Chuck Reed

Chuck Reed, Senior Vice President for Client Services

“Is it safe?”

The iconic question from the late ’70s thriller Marathon Man had to do with diamonds, Nazis, and Dustin Hoffman in a dentist’s chair.

These days, it is being asked of colleges.

While the topic has been and always will be part of the college conversation, 2012 mass killings in a movie theater, a mall, and bucolic Connecticut make safety a more prevalent issue. After Virginia Tech, colleges reacted by reviewing their own campus policies and emergency communication plans, a positive by-product of a horrific event. Now the topic of safety is back and bigger than ever.

But note that “safety” has many connotations. It once simply meant petty thefts and swipe cards on dormitories—those were the days.

In the past decade, physical safety expanded into emotional safety. Our research suggests that “safety” is now interpreted as strong human relationships, a sense of belonging, or being cared for by a community. “Faculty as mentors” and related relationship attributes are significantly more important than they used to be to prospective students in most identity research. There are wildly different nuances per college, but the theme is there.

And parents of prospects give high marks to institutions where they feel their children will be busy, supported, and seemingly never alone. Helicopterish? You bet, although given society’s 21st century ever-growing embrace of helmet/airbag/always-wariness safety and now these 2012 shooting events, it’s no surprise.

Consider where I once was admissions director more than 20 years ago, maybe the smallest incorporated town in the U.S. with a four-year college. Among the usual lesser crimes and issues on campus and in town, that slice of Americana was rocked two years ago with the abduction, disappearance, and presumed murder of a student. The body hasn’t been found.

“Is it safe?”

The answer in college marketing has to be what it always should have been, although it’s more important now than ever—honest campus, student life, and environment descriptors that are provable. NEVER call your campus “safe.” No campus is fully. “Safe” is interpreted as a guarantee. The first time something happens—even a series of small things—you’ll be proven wrong and pay a price. Sometimes, if bad enough a crime, a steep and timeless price.

“Tree-line” your streets, “quiet” your “historic” town, “supportive” the culture of your rural campus. Talk up the community and its caring. But brand yourself “safe?”

Sadly, never.

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