“Us geniuses are not happy people. You’re asking happy people if they’re happy with their college,” said MSNBC pundit Lawrence O’Donnell in response to Forbes magazine’s Top 100 colleges list last year, in which Pomona College ranked ninth in large part because it excelled in the area of overall student happiness, a factor the magazine weighted heavily.
O’Donnell’s reaction captures just the perception of Pomona that Mark Neustadt of Neustadt Creative Marketing recommended the college combat in a presentation Thursday, Feb. 28 to faculty, administrators, and a handful of Pomona students. Neustadt discussed his findings from a comprehensive review of the way the college community, alumni, prospective students, college counselors, and others perceive Pomona. His recommendations focused chiefly upon emphasizing the desirable opportunities and academic rigor that the college offers, rather than its reputation for being laid-back and fun.
The college’s move to research its reputation and make efforts to market itself differently comes in the context of a national trend among liberal arts colleges that are implementing similar brand initiatives, according to Chief Strategist Rex Whisman of BrandED Consultants Group, a firm that offers services to educational institutions similar to those offered by Neustadt’s company.
There is a general perception that Pomona has an easygoing atmosphere, and that students at Pomona are “comfortable and at ease,” according to interviews with prospective and current students, Neustadt said.
The “ease narrative,” although it distinguishes Pomona from other educational institutions, has created several problems for the College, according to Neustadt. These include a lack of agreement between this narrative and faculty priorities, as well as a reinforcement of the idea that success directly follows from a happy and comfortable student experience.
“The students at Pomona do not follow through on passions and commitments, because follow-through would interfere with the prevailing culture,” Neustadt said at the presentation. “If you take [a successful high school student] and bring that student to Pomona, and tell that student that the prevailing expectation of the community is that they maintain balance and ease as the path to success, they will completely buy into that.”
Neustadt went on to say that the most efficient way for the College to inflect the culture according to his recommendations is through the admissions pipeline.
“Every year, you’ve got a new batch of new students with unformed expectations. You can begin to mold their expectations over the course of the admissions process, and you can change a culture actually relatively rapidly,” Neustadt said.
One of the ways to affect prospective students’ perception of Pomona is for the admissions office to actively recruit tour guides who exemplify the brand that the College wants to project, according to Neustadt.
Guides have already been instructed to spend more time emphasizing the rigorous academics and research opportunities offered to Pomona students, according to Pomona tour guide Justin Gutzwa PO ’14.
“It’s not to completely eliminate the ‘fun’ things, but to make Pomona out to be less of just being this Southern Californian paradise and more of, not that we aren’t already perceived as a rigorous academic institution (because we are), but to emphasize more of the long-term things that Pomona can provide you with,” Gutzwa said.
Gutzwa added that tour guides were instructed to talk more about features of Pomona such as Summer Undergraduate Research Programs, the Pomona College Internship Program, and the Career Development Office rather than what he described as “the luxuries of Pomona.”
“I think it’s a pretty good idea for Pomona’s administration to try to encourage students to look beyond [the Claremont bubble], especially if we want to try to have a positive effect on the world outside the 5Cs after we graduate,” Nathan Jefferson PO ’15 said.
Neustadt further argued that the “ease narrative” has created fragmentation within the student body. He explained that his research showed that European-American students are more likely to perceive that there is a laid-back atmosphere at Pomona than Asian, African-American, Latino, and international students. The cause of this divide goes beyond just race, according to Neustadt.
“There’s a class dimension to this, there’s a culture dimension to this, there’s a racial/cultural dimension to this … That being said, there is no question that the narrative of ease and happiness creates a schism between the student culture between those who believe they are more heavily focused and those who are more ‘chill.’ And this schism creates a particular burden for the students of color” Neustadt said.
“The ease narrative, although it differentiates the institution, is nonetheless problematic, and the core recommendation is that the institution should push back on it,” Neustadt said.
Whisman stressed the importance of ensuring that a school’s marketing strategy takes student feedback into account and aligns with the internal culture and values of a given institution.
“Many colleges and universities call themselves the ‘Harvard of the West,’” Whisman wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “I think the disconnect that people have when they see or hear those kinds of associations, is that it is not believable. When we work with our clients we help them understand that the primary goal of branding is to better understand your own institution and how to effectively position the college against its competitor set or aspiration set, not its super-aspiration set of competitors.”
To some students, the proposed brand development would be a departure from the qualities that many applicants find appealing about Pomona.
“Part of my decision to come here was that it wasn’t the extremely competitive, anti-collaborative environment of the East Coast. People weren’t ripping out textbook pages in the library or trying to sabotage other peoples’ success,” Shannon Burns PO ’15 said. “It was more chill in that it was focusing on kids learning and working together, and for knowledge’s sake and not just for success’ sake.”
The sub-recommendations that came along with Neustadt’s presentation outlined six central steps that the college could take to work on rebranding its image. Those steps included revamping Pomona’s website to be more cutting-edge, highlighting alumni that exemplify “the Pomona brand,” building up varsity athletics, embracing the arts on campus as an expression of the passion and originality of students, better engaging the Claremont and greater Los Angeles community, and molding the expectations of new students.
“It was a good time to take stock and see where we are in terms of, not that we need more applicants or that we’re unhappy with the students we have, but just to get a sense of what do people think about Pomona,” Pomona College President David Oxtoby said.