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Colleges aim to protect students from on-campus advertising

With roughly 175,000 college students in Maryland entering a new academic year, businesses across the country are eager to capitalize on the opportunity to cultivate them with on-campus advertising.

But higher education administrators have a different agenda, and marketers hardly factor into it.

Roland Rust, the David Bruce Smith Chair in Marketing at the University of Maryland, College Park, said most companies tend to covet opportunities to attract students.

“This is a very attractive age group because these are people who are making decisions, brand decisions, that will last for years,” Rust said of the student demographic. “So you’re getting in on the ground floor with things like credit cards … that will set their purchasing habits for years.”

But according to top officials at the state’s two largest institutes of higher learning, advertising on campus is carefully restricted, with a mandatory permit process giving administrators final say on which companies are allowed to market to students on university property and where.

“There’s certainly places [on campus] where people can advertise,” said Ellen Stokes, associate vice president of university marketing at Towson University. Those places, she said, include bus stops, athletic buildings and specific places in and around the University Union.

These last spots are the most carefully guarded.

“They need to purchase a table, and the tables just go in very specific locations,” Stokes said. The tables can only be set up on a side patio at the University Union or in certain spots inside, and they can only be set up by vendors who have applied, paid for and received a permit from the Union’s administrators.

For those looking to use a table to market or sell a product or service, Towson charges $150 for the privilege, when it allows it at all. Stokes said there were 18 tabling agreements during the previous academic year, most of them with local businesses and groups.

The University of Maryland’s policy is similar.

“In your own home, you wouldn’t put up a commercial poster,” said Linda Clement, vice president of student affairs at Maryland.

Allowing on-campus advertising in residence halls, Clement said, would compromise the university’s goal of maintaining “a home-like atmosphere” for students living on campus.

Instead, Maryland largely limits on-campus advertising to a series of kiosks, which are little more than concrete pillars with wood exteriors to which posters and fliers can be fastened, set up at locations around the campus. Two stand next to the South Campus Dining Hall, where students pass frequently on their way to and from meals.

Marsha Guenzler-Stevens, director of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union, said that outside vendors were not allowed to advertise in or around her building, the focal point of the Maryland campus, though she drew a line between outside vendors and organizations wanting to use the “free speech spaces” outside the student union. She also said businesses with a contractual presence at Maryland, such as Capital One Bank, Barnes & Noble and Pepsi, were not considered outside vendors.

“We consider that to be a piece of their outreach in providing services to new students,” Guenzler-Stevens said of those companies’ on-campus advertising.

In contrast to daily life around the campus, special events, such as the annually held Maryland Day, feature a significant presence by corporations. Sponsors at Maryland Day 2011, held this April, included Dell, NASA and Pepsi, which has a campus-wide distribution deal that sees its products sold at university dining facilities, campus shops and athletic events.

Guenzler-Stevens said that College Park businesses are allotted a “merchants’ corner” at the two-day First Look Fair held on campus every fall in order to advertise to students, but the university does not allow vendors from outside the town to set up at the event.

This policy of restricting on-campus marketing but making exceptions for certain events is not limited to Maryland’s large public universities.

Kristen Keener, the director of communications at Goucher College, a private liberal arts school in Towson, said it operates much the same way.

“We don’t have big corporations coming in and direct-marketing to our students,” Keener said. “Really small, local shops,” such as neighborhood granola businesses and organic food vendors, have a presence at the college, Keener said, but advertising on campus by major companies is rarely allowed.

All three institutions have allowed local department stores to cultivate students’ business as well.

Goucher administrators negotiated a deal for OfficeMax, which sells its products through the campus bookstore, to set up a table and hand out merchandise at on-campus environmental sustainability fairs, most recently in the fall of 2008.

Ikea sponsored a short-lived bus route at Maryland that shuttled students between its College Park location and the Stamp Student Union.

At Towson, Target sponsors an after-hours discount shopping trip for students, dubbed a “Target Party,” at the beginning of each school year.

Stokes said Towson receives no financial gain from its arrangement with Target, nor does it prod students to take part in the event.

“Towson doesn’t push it,” Stokes said. “I think we let [Target] promote it because it’s a great social thing for our students at the beginning of the semester. … The students apparently really like it because they turn out … in large numbers each year.”

Similarly, Goucher has not benefited financially from OfficeMax’s participation in fairs, Keener said.

“There’s no real cost involved in putting these [fairs] on,” as they are organized mostly by students, and thus there is no need for OfficeMax to underwrite them, according to Keener.

Education administrators in Maryland have resisted allowing as much on-campus marketing as many companies seek because there is little in it for them, Rust contended.

“There’s no obvious way that the university can directly benefit,” Rust said, “so there’s no reason to encourage it.”

Stokes was dubious, though.

“It’s probably true that if we had a policy of inviting sponsors in and making deals … we could probably make a little money, but I’m not sure in the end if it’s a campus we’d like to be on,” Stokes said.

“I think campuses pick a place to be … [regarding] what the tolerance of your faculty and staff is to commercialization,” said Clement. Compared to some universities elsewhere in the country, she added, “We’re just picking a different place to be.”