04/28/2014 08:48 am ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

Truth and Advertising: How to Judge What a College Values

In a world increasingly dominated by social media, it is no longer possible for a college community to present what it values "in plain sight." Prospective applicants and their families judge a college today largely by what they find on the web.

In the old days, crafting an image was perhaps easier. Marketing was more civilized and less judgmental. There were rules within limited options.

Colleges communicated their values principally through admission brochures, sports statistics, and press releases. They also overlaid their mindset on early iterations of the college's web site, developing their web site more interactively as the technology improved and the competition heightened.

An enrollment dean who I like and respect told me that he often speculated that the same group of students - attractive, smiling, and racially, ethnically, and gender balanced - appeared on the cover of every admissions brochure in America. They simply changed into the college's colors when the photographers snapped the picture for that school.

Maybe that's why the prospective applicants and their families stopped reading these admission brochures years ago. They all look and feel so similar.

Athletics also underwent an image transformation, as athletes became "student athletes" (and perhaps college employees in Division I) with ever more personalized stories that humanized the case for athletics. College athletic websites now feel more like NBC's coverage of the Olympics, where every athlete has a story to tell about how they overcame diversity. These days it's a little like trying to merge Sports Center statistics with Entertainment Tonight interviews.

My favorite false read on what a college values is the athletic director's reports that appear on many websites. Most effectively turn the A.D.s into the head cheerleaders, commenting on students they barely know, to channel athletic "feel good" boosterism into a fundraising appeal.

In the end, of course, there can be only one chief spokesperson to preside over development of the image and safeguard the appeal of the institution. It's hard to praise or shoot the messenger if you can't determine who has the responsibility to articulate the message.

It's difficult to determine what a college values if the story is unclear. It's even more deadly if the message is mixed, depending upon which fiefdom and how many of them are presenting the case.

And then there are the press releases. College marketing and communications staffs generate press releases on almost every subject imaginable. The problem is that there is often no focus emerging from this sea of information. It's increasingly hard for the college to convey a clear sense of what makes the community special, the academic program unique, and the differentiation from the competition clear.

Outside marketers further confuse the message about a college's "sense of self." In the mainstream press, colleges vie with one another to be put on arbitrarily designed "best" lists. Students offer anecdotal comments to convey an impressionistic and often inaccurate picture of the institution to third party sources with random polling practices.

In the process, they confirm stereotypes that the campus community might be desperately trying to change and that placed them on the competitive "worst" lists. Readers place more weight on the negative as they remember the story.

Let's assume that you are interested in learning more about a particular college. How do you move past the anecdote-filled and opinionated blogs, rampant boosterism, internally produced advertising, and overall white noise to get to what an institution values?

Here's an opening suggestion. Start with "Google," or its equivalent. Search for the college website and get to the "news" tab on the opened page. Don't go into the college website itself.

Once you are there, research back about ten pages and look for patterns in the news stories presented over a fairly long period of time. Ask yourself if the college is a serious academic place. Does a single constituent group predominate? Is there a sense of momentum? What stories are trending?

Is there a chasm between what an institution says about itself and the pattern of stories that predominate? Sadly, sometimes the anecdotes are true.

Second, is there a chief spokesperson with a unified message? If the college cannot present itself clearly, is it likely that its programs are sufficiently organized and differentiated to warrant your interest?

And finally, are the news reports interesting, and together, do they begin to tell the "story" of the institution? Within trends, do students and faculty predominate? Is there a sense of a shared educational enterprise that places students first?

In the mind's eye, curb appeal makes a difference. First impressions count. Colleges must abandon any thought that the glossy admissions brochure, the governance documents that present mission and purpose, or episodic presidential pronouncements will define perceptions of the institution.

Embedded within the "news" tab is a compelling story of what an institution values. The days in which a college can hide "in plain sight" are over.