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Campus Overload
Posted at 12:18 PM ET, 12/28/2011

What’s it like to be a Republican in Iowa? Ask a college-bound student


Today’s guest blogger is W. Kent Barnds, a vice president at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.

In recent years, it has become trendy for college presidents to temporarily live in a residence hall to gain insight into what their students experience and, on occasion, to develop a degree of sympathy for their short-term neighbors.
(W. Kent Barnds (Photo courtesy of Augustana College))

In the last few weeks, I feel like I have accidentally stumbled upon a similar experience: I am an enrollment professional at Augustana College, a small liberal arts college in Illinois. And I am a registered Republican living in Iowa who is on the receiving end of hard-core — at times really annoying and inconvenient — recruiting by virtually every candidate seeking the nomination of the Republican Party.

For the past few months I’ve felt like a National Merit Scholar, a Blue Chip student-athlete and virtuoso musician. I’ve been on the receiving end of countless pretty mailers, tons of e-mail and more phone calls than I can count. I’ve been in demand. I am the cream of the crop as a voter and highly sought after by the candidates.

As a result of this assault, I’ve spent some time thinking about my own behavior being recruited by these candidates and how it compares with the students I try to recruit on an annual basis. Here’s my review of the effectiveness:

Direct mail: Wow! My mailbox overflows with direct mail from the party, candidates and friends of candidates. All of this mail reminds me of the print material we send to prospect students... the pretty picture, the smiling faces and, of course, the list of distinctions.

After receiving one mailer from each candidate, I stopped reading. Everything went into the garbage, as I don’t keep a box of stuff to review later. While it’s difficult for me to admit, I have a feeling that most students do the same thing with our mail.

E-mail campaigns: Admittedly, I am receiving e-mail from only one candidate, Rick Santorum. I’ve not donated to his campaign, but I suspect he received my name from a candidate to whom I did contribute. Some days, I receive two or three e-mails from the Santorum campaign. I never open them — but I do note the subject lines before I press “delete.” I can’t imagine how many e-mails I would get if all the candidates had my e-mail address.

I used to wonder why e-mail was not as effective as it once was. I don’t wonder anymore. I suspect that prospective students find this cost-effective recruitment tactic as annoying as I do, and they are hitting that delete button unless the subject line really attracts their attention.

My wife receives e-mail from more candidates than I do, and she recently forwarded me an e-mail from Mitt Romney’s campaign that was raising money by bringing attention to President Obama’s penchant for golf. They asked for $18, to symbolize 18 holes of golf. My wife thought it was clever, and forwarded it to me and several of her friends. I did the same and even posted it to Facebook.

Clever e-mails like this one have given me a greater appreciation for the power of peer influence and viral marketing. I now see why colleges and admissions departments strive for clever — it’s memorable, and it works.

Telemarketing: Our phone rings off the hook from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. Early in the process we were gracious and willingly answered calls from campaigns. We thought it was our civic duty and were genuinely interested.

At first, the calls were just short surveys or announcements that a candidate was going to be in our area. But the calls got worse as the campaign advanced.

Then came a Saturday afternoon call from the Rick Perry campaign that included a “brief poll.” I asked how long it would take. The caller said “about 5 minutes.” After 14 minutes, I hung up. She called back twice to try to get me to complete it. The Perry team’s telemarketers pushed too hard, and they changed the way my wife and I viewed these calls.

Now, calls from “Unknown Name” with an “Unknown Number” (one my friends said she imagines this caller with a paper bag over his or her head) go unanswered, as do the calls from Michigan and Washington D.C. We don’t have any personal friends there.

We are not more gracious when the caller ID indicates the campaign headquarters, either, which has been the case when we’ve received calls from “Bachmann for President.” We might pick up the phone for our top choice, if we had one, which is how I think student prospects probably behave, too.

We’ve also received numerous messages on our answering machine, often explaining how the candidate “was very sorry to have missed us.”

I must admit, though, that Romney’s recorded message sounded so natural, like he was calling an old buddy, that we really thought it was Mitt and we had missed his call.

I am pretty sure this is what April feels like to a high-achieving high school senior. I also am pretty sure these students behave in the same way: screening their calls, becoming annoyed by countless questions and bad timing. As the May 1 deadline to accept a college offer approaches, these sought-after students just can’t wait for it all to be over.

What I learned from it all: Having spent the past few months on the other side of things, I have a new appreciation for what prospective students experience, and what may and may not work in our efforts to land those in-demand students. I have a new sympathy for the prospect who is trying to decide among a number of colleges that have engaged in similar recruitment techniques, but not particularly distinguished themselves.

I also have a greater appreciation for a well-executed and well-resourced campaign. I admire the Romney campaign, which has consistency and elegance that is most-like a recruitment campaign. Each tactic has been clearly thought out and timed to make a difference. On the other hand, I think the Newt Gingrich campaign has demonstrated the opposite: little consistency and poor timing.

These two campaigns are not unlike a recruitment program with a well-developed, well-resourced campaign vs. one with fewer or little-used resources and a less-developed strategy.

I can also empathize with what a prospective student might feel. I’ve felt neglected by Ron Paul, who is of sentimental interest since we both graduated from Gettysburg College. There can’t be many Gettysburg grads in Iowa — I thought he might call. I know of prospects and parents who have a sentimental favorite college, but never get a call. Like prospects, my lament is misguided. I haven’t heard from my fellow Gettysburgian because I’ve not let him know I want to hear. The same is too often true for prospects.

But I’ve also felt wanted — so wanted, it’s become annoying. I have been asked for my vote and support so many times it hurts. Tired of being wanted, I just want to be left alone to make a decision. I am absolutely sure this is exactly the way a prospective student feels at crunch time.

Jan. 3 is my May 1. I will gather at my polling place with my fellow party members to make a final choice. We’ve all been subjected to the same all-out recruitment campaign, but like students making a final college choice, we will decide by using our gut.

Which college recruitment tactics annoy you most? Which work best? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

By W. Kent Barnds  |  12:18 PM ET, 12/28/2011

 
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