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COMM 436/636: Issues, History of the Mass Media
Instructor: Ross Collins, Department of Communication, North Dakota State University

Student work 2002: The best of student research in local and regional history.

Universities have always hoped to attract the best and the brightest. But they have not always thought it appropriate to advertise their campus as aggressively as today. Early promotional materials, as the author notes, meant no more than catalogs. Not until the 1970s did most state-supported universities such as North Dakota State begin seriously considering the idea of positioning the campus to appeal to bright students. Andrea Karpe tells us how that idea changed, sometimes radically so, at NDSU through the years.

Andrea Karpe

Changing Times Change NDSU

Selling. Concepts, ideas, thoughts, products, services and even people. Our capitalist society is forever driven to sell--everything and anything. Yet, capitalism in this country is scarcely 300 years old, while the concepts and ideas we use in our insatiable quest to sell have been operating since the days of Plato and Socrates (Wilcox, 2001). According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to sell means to cause or promote the sale of or to influence or induce to make a purchase (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). In the struggle to achieve these goals, public relations and marketing were born--used as vehicles with which to drive sales, of which we are always in pursuit. Throughout the years, public relations has been used for a variety of purposes and via a variety of means. Even here, at North Dakota State University, the seemingly small backyard we share has drastically changed the methods it uses to sell itself to the world.

While today public relations is used in virtually every facet of our lives, it began humbly, merely a means to persuade people to accept the authority of the government. These roots stemmed from an assortment of ancient cultures such as Babylonia, Greece and Rome. Their methodology was nearly identical to ours in that they used interpersonal skills along with a combination of speeches, art, literature, staged events and publicity in order to convey and persuade their audiences (Wilcox, 2001).

Public relations in higher education began in America as early as the colonial era. While the structure of these efforts were excessively rudimentary, many college presidents and administrators saw the benefits public relations could bring to their university. In 1838, the state of Massachusetts required public schools to provide annual written reports about their schools. While these were often lacking in content and the media failed to shine attention on the reports, they are seen as the foundation of college publicity (Fine, 1941). Another of the earliest forms of public relations was graduation commencement, where the universities were able to express their dependence on public opinion and their need for public support to legitimize their value to society (Kinnison, found in Warner, 1996). A major turning point, which caused public relations to become a more urgent operation for colleges, occurred after the civil war. Due to the rapid growth of industry and the development of larger universities, university administrators became more aware of their reliance on favorable public opinion for success (Warner, 1996).

During this time period, the development of public relations in higher education closely resembled the public relations revolution in business and industry (Kobre, found in Warner, 1996). While industrial public relations experienced its own ebbs and flows, colleges found themselves placing greater reliance on public relations techniques to ease financial strain through public support and increased admissions (Tart, found in Warner, 1996). As the university system grew, institutions were required to increase the availability of a variety of services as well as increase their responsibility to the communities in which they reside (Rydell, found in Warner, 1996).

Today, the role of public relations is no longer a mystery in higher education. In 1989 for instance an East coast undergraduate university spent on average $2,800 per student, solely on admissions recruitment materials. Another liberal-arts college spent roughly $100,000 on full-page ads in regional editions of Time magazine and Sports Illustrated (Chait, 1992). While one might say that it seems some have gotten out of control with their glossy magazines, “personalized” postcards, and CD-ROMs, there is no longer a question about the role public relations plays in student recruitment. While NDSU has yet to tip the scale to such extravagant measures, the college has reformed the techniques it uses to recruit students as well as modified the materials used, and opportunities to present to prospective students.

Opportunities for Students
Throughout its development, NDSU has offered students a variety of opportunities for growth, learning and development in numerous aspects of student’s lives. In its promotional materials, the university has conveyed a variety of different messages in order to attract attention from students and inevitably attract their attendance at the college.

One of the most noticeable and easily defined methods utilized involved extra curricular activities offered at the college. From the very first brochure to the most recent viewbook, extracurricular activities were a key focus in admissions materials. While these activities began as merely military drills, literary societies and various athletic opportunities, they became a vital aspect of NDSU. Not only have the various extracurricular activities grown in size, but also an important focus was given to “Greek” life on campus (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

As early as 1937, NDSU offered students the opportunity to get involved in various fraternities and sororities and in the 1930’s and 1940’s rush week activities were included in the general “Welcome Week” materials given to all students as the school year began (North Dakota State University, 1920-2002). While attention to all extracurricular activities diminished until the 1950’s, the construction of the Memorial Union in the early 50’s turned the attention back on these opportunities and they have remained an important aspect of any promotional material developed by the college. A recurring theme found in most materials highlighting extracurricular activities was a description of things to do in the Fargo-Moorhead community. Brochures often talked about the benefits of Fargo-Moorhead, such as its cultural activities, shopping, facilities, and transportation accessibility to and from, as well as around town. In 1960 the Fargo Chamber of Commerce even published a brochure titled: “Fargo is a good place to go to school” which the admissions department at NDSU included in materials sent to prospective students.

Another strong focus of admissions materials were reasons for coming to college and what students could accomplish by obtaining a degree. In the beginning, students were encouraged to attend college simply to fill needs in society and to gain training in various vocational fields. Themes like this originate from the 1890’s through the post World War II era. However, in the 1970’s, college became something more. NDSU began to advertise other possibilities such as travel opportunities students could take advantage of during their college career. These admissions materials began to focus on real world experiences for students and the possibility of studying careers related to students’ interests. In the 1980’s these goals expanded again. College was presented as a means for students to learn to articulate thoughts, understand new technologies and a way for students to explore their world while growing as a person and a student. These types of methods and these educational goals are still used today in a variety of forms in the process of recruiting new students to NDSU (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

University Focus
Not only has NDSU attempted to give students a variety of opportunities in their quest for learning, but also the university itself has transformed its focus, position and role in society. As a land-grand college, NDSU was founded under the premise to provide agricultural and mechanical arts training for the general population, which may not have had access to other private universities (Ohio State University, n.d.). However today, in the information age, NDSU has moved away from its agricultural roots and streamlined itself with the new horizons in our society. While in the early stages of admissions materials a college education was merely seen as a means to an end, it became something larger- an opportunity for students to grow academically and socially, to experience the world and to develop a new way to interpret the environment (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

With the first brochure created in 1890, the focus on agricultural education is clear. The tag line for this brochure offered education in agricultural or mechanical arts to men and housekeeping skills for women. In 1906 a different brochure advertised courses in farm husbandry. While these types of public relations tactics were just beginning to take shape and gain importance, it is clear the college was not focusing on educating psychologists and medical doctors at this point in its development (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002). This type of focus was consistent with the requirements of land-grant colleges (Ohio State University, n.d.). There was also a strong emphasis in agricultural training in the courses offered as well as extracurricular activities, such as 4-H, that were available (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

As the industrial revolution got into full swing in the early 1900’s, NDSU widened its attention towards educating students for blue-collar jobs in new industries. In 1916 a brochure urged students to get training for jobs in labor. It explained about “educated failures”, or those who had a college education but were unable to find work in their fields, and described the “wealth produced by labor.” However, the college did not completely ignore its agricultural roots when in 1924 it produced a brochure from the School of Agriculture describing the opportunities for extracurricular activities for those involved in the program as well as a description of the courses offered (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

After the United States became involved in World War II, the admissions materials changed their focus again. Instead of giving attention to one specific field or one type of career, it offered students “training you need to qualify for interesting, well paid jobs in wartime and peace.” In this same period, the materials also described the accomplishments of alumni in various fields and emphasized the need for specialized training (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002). Not only did these types of messages serve the university, but they were also aligned with the larger public relations campaign conducted by the government during the war that urged women and others to take jobs in the labor sector (Wilcox, 2001).

In the post-war era, the college advertised its need for facilities in the agricultural and home economics departments- keeping with the original premise of the university, but it also stressed the need for specialized training in professional, scientific and social areas. Also during the 1950’s a theme that would be come paramount in admissions public relations: the “focus is on YOU- the individual student.” From this point on, admissions materials gave sole emphasis on the idea of a personalized, individual experience at NDSU both in academic life but in social areas as well (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

Through the end of the century, the vision of the college seemed to expand drastically. In 1969 a brochure provided information about student studies and accomplishments in medical technology and in 1975 it encouraged prospective students to study in fields where their interests lay. This was drastically different from earlier when students were urged to take jobs that were needed in society rather than those they were interested or skilled in. Also at this time NDSU began to develop its educational vision. It encouraged students to go to college to learn to “live harmoniously with the world around us” and to learn to understand conflicting ideas (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

In 1977 a final piece of the student recruitment puzzle fell into place: the importance of parents. In this year an entire fact sheet was devoted to providing parents with information they feel important and answers to some of their questions. While in the future, parents were not a key audience; a majority of the materials sent to prospective students included information parents might have found important (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

In the 1980’s, NDSU changed again, this time to become more visionary and inspirational to students. It emphasized “soul searching” ideas as students planned their futures- future career choices, as well as deciding on a university. NDSU materials emphasized teaching students the ability to solve problems, obtaining a habit of success, the need to explore the world and individual potential as well as a variety of other theoretical concepts and ideals (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

It is clear after exploring these materials that the changes in NDSU have been quite revolutionary. Beginning as just a means for students to succeed on the family farm, NDSU became a competitive university encouraging students to follow studies that are aligned with their personal interests. It urged students to make their own decisions about their futures while providing parents with answers to their important questions. Admissions materials emphasize the more image-oriented aspect of NDSU as well as a focus on the individual student despite a growing student population.

History of NDSU
Since its beginning in 1890, NDSU has had a robust and enriched history, one that it shares with the community and the nation with pride. Historical themes have been an important part of promotional materials the university has created and distributed to prospective students for a large part of the 20th century. The first time we see history introduced in recruitment materials is in 1950 with a brochure titled “What is NDAC?” The brochure highlighted “60 years of progress” which included the number of degrees awarded over the years, current enrollment, notable achievements of alumni and desirability of NDSU graduates in the workforce. After looking at each piece of NDSU’s recruitment materials, the themes highlighted in the brochure from 1950 are common ways NDSU’s history is shared with prospective students (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

In 1952 historical information is expressed again, although this time it included a catchier, more casual writing style in attempt to make the information snappy and interesting. The brochure referred to NDSU as “The People’s College” and explained its “humble beginning” as a land-grant college where the facilities were limited and the first class contained a mere 30 students. The land-grant college theme became a focal point and a starting place for all information regarding the history of the college (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

When NDSU celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1965, surprisingly, the brochure produced did not include historical information about the college- merely highlighted the goals of the college, areas the college wanted to improve, and a vision for the future. In contrast with this surprising absence of historical information, the 1970’s were an era where information on NDSU’s history became included in nearly every piece of recruitment materials sent to prospective students. In fact, the section focusing on history included in most admissions materials remained identical to the initial booklet, which was written in 1975 (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

The “mmMMooO” booklet was created in 1975 and was a major part of the recruitment of prospective students for many years. The first section of this booklet told “the story of how a Midwestern agricultural college found happiness” by using frank, casual writing and the booklet was formatted in a newsletter style. The booklet highlighted “useless” information, amusing stories about topics such as women and smoking, coed housing and women athletics. It also portrayed the facts of NDSU’s land-grant history in a light, digestible way. The very end of the booklet urged students to consider NDSU not only for its numerous opportunities and reputation, but also for its history, on which it focused great pride. As before, this section filled with snippets of amusing stories, as well as facts, is used verbatim in materials such as “The Study Hall Reader,” sent to high school students, and a variety of other admissions materials until as late as 1986 (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

However, the appearance of history information in 1986 signaled the end of the historical focus in the recruitment materials. Due to the other changes in the focus and goals of the university, it seems historical information became less important and NDSU history is absent from virtually all materials up to the most current pieces published (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

Women at NDSU
Another theme identified from the NDSU promotional materials is that of gender. In the last 100 years, our society has drastically changed its idea of gender roles and the contrasts between the sexes. NDSU was not exempt from these revolutionary changes. Over the years, a focus on women was not emphasized in the admissions materials used by the university. The majority of the materials were gender neutral, using photographs, language and advertising degrees and extra-curricular activities that were not preferential to either gender (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

While most of the publications did not focus on gender, there were instances where one gender was emphasized over the other. The first of these materials was one of the very first admissions materials produced by the college in 1890. The title of this brochure proudly proclaimed, “Every young man looking forward to agriculture or the mechanical arts for a livelihood, and every young woman expecting to become a housekeeper, should take a course of study at the agricultural college.” In the eyes of today’s society, this statement would not sit well with the majority, however, in the era in which it was written, this theme probably resonated well with the needs and goals of potential students (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

In other brochures published near the turn of the century, female extra-curricular activities, and opportunities for literary and scientific education were well advertised in materials. Despite the emphasis on “female” interests, there were relatively few pictures of women in the materials- only pictures of the facilities utilized by female classes. However, by 1911, NDSU proclaimed an “opportunity for every young man and woman: an education for all.” This change was seen several years before women won the right to vote and the societal revolution regarding the role of women in society (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

From 1911 until 1945, men and women were seemingly equal in materials. Photographs of men and women were balanced in measure, placement and emphasis. A booklet from 1945 featured a section sharing the opportunities NDSU offered to women in order to widen their horizons. They detailed extra-curricular offerings and illustrated women working in with a microscope in the laboratory. It also focused on the need for teachers in rural areas a variety of other fields in which women could find work such as psychological counseling of veterans, public health, printing in newspapers and magazines and welfare programs (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002).

The last time differences between men and women were emphasized in the admissions materials was in 1967 when a brochure published by the College of Agriculture advertised 20,000,000 jobs for men and women. The purpose of this brochure was not to diminish female abilities but to encourage women to get involved in a typically male field of study. From this date through most current materials in 2002, neither gender was emphasized in recruitment materials produced by the college. Today materials are entirely free of gender connotation and none are directed towards one sex or the other (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002). The most obvious reason for this change would most likely be attributed to the attitude change in society regarding the abilities and opportunities that should be open to both men and women.

In 1987, NDSU said it best: “Opportunities are here. Possibilities are unlimited. The choices are yours” (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002). These three sentences encapsulate the messages and focus of NDSU from its origination to the current day. The stories told within these admissions materials are strong reminders of how “a modest, Midwestern land-grant college found happiness (North Dakota State University, 1890-2002)” despite the drastic changes in our world. Over the years, the methods utilized have changed, the students have changed and the university itself has grown in size, shape and vision for the future. Yet one thing remains the same, in its desire to sell, NDSU has relied on students, their families and the community in order to persevere through the century.

While the future of NDSU’s recruitment methodology will change in the next month, next year, next ten years, or next century, the university has sent a clear message that it is willing and able to adapt to the changes in society and that its messages resonate with students and their families. NDSU will always remain committed and proud of the history it has created and as equality issues change in the future, NDSU will remain committed to the ideas of equal opportunity for all students and staff (North Dakota State University President, 1999). The college will continue to broaden the opportunities it can offer and it will remain focused on education regardless of the methods used to recruit students. In the end, public relations will always be a useful tool for NDSU as it struggles to sell itself in an ever more competitive market.

So, here we are, 112 years later. What’s next NDSU?


Chait, R. (1992). The growing hucksterism of college admissions. Chronicle of Higher Education, 38(37), B1-B2

Fine, B. (1941). College publicity in the United States. New York: Columbia University Teachers College.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (n.d.) Found online on Dec. 2, 2002 at:

North Dakota State University. (1890-2002). Promotional admissions materials. (Available at the Institute for Regional Studies, 1305-19th AVE N., Fargo, ND, 58105).

North Dakota State University. (1920-2002). Orientation and student success materials. (Available at the Institute for Regional Studies, 1305-19th AVE N., Fargo, ND, 58105).

North Dakota State University President. (1999). Equal opportunity policy. NDSU Policy Manual. Found online on Aug. 30, 2002 at:

Ohio State University: College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. (n.d.) The land grant system of education in the United States. Ohioline. Found online on Dec. 8, 2002 at:

Warner, G. A. (Summer 1996). The development of public relations offices at American college and universities. Public Relations Quarterly, 41(2), 36-39

Wilcox, D. L., Ault, P. H., Agee, W. K., & Cameron, G. T. (2001). Essentials of Public Relations. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc.