Return to Ross Collins Student Work index.
Return to Department of Communication index.
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.
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 students 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 1930s and 1940s 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 1950s, the construction of the Memorial Union in the early 50s
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 1890s through the post World War II era. However, in the 1970s,
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 1980s 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).
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 1900s,
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 1950s 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,
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,
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 1980s, 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
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 NDSUs recruitment materials, the themes highlighted in the brochure from 1950 are common ways NDSUs 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 Peoples 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,
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 1970s were an era where information on NDSUs 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 NDSUs 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 todays 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
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
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 NDSUs 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. Whats 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,
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: http://www.ndsu.nodak.edu/policy/100.htm.
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: http://ohioline.osu.edu/lines/lgrant.html
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.