Cameras and family members in tow, they flock to campus in crowds, and with every step and every curious glance, they come closer to making a decision about where they would like to spend four years of their lives.
Around this time of year, high school students — mostly juniors — avidly research potential colleges to apply to, often taking advantage of their spring breaks to visit campuses and soak in each university’s offerings. But no matter how much emphasis their tour guides and promotional materials place on specific university programs and resources, there is one aspect that prospective students cannot help but notice: the area surrounding the school itself.
Of eight high school students interviewed, seven said that the location of their future university is a consideration to them, even if it may not be the main factor.
“I would love to be comfortable on [a university’s] campus,” said Anika Kim, a high school junior at Phillips Academy in Andover who is embarking on her college search. “At the same time, a city just offers a lot of opportunities, and I would want to take advantage of both.”
Admissions offices understand the importance of a school’s location and market it accordingly in their promotional materials. But for some universities, the task poses more of a challenge than it does for others.
NOT BOSTON OR NEW YORK
Within the first 20 pages of Columbia University’s 115-page viewbook, the school references its urban setting several times, presents a detailed map of its location and calls New York City a “living laboratory” for students.
“Our New York,” the viewbook reads, “is a neighborhood, a classroom … a testing ground … a home, a friend, an indispensable resource.”
Other selective universities boast about their locations in similar ways. Harvard University emphasizes its proximity to Boston, Stanford points to the short distance between Palo Alto and San Francisco, and the University of Chicago describes itself as having “a water park bigger than Belgium in its front yard.” UChicago also promotes its “Chicago studies” program, an academic curriculum crafted around its city.
New Haven, on the other hand, appears on page 88 of the Yale admissions viewbook sent to prospective Yale students — and the tone is different. The four pages in the 123-page book that focus on New Haven feature a quote from the New York Times, descriptions of restaurants and attractions in the Elm City and a picture of a student running through East Rock. Then, the viewbook switches back to promoting the University itself.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said schools such as Columbia and Harvard present their locations differently than Yale does because they are able to rely on students’ pre-existing assumptions about the cities.
“Probably the quantity of coverage we give [to our city] is not dissimilar to the quantity of coverage that others give theirs,” Brenzel said. “But they have more of an ability to rely on pre-existing impressions, whereas we have to be more specific.”
The pre-existing impressions of New Haven, unlike those of Boston or New York, are not always favorable.
“When people think of Yale and its neighborhood — to be really frank about it, the image of New Haven is not really a positive one. It’s known for its high crime rate,” said Sung Woo Hong, a high school senior at Andover.
However, Brenzel said that concerns about crime do not usually come to the Admissions Office and are unfounded. When prospective families ask about safety around campus, Brenzel said staff members usually direct inquiries to Yale’s public safety website, which offers a comprehensive report of crime statistics. The site includes a comparison of Yale’s crime metrics measured against peer institutions, indicating with graphs and charts that Yale has fewer incidents of crime.
“The perception of crime in New Haven is currently running about 15 to 20 years behind,” Brenzel said. “In terms of trying to address that perception, it can easily come across as defensive, when there’s nothing to be defensive about.”
Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, Yale’s deputy chief communications officer, also dismissed the characterization that New Haven is crime-ridden and unsafe.
“For years and years reporters have asked these questions,” Morand said. “Any misperceptions are lingering because they are perpetuated by reporters.”
Most students interviewed were aware of New Haven’s negative stereotype. Lauren McIsaac, a senior at Avon High School in Connecticut who applied to Yale, said that in her high school class, New Haven is discussed frequently in a way that does not leave the “best impression” of the city.
To counter negative impressions, the Admissions Office added a poster of New Haven attractions to its admitted students mailings two years ago. Brenzel added that while there is no specific committee within the Admissions Office to promote New Haven, the hundreds of pages of printed materials — including information on New Haven — are continually being looked at and revised.
AN UNDISCOVERED CITY
Admissions officers at Yale have a twofold challenge when marketing New Haven to incoming students: They must fight New Haven’s existing stereotype while also promoting a city most students know little about.
“Even though I live in Connecticut, I don’t know as much about New Haven as I do about Philadelphia or New York,” McIssac said. “I haven’t really explored much about it.”
Another prospective student, Arthur Erlendsson, a senior at Hawken High School, said he was not concerned about New Haven crime because Yale is “actually quite isolated.”
Erlendsson added that the leaders of the information session at the University of Pennsylvania talked frequently about job opportunities and internships in Philadelphia, while at Yale, he was told that the city was relatively safe and diverse.
Brenzel said that once students visit New Haven, their opinion of the city changes.
“When students visit and go to school here they’re often surprised that New Haven itself is a vibrant cosmopolitan and interesting place. As college towns go, New Haven’s pretty cool,” Brenzel said.
For some, the size of New Haven is a positive factor. “It’s not too crazy for me,” Erin Kaminski, a senior at Avon High School said. “I wouldn’t like too much excitement like in New York City.”
Hong, the Andover senior, emphasized that he has personally visited New Haven and did not consider it to be a “dangerous place, especially if you only stay on campus.” The city’s reputation seems exaggerated, he said, and in his personal college search, he did not consider the location of the school to be a particularly important factor.
CAMPUS OVER CITY?
Indeed, most high school students seem to give much more consideration to the campus itself than the city in which the school is located. Several students said they would attend Yale no matter how the conditions were in the city of New Haven, because, according to one student, “after all, it’s still Yale.”
David Mele, a high school senior at the Collegiate School in New York, said he would have chosen Yale if it were located anywhere. The only aspect of the city he considered was its size, he said, and New Haven suited his interests as an urban city that was neither too large or too small.
Brenzel said that while the Admissions Office is aware of the popularity of large metropolitan cities for prospective students, the actual impact of those locations on students is fairly small.
“We do understand that it can be an apparent attraction for a school to present itself as being adjacent to Boston, New York City or Chicago,” Brenzel said. “Those urban resources are attractive to many people. But what we know is that students and families are often surprised at how little time [students] spend going off campus to those cities.”
According to the Admissions Office’s survey examinations, Brenzel said, prospective students tend not to consider the exact location of the college in their primary consideration of the school. Even so, he said the office makes an effort to “present information that we can’t count on them knowing” about New Haven, including details about the city’s artistic community and high level of community service engagement with the University.
Although Morand praised New Haven, he cited Yale’s residential college experience, teaching, research and international opportunities as more important than the city’s surrounding area for prospective students.
“We try to convey that there’s more in New Haven than you might think,” Brenzel said. “It’s a city you can get your arms around, a walkable city. In my experience, students at most campuses — particularly universities of our size and nature — would not have as many opportunities in their local communities as students here.”