01 May 2018 19:28 IST

When top institutions misuse their brands to make money

Universities mailing high-school students about summer courses could be creating a wrong impression

‘A Note From the Dean’, read the exciting email from Brown University to a 10th grade high school student. After a short message mentioning a few courses, the email concluded, “I hope you will explore the opportunities that Summer@Brown offers to high school students the world over, and that you will join us for a learning adventure that, in the words of many former students, will make this summer your “best summer ever”. It was signed by the Assistant Dean, Brown University Pre-College Programs.

The email was 100 per cent legitimate and wasn’t spam, but the delivery of the email was spam-like because Brown probably bought a list of email addresses from a third-party provider, like the College Board, which conducts the SAT exams or the American College Testing programme, which conducts the ACT. Last year, nearly 3.2 million students across the world took these tests to apply to colleges. This is what spammers do. They buy addresses and market to them.

But the content of the message was all spam. Here was one of the most prestigious institutions of learning, founded in 1764, a member of the Ivy League and recognised for the quality of its teaching, research, and unique curriculum, pitching a few weeks of summer classes at its Providence, Rhode Island campus to make money from families of high school students, who would be honoured at receiving a direct email message from Brown University.

Highly selective university

Brown is a highly elite university which rejects 90 per cent of all undergraduate applicants it gets. Along with Dartmouth, it’s the only institution that refuses to provide credit to high school students for completing college level Advanced Placement courses conducted by the College Board, of which it is a member. Even perfect scores on AP exams do not merit consideration by Brown.

The immediate reaction of millions of parents who received this email would be: “Is my child so gifted that Brown — yes, the respected Brown — has somehow pre-selected him/her? By accepting this invitation and agreeing to enrol my child in a few classes during the summer, am I giving my child a leg-up in admissions at this venerable university? Worse, by rejecting it, am I committing a blunder?”

The email does little to address this confusion. In fact, it makes families believe what they want to believe. It reads: “Beyond the number and variety of courses we offer, what makes Summer@Brown unique are the ways our instructors put together their courses. Some are straight ahead deep-dives in core areas of undergraduate study, others turn things sideways to get a better look”.

Subliminal messaging

The phrase, “some are straight ahead deep-dives in core areas of undergraduate study”, is carefully crafted probably with the help of Brown University Law School. It could give parents the impression that if one were to sign up for Summer at Brown, course performance could potentially count towards later credit, since, after all, attending the programme by invitation is, in and of itself, a prestigious matter designed to get you into Brown.

But nowhere in the email does the institute make any commitment to future student recruitment. The hopeful feeling which parents sense is completely subliminal, a term vocabulary.com defines as “below the threshold” or surface of your conscious mind. The definition continues, “You probably will never even notice that you’re being controlled.”

We are constantly subjected to subliminal messages in movies, when companies place products as part of the plot. Roger Schlueter, writing in the Belleville News Democrat (http://www.bnd.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/answer-man/article194555569.html), points out that in 1981, Ray-Ban sold 18,000 pairs of its Wayfarers. But after Tom Cruise wore them in the 1983 hit Risky Business, 360,000 pairs flew off the shelves. The same thing happened for Ray-Ban’s Aviators after 1986’s Top Gun.

Remember that Tom Cruise did not shamelessly promote Ray-Ban, like some of our famous Bollywood and cricket stars do when they act as brand ambassadors, pointing their fingers at a product on huge billboards. All Cruise did was wear the stylish Wayfarers during key scenes in the movies. Because of his appeal as a symbol of handsomeness, Ray-Ban experienced a 2,000 per cent increase in sales.

Just as a customer wearing Ray-Bans is not going to become a star like Tom Cruise, a high-school student attending an expensive summer programme at Brown University earns no competitive advantage in college admissions. The messaging is all below the threshold, below the surface of your conscious mind. You’re at liberty to think what you like but feeling good is not the same thing as being good.

A matter of economics

Brown University is engaging in this ‘scam’ because it is a simple matter of economics. The admissions process to its summer programme is not selective. Anyone willing to pay will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. During the summer, many of its dorm rooms are vacant, with undergraduate students not returning until mid-August. There are bills to be paid for fixed expenses such as campus security and insurance. It would be cruel to lay off residence halls and kitchen staff because there are no students on campus. Some professors are probably already on campus, either teaching summer classes or doing research.

So, why not leverage existing resources at little marginal cost but still bring in a few million dollars of revenue by inviting hapless high-school students with tall ambitions?

If it is any comfort, Brown is not alone. Yale, Carnegie Mellon (my alma mater), the University of Virginia, Cornell, Emory, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern and Harvard, among other top schools, all engage in this practice.

But just because everyone does it doesn’t make it right.