If you work in higher education, you are bound to have an opinion about the Beloit Mindset List that goes out every year in August (usually after another favorite list in our industry: the US News Report College Rankings).
As Andrew Careaga summed it up in a very nicely-crafted blog about the higher ed mindset on the Beloit Mindset List (got to recognize that the man still has his way with his keyboard ;0), there is no shortage of pros and cons of this list in our little community.
I had a few interesting exchanges about the topic last Thursday over Twitter trying to make the point that whether or not you believe in the quality of the research behind what is often (wrongfully) taken as gospel about the mindset of the incoming class of freshmen, you had to recognize that it was a nice marketing/PR campaign – or coup as I tweeted it at that time.
Then, Tim Nekritz from SUNY Oswego asked a very valid question:
A great question indeed that put me on a quest to find answers.
After looking up in my 3,000-name higher ed rolodex, I found a contact of mine is still working at Beloit College: Jason Hughes, Director of Communications and Marketing. Jason was nice enough to take the time along with Ron Nief – co-Author of the Mindset List and Director Emeritus of Public Affairs at Beloit College – to answer a few questions so we can learn more about the goals and impact of the Mindset List campaign for Beloit College.
1) Why did Beloit start publishing this list 15 years ago?Ron Nief: There are two reasons why we created the list in 1998, and they had nothing to do with marketing or publicity.
In the mid-nineties, the web was awash in lists of all kinds but the category that caught our attention as educators was an abundance of lists suggesting how dumb kids were… how much less they knew coming out of high school than their critics.
Tom McBride, Professor of English and the founding director of the Beloit College First-Year Initiatives (FYI) program, and I, and several other faculty and staff who talked regularly, were convinced that these lists were a product of “Baby Boomer arrogance,” created by those who couldn’t grasp cyberspace but still knew all the lyrics to Beatles songs.
We understood that these first-year students, just now emerging from Plato’s cave into the light, were not as ignorant as they were inexperienced. We began circulating among us a list of experiences that these students had or had not had in their lifetimes. The list included those things that the students might reasonably assume to have always or never been true in the world they have known.
We were prompted to distribute the list to others on campus when we realized that while the students had their own frame of reference shaped by experience, so too did the faculty. If faculty went into the classroom with these first-year students and began citing Cold War, Vietnam, Nixon, Pulp Fiction and Beatles analogies, they needed to be prepared to explain these personally familiar references. Otherwise, they could succumb to what Tom McBride called “hardening of the references.”
The list was circulated to those teaching the first-year seminars, and they used them as ice-breakers and opportunities for discussion.
We were surprised when other campuses and subsequently the media began to call, asking if they could reprint or discuss the List… and asking when the next one would be coming out.
2) What is Beloit’s goal for this campaign?
Ron Nief: Sharing the list with faculty remains an annual objective and the reminder that students “get younger” each year, remains central. The list has clearly hit a nerve, as we are annually flooded with requests for permission to use it in back-to-school, faculty orientation, and opening convocations. We receive requests from academics, presidents, guidance counselors etc. More than 5,000 people have asked to have it emailed to them and the college Mindset List website has more than a million visitors a year.
Almost every parent who comes to Beloit is familiar with one or two pieces of literature. One is the book, Colleges that Change Lives, by the late New York Times education editor Loren Pope; the other is the Beloit College Mindset List.
Not a week goes by, throughout the year, that we don’t hear from a Beloit-connected individual that they were delighted to hear Beloit College’s Mindset List quoted by educators, clergy, business and civic leaders at a professional gathering. Being a classic evergreen story, it is cited in the media all year.
Jason Hughes: Small schools like Beloit naturally lack the name recognition of the larger institutions. The Mindset List, in a small but substantial way, gives us a lift in awareness we wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. It has been, and continues to be, incredibly valuable in that way.
Parents and prospective students regularly mention Pope’s book and the Mindset List in the same breath at our summer visit days. Our director of admissions makes a point of asking the question at many of those events: How did you hear about Beloit? The answer often is “the Mindset List.” It helps get the college on their radar. Does it entice students to attend? No. But as Ron pointed out, it’s not intended to do that. Our faculty, programs, and students (and yes, admissions officers) do that work.
3) How do you measure the success of this initiative? Can you share any data or meaningful anecdotes to illustrate?
Ron Nief: Success can be measured by the demand for the list and for the authors. Tom and I have written and contributed to books and articles and have been invited to speak about the Mindset List to scores of organizations, faculty gatherings, high school and college classes, and education groups nationally. In the coming weeks we will speak to the staff at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and keynote the NCAA national convention, as well as speak to education groups dealing with recruiting, history, and financial literacy. The list and our book, The Mindset Lists of American History are being used in classes at the secondary and post secondary levels.
Jason Hughes: We track media stories, the online chatter, as well as traffic to our website during the Mindset List release each year. To give you a picture of how the List drives name recognition for the college, I can share some telling web numbers. We average about 4,500 site views a day on Beloit.edu. On Tuesday of this week, when the Mindset List dropped, we had 197,647 total site views. Of those, 164,012 were to the Mindset List for the Class of 2016 page. On Wednesday, our total site views were still very high—just over 100,000—and by Thursday, the number was still well above average with a little more than 39,000.
And these are just the numbers for those who come to the college’s website. If you consider the number of media outlets that annually cover the list release, the total number of impressions goes way up. In this way, Tom and Ron’s list, without benefit of any paid advertising or distribution, dramatically decreases (I think) the number of people who respond with a “who?” when an alumnus, parent, or student mentions Beloit College. I see that as being incredibly valuable for us.
4) Is it successful?
Ron Nief: We certainly think so, based on the interest of fellow educators, the media, and the general public in the list. But we also measure our success by increased awareness of Beloit College and its commitment to the liberal arts in practice. When we speak and do interviews, Beloit’s concern for teaching and its sensitivity to the preparation of first-year students for a successful college career are brought into every discussion. We are also able to speak to journalists all over the world about American liberal arts education. From Cape Town to Hong Kong and Bogota to Toronto and everywhere in between, we have the opportunity to talk about the college’s concern for international education.
And you also can’t ignore the pride that alumni and parents have in hearing the name of their small upper Midwest liberal arts college acknowledged internationally. The List has inspired groups from Jamaica to New Zealand to create their own lists and such groups as African American pastors have been inspired to use the technique in an effort to educate young people in the civil rights movement.
Jason Hughes: Our admissions officers tell me that the List is still something that they hear about daily on the road, including from high school counselors who use it in their own work. By these measures, and those I mentioned earlier, I think the List has been and remains successful. Does it have its detractors? Sure, and Ron tells me it always has. But the tone of the coverage and responses we receive is largely positive.
In my time at Beloit, I’ve seen three Mindset List releases and all the interest and inquiries that follow. I’ve also watched while Tom and Ron published – and went on tour for their book. And this year, they added guides to using the Mindset List, one of which is specifically for college counselors and high school administrators. In these ways I think the two are successfully taking their own advice, referencing the past, responding to the present, and preparing for the future. I’m glad they’re still interested and invested in the work.