: a lanyard, water bottle, poster and decal.

The gifts, says Director of Student Transition Programs and professor Jean-Paul Benowitz via email, are part of an overhaul of the orientation process itself. They also tie into the college’s marketing plan.

As soon as students enroll at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, they can set up their college email, and that leads to online discussion forums with college staff, art supply and book lists, PCA&D student-made orientation videos and more, says Jessica Edonick, dean of student services.

At PCA&D, the focus is less on college swag (though incoming students do get a T-shirt designed through student competition) and more on “creating a sense of connection and pride right away,” Edonick says.