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Losing Enrollment in C-Lot

A trip to a commuter college inspired this consultant to write a tongue-in-cheek essay about poor parking and the resulting bad impression on potential students and applicants.
University Business, Dec 2006

Maybe I shouldn't be writing now. I have always been told not to go food shopping when I am hungry, or swim right after eating, or take action when upset. I am upset. But then is writing really action? Just for my fingers I think. So I will let my fingers do the squawking and write this while distraught. Besides, I don't want to lose the immediacy of the moment.

The school was losing enrollment and
population was dropping. Sure, they planned on a 32 percent attrition
rate in the budget. I think that a 68 is a D+. Passing but not by much.

I was at a school to conduct a customer service audit. The school was losing enrollment and population was dropping. Sure, they planned on a 32 percent attrition rate in the budget. I think that a 68 is a D+. Passing but not by much. And when translated into dollars and jobs, it seemed they were actually planning for failure. Easy to hit that goal-- a goal to fail, that is. Maybe failing to budget but failing nonetheless. So I was hired to come on campus with my team to find out why this college was failing so badly.

When doing an audit, my team studies every service and marketing aspect of a school. We act as would potential students and see what it feels like to attend the institution. So we do everything a student would do when coming on campus for the first time. Then once we're "in" we check out, explore, and measure every aspect of the service at the place except one--teaching.

This particular college is primarily a commuting college with very little public transportation access. So, almost everyone drives his or her car to come to the campus. We started out in our rental car to find the place. Turns out, that was a real chore. The directions on the website were not clear. They included the usual false assurance that, "Oh, you know the way.-You'll find it." There was no indication of the correct exit off the highway or the correct road that leads to the college. There were no clear directional signs pointing the way once we did figure out what exit we should have taken.

We did the find the place, which was set off with a weather-beaten wooden sign and painted letters that had once been bright-white but were now faded and hard-to-read against a brown background. It was like a neglected drive-in movie sign from years ago.

We drove up the entry road and looked for posted signs telling us where visitors could park. We didn't find any. There were numerous signs like "A Lot--Faculty and Staff only--Sticker required--Tow Zone" and "B Lot--Faculty and Staff only--Sticker required-- Tow Zone". And my favorite "D Lot-- Parking for Senior Administrators ONLY-- Sticker required-- Tow Zone". It's nice that they helped out the elderly administrators. AARP would be really proud. This was particularly considerate since this small lot was right beside the main administration building where I supposed most of the senior administrators worked. Though there was not a noticeable wheel chair ramp, though, for those who might need one. This building also was where the Welcome Center for potential students was located.

We finally did what I suppose many visiting students do at the college--we asked another student where we could park. We were told there was a student and visitor lot just a little ways down the road. Oddly enough, it was a huge lot that was rather filled up so it was hard to find a spot to park at 9:10 in the morning. There were six marked visitor spots but they were filled already by what I supposed were students just visiting a class or two since these cars had active parking stickers.

We then hiked in from Lot C, which oddly enough was the one furthest away from the campus entrance. A, B. and D were closest to the buildings. I suppose Lot C was placed furthest away to encourage good health and exercise habits for the students. But then, why were the employee lots so close to the buildings? I would have thought that they would be further out to encourage walking for health for those on the payroll. After all mounting medical insurance costs might be lowered if they were healthier.

I later learned that health, physical health, was not the issue. Political health was. The college's leadership did not want to take on the faculty and staff over parking. As we all know parking closest to the building is a God-given faculty and administrative right even if one is an atheist, or a student paying thousands of dollars for tuition and fees, and another thousand for books and supplies.

This upset me. Not that I had to walk, but that I had to walk because I might be a student.

Granted, in our society walking is considered work. And most people would be happiest if their office was a sort of a garage so they could drive right up to their desk and never have their walking or running shoes touch the ground for more than a step or two. That includes students.

It is my belief that maybe colleges should buy unused drive-in movie theaters so everyone could stay in his or her car and never have to walk. This would not only end the parking problem, it would be an economic boost for many towns while giving older professors more time for their earlier passion--teaching. The drive-in movie screens would allow for intimate, personal, small classes of up to 500 students so popular in college these days. And so well documented by TIAA-CREF ads playing the "West Side Story" tune "There's a Place for Us" in the background. Yuh, there is. The place is row RR, seat 43. ("Please use the microphone in the aisle to ask a question or send it to me by e-mail. My assistant will get back to you. The TA's will be available after class.") It amazes me that someone didn't tell TIAA-CREF they were fortifying a negative impression of college.

If we used drive-in theaters, faculty and students alike could just pull up to a spot, put the speaker on the window and watch the professor's PowerPoint lecture on the screen. This is a convenient and a potential goldmine, what with the ads for the concession stand embedded in the lecture. Maybe they can even locate the old countdown movies with the three minutes left to get a delicious hotdog ... two minutes left to get a piece of hot pizza.

The drive-in approach would be at least very democratic and customer-oriented since students would have the same service and convenience allowed for faculty and staff. By the way, TA's would drive up and down the rows in electric carts taking attendance and picking up assignments to make it easier for the faculty member.

Failing the drive-in approach, appropriate customer service says the paying client should not have to be the one most inconvenienced. That includes having to park in the furthest lot out. And then paying for the "privilege" of parking discrimination. That creates unhappy and even angry clients who, as you know, ask "Why do I have to pay to park way the hell out there? I am paying thousands of dollars. I pay your salary after all (collectively anyhow). Students should get to park closer to the campus."

Look at it this way. You go to a restaurant, or for that matter almost any supermarket. The food there is supposed to be as good as it is at other establishments. Prices are about the same. You chose your restaurant or store because it is close to home and easiest to drive to. You get there and drive around looking for a place to park close to the entrance. As you drive down the first row of cars, by the front of the place, you see signs in front of spots closest to the entrance. They say "No parking except for Head Chef--All others will be ticketed or towed." Others are reserved for the sous-chefs, or the manager, maitre d', owner, day-time director, evening shift director, veggie buyer, meat buyer.... "So you have to go to the next row. There the signs say, "No parking except for head bartender, assistant head bartender, afternoon bar waiter, evening bar waiter, waiters, waitresses..." and so on. The next row is reserved for busboys and kitchen cleaning staff. So now you are circling around to row four and it is full of other patrons of the restaurant. Row five just happens to also lead by the exit from the parking lot and onto the road where there is another place just down the road.

What do you do?

Most people would be aggravated and angered enough that the workers get the best spots. The patrons have to drive around looking for spots way to the back of the lot. That tells you that the place cares more about its staff than the paying guests. If you have trouble getting a parking spot and the place works harder to keep the staff happy than the clientele, will things get better once inside?

"There's that place just down the road and I could do take out for even greater convenience...."

Unless the restaurant has something on the menu that no one else has, or has the best something that you crave, oris the only place in town, you are heading for the exit. What are this place's priorities? Not the paying customer.

As I and the team walked in across the hot asphalt, I wondered how many potential students had similar thoughts about this college and other schools like it, decided to head for the exit and purchase their education somewhere else. Our studies indicate at least 12 percent might just book. Now, 12 percent isn't a big number. But 12 percent of, say, 300 students is 36 enrollments. At say $10,000 each...that's a mere $360,000. I mean what school could use an additional $360,000?

Oh, and those 36 students will tell another six each that they had a bad experience. Malthusian losses? But that's for another time. I am too tired from the long walk from the C lot right now.

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