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SMALL MAINE CAMPUS SOLVES BIG RECRUITING PROBLEMS Top-to-bottom friendliness and understanding is key


Second of two parts At College of the Atlantic, bigger isn't better. The small school in Bar Harbor, Maine, uses its size strategically to compete with the pack of larger, and less expensive, public universities.

And every small organization can learn from the teachings of the college's officials.

The College of the Atlantic's advantages stem from its small size, which allows students and faculty to interact in ways nearly impossible on larger campuses.

This can provide enormous benefits to students, who get to do front-line research with dedicated faculty.

At the College of the Atlantic, for example, students who work with Steve Katona, a marine mammalogist, may live for weeks on a rocky Maine island, miles offshore, to study migrating whales.

Unfortunately, offering such opportunities is simply not enough to recruit the number of students a small college needs to remain financially viable, according to George C. Dehne, a consultant to small colleges. In a recent article in the Journal of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, Mr. Dehne listed several marketing tasks for small colleges if they are to thrive in the '90s.

First on Mr. Dehne's list is that small colleges need to understand their markets: students, faculty and staff, volunteers and donors.

As I mentioned last week, listening to students and faculty plays an important role in College of the Atlantic's operations.

One byproduct of such caring is more effective student recruitment, the lifeblood of any college and the end-product of a well designed marketing plan. Every college must understand the type of student it attracts. And it must understand what elements of the college were responsible for that attraction. That allows recruiters to design more effective programs, carefully targeted to the most receptive ears.

In fact, reports Steve Thomas, director of admissions, the college has a sophisticated system which tracks potential students from initial inquiry through enrollment and graduation.

At several junctures in this process, students are interviewed to determine what about the recruitment process is working or not working. This allows for swift attention to potential problem areas.

This process creates essential, consumer-driven feedback, which can then trigger creative responses. As an example, the admissions department's priorities were changed when it was found that typical high school recruitment visits were ineffective in attracting the type of motivated student the college best serves. This is exactly the type of information management task that Mr. Dehne says will help small colleges be successful.

Since the advent of the personal computer, "user-friendly" has become one of the most overused expressions in the English language. But for small colleges, the term must be taken very seriously.

Recruiting top students, faculty, staff and donors is an exercise in warmth, friendliness, fairness and quality management by every member of the institution, from secretaries and janitors to professors and the college president. Without this institution-wide commitment, small colleges will have a difficult time surviving. Interestingly, the New Community College of Baltimore has seen its first enrollment increase in many years, right on the heels of an institutional self-examination that included attention to quality management issues.

Small colleges must also set themselves apart from the crowded scene of higher education in order to prosper in the '90s.

In this, College of the Atlantic is distinctive, with its ecological focus, respect for the student as a valuable contributor to campus governance, and integration of science with the humanities.

To help this process along, the college backs its unique position with visible symbols. New buildings are sensitively designed to fit into their natural surroundings and are energy-efficient. The campus encourages and facilitates student and staff volunteerism.

The use of symbols can be a potent tool to help position a small college in the public's eye. Once again, the New Community College of Baltimore is moving in the right direction, in its proposed guarantees for students and employers. Under that proposal, graduates who don't find jobs quickly could take more courses for free, and employers who are dissatisfied with the college's graduates could retrain them for free.

Perception plays an important role in marketing. Small colleges are well advised to use symbols, combined with a public communications program that conveys a consistent message, to help position themselves in the marketplace.

Small colleges have played a very special role in our society, helping to educate some of the most creative and brilliant minds this nation has known. They will need to use some of that creativity, mixed with a good dose of persistence, to effectively market themselves so they can flourish in the coming decade.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works wit charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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