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Halo Out There: Utilizing Your Campus Aura

The other day I saw a bright yellow Chevrolet Camaro, you know, the latest American baby boomer classic car reissue, and my mind flashed not to the Olds 442 with Cragar wheels and a Hurst shifter I coveted in college but to the similarities between selling the Camaro and marketing higher education.

That sharp disparity in subject matter may cause readers to make a mental U-turn worthy of Steve McQueen in 'Bullitt,' (for you college students, substitute Angelina Jolie in 'Wanted' for the previous cultural reference) but take a ride with me as I explain the nuts and bolts.

...based on the liberal arts model, a student can adapt an education plan to fit their interests without abandoning the course credits they've earned...

The 2010 Camaro debuted a few months ago and people across the country were and still are jumping into their minivans and crossovers and hightailing it to the local dealership to get a look at it. The car, which takes the 1969 Camaro SS and recasts it as a futuristic street machine intent on frightening onlookers and the driver, is what people in the automotive business call a “halo car.”

A halo car is a particular model that excites car buyers enough to drop by a lot and take a test drive. The buyer may not purchase the hot new car, but they might buy something safer, smaller or cheaper. Thus, the hot car -- in this case the Camaro -- bathes the rest of the product line in a “halo” of desirability.

So what does this four-barrel metaphor have to do with higher education?

All college and university campuses have a “halo” program. At Case Western it’s engineering, at USC it’s filmmaking. Here at Juniata College, the “halo” programs are the sciences, particularly chemistry and biology.

Students flock to these halo programs with dreams of being the next George Lucas or a brilliant neurosurgeon and quite a few of them find out that the easy cruise down the boulevard of their career dreams has been interrupted by a blown engine seal.

What matters next is how the college and its administrators work with students to find a new career path, one that beckons even more invitingly.

First, try to revamp your institution’s educational plan so that a student doesn’t have to start all over when he or she finds out those two years of pre-med credits aren’t much good to an international business major. By creating a well-rounded curriculum based on the liberal arts model, a student can adapt an education plan to fit their needs and interests without abandoning the course credits they’ve earned previously (and still graduate in four years.)

Second, make sure your students are advised every step of the way by someone other than a graduate student who sees “advisees” in a seemingly endless line, offering nothing more than a haphazard signature on a scheduling form in between breaks to revise his thesis.

I would recommend two faculty advisers (and one should be outside of the student’s major) to help students find their true calling while also offering advice on class choices to avoid an extra year or two of studies if the student’s first career choice turns out to be an Edsel rather than a Mustang.

Third, nurture other halo programs. Over time, other programs will come to the fore. While biology and chemistry may be an institution’s strength, the education department will benefit from science students who realize their talent lies in explaining experiments rather than performing them. By the same token, a strong history department will have a halo effect on other disciplines such as political science, English or journalism.

In many cases colleges and universities fight against being known for one or two programs. That’s a good thing, but institutions cannot tout every department as world class or else the viewbooks would be the size of a Mercedes owner’s manual (and not quite as interesting).

Instead, focus on those students who have already bought the car and work like Jeff Gordon’s pit crew to get them the best education available. The result will be a satisfied customer who will spread the aura of his educational experience to friends, co-workers, children and probably grandchildren.

The true halo effect is how effectively a college nurtures its students. If the institution runs the way it is supposed to -- as an engine of experience and knowledge -- graduates will spread the aura of their experience to others.

After all, in these days of rising tuition and uncertain economic times the “Cadillac of colleges” should be any place that offers a guiding hand and flexibility in attaining your dreams, not a soulless bureaucracy that makes you pay a lot of cash for a clunker of an education.

Tom Kepple is president of Juniata College. In high school he drove a 1956 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and currently cruises to campus in a Chrysler 300. (but he likes driving his Chrysler Crossfire!)