The United Colleges of Claremont
How each college sells its image to prospective students
At the Claremont Colleges, our schools work hard to cultivate specific images of themselves, from their web presence to the campus visit. However, it is revealing to see just how divergent a college’s public relations efforts are in comparison to our actual campus experiences. To see how each of the 5Cs sell the consortium to prospective students, the Port Side shadowed tours at four of the five colleges. One finds that while student tour guides portray a poignant experience made whole by the consortium, the individual schools downplay the consortium as a major factor in campus life and culture.
The history of the Claremont Consortium suggests that the colleges inherently rely on each other: they were originally developed as continuations of Pomona College. However, on more than one occasion, Robert Walton, CEO of the Claremont University Consortium – the consortium’s coordinating body – has suggested that instead of increasing cooperation, the 5Cs should increase competition, for further competition will create stronger individual schools and eventually a stronger consortium.
The way each of the colleges have balanced cooperation and competition varies, both in general spirit and in message. From developments in online presence, print publications, and campus visits, the level of importance that each campus puts on the consortium depends on the medium.
The colleges have worked hard in recent years to emphasize the unique culture of each individual institution. From Claremont McKenna’s focus on leadership to Pitzer’s on social justice, the efforts of each school to cast themselves in a particular spotlight make it seem like they are worlds apart rather than right next door. When prospective students and their parents visit, it is surprising to see how often they are not aware that the five schools are located on one square mile of contiguous land. This mindset may come from the Claremont Colleges unique layout; few, if any, consortia in the country offer such proximity between member schools. But it is more likely this view comes from the colleges’ specific deemphasizing of the consortium.
Image plays a critical role between April 1 and May 1 when admitted students have to make a decision on which college to attend. Although a low acceptance rate can look fantastic, the number that admission officials bite their nails over is the yield, or the number of admitted students who actually enroll. At small liberal arts colleges, particularly those whose operating costs are fed by tuition revenue, under-enrolling can land a severe blow. Therefore, to keep up appearances and entice students, the colleges use a variety of approaches for keeping in touch.
According to Pomona’s admission office, students who are accepted are invited to a number of “informal alumni hosted get-togethers for admitted students across the country.” Once students commit, Pomona sends t-shirts and bumper stickers to ramp up the excitement of being a part of the Pomona community.
Mudd, arguably the most unique college in the consortium due to its specific focus on engineering and the sciences, works especially hard to recruit students and maintain pride.
“We do send them lots of letters,” said Colleen Smith, HMC Assistant Director of Admission. “The various academic departments and President Klawe usually write letters and occasionally other groups will as well. [For example], a couple of years ago a group of alumnae wrote to all the female admitted students.”
This personal letter-writing builds the image of a college that is focused on the individual. One could argue, however, that a letter could come from the consortium itself; if students received a letter touting the resources of the entire consortium, prospective students might be more likely to commit to one of the member colleges over a comparable small liberal arts institution.
Touring the Claremonts
In contrast to the illusion of separateness that may be conveyed from websites and other sources that advertise the colleges individually, campus tours celebrate each particular institution’s place within a larger consortium identity. In examining how student tour guides from the colleges mold their own experiences into presentations for prospective students, it becomes clear how much of a role the consortium plays in students’ daily lives.
Pitzer’s tour had the most significant emphasis on integration within the 5C community. At the beginning of the tour, the student guide launched into recounting the history of the Claremont Colleges, highlighting the unique areas of focus for each college before focusing on Pitzer itself. Throughout the rest of the tour, the spotlight was on the consortium as a whole. From the guide’s mention of Honnold-Mudd Library to the highlighting of specialties of the various cafes and dining halls of the 5Cs, the Pitzer tour experience presented the Claremont Colleges as a “consortium in every way” that “overlaps in a number of ways.” The unique aspects of Pitzer – its murals and focus on environmental impact, for example – were shown to exemplify its role within the 5Cs.
Tours at Pomona and Harvey Mudd, also pointed out the advantages of the consortium, though noticeably less than Pitzer’s. Pomona touted the art and music programs found on both the Pomona and Scripps campuses, as well as the ease of registering for classes at the other colleges, as indicators of the shared resources. Even the Mudd tour experience, which focused least on inter-5C relationships in favor of specific details regarding Mudd academics and culture, noted how the smaller schools within the consortium made it “easier to mix” among each other, whether that be in social life, academics, or sports.
These tour experiences paint a clear portrait of how the students of the consortium interact within the sphere of the entire 5C community; they are inevitably students from unique colleges, but they thrive within the environment of the larger consortium. This is quite a contrast from the more distanced image depicted in the schools’ official advertisements.
It is no surprise that each school’s admissions office would portray itself, on its own, as a wholeheartedly unique and independent institution of high regard. While there may be obvious truth in those portrayals – there is no denying that each of the 5Cs are among the best liberal arts colleges in the country on their own accord – there is something vitally important to be said of the consortium upon which these colleges were founded. Ultimately, the consortium that drives student activities, culture, and interactions here, should be emphasized to prospective students, rather than masked over or ignored.