Selling college students on Pittsburgh
Originally published in Pop City on 08.01.2007. Visit
Face it: The college scene has always been the epitome of cool. Hip is defined by the number of college kids who frequent any given spot, how many from the 18–25 demographic really like Bar X, Museum Y, or Neighborhood Z. If you're in the same zip code as a college, you need only follow the young people to the social mecca of town. But if students are leading the way to the most happening places, something's leading them to any given city in the first place.

"Pittsburgh has always figured prominently in the [admissions] literature," says Anne Witchner, assistant dean of student affairs at Carnegie Mellon University.

"When marketing the University as a whole, we do sell Pittsburgh; part of our marketing slogan is: The City is our Campus," says John Fedele, assistant director of news at the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt's admissions section on its web site includes a number of alluring photos of the city — the Point, for instance — as well as links to a number of Pittsburgh-specific websites. One link includes an entire slideshow of information about Pittsburgh.

On Duquesne's undergraduate admissions page, the first highlight of the school banks on the value of its location: Duquesne "is located on a secure, beautiful campus, overlooking the excitement and convenience of downtown Pittsburgh."

And Point Park University, with its downtown location, touts the wealth of cultural and entertainment all over town, along with outdoor activities such as kayaking the three rivers and cycling the beautiful riverfront trails.

Taking the Tour

When Matt Marks, 18, of Richmond, Virginia, took the University of Pittsburgh tour, he gained a greater appreciation of the city. "I used to live in Pittsburgh so I'm biased," he says. He left town after finishing seventh grade and is thrilled to return as a Pitt freshman next month.

"We went to places like the Cathedral of Learning which was very cool," he says. "There's great food in the area — and great museums which are all free for college students so that's a good thing." One point they made which he knows to be true: "There's lots of stuff to do in the city but it's still very safe."

A friend of his from Mt. Lebanon took the tour with him and later told his mom, "Wow, Pittsburgh rocks!"

Mimi Gianopulos of Los Angeles says she would have gone to Carnegie Mellon even if it was in the middle of the desert. It's been her dream since age 11. During high school, she took a six-week summer program at Carnegie Mellon with an unexpected consequence. "I just fell in love with the city," says Mimi who is now entering CMU as a freshman, majoring in musical theater. "It's easier to navigate and less intimidating than New York but still has exciting city life — theater and restaurants and amazing old landmarks where the campus is positioned."


When it comes to marketing the area, that kind of diversity is a big selling point. But diversity applies to the city setting — "If somebody wants an urban place with a lovely setting to it, they have the best of both worlds," says Witchner — as well as the different races and nationalities of people in the city setting.

Now local colleges have something new to play up: Pittsburgh's status as America's Most Livable City. "We're promoting that heavily in all our admissions publications," says Paul Kovach, admissions director at Chatham University. Nestled in a wooded setting in Shadyside, Chatham also promotes the surrounding neighborhoods, filled with college students.

And at Pitt and Point Park, admissions material highlights the neighborhoods to show the range of choices for different areas to eat, enjoy the outdoors, find entertainment, or enjoy nightlife.

Pittsburgh 101

Beyond its sales pitch for school and city, marketing info also acts as a tool for immersion learning: Some essential buzzwords are easy for students to pick up and throw around. Want to sound like you know all about Pittsburgh? It's a snap.

Step 1: Call it "the 'Burgh."

Step 2: : Know the Steelers (Step 2.1: Deny any Browns fans).

Step 3: Talk about how big an order of "O" fries are, and know that a Primanti's sandwhich has fries and coleslaw on it.

Step 4: Know that there are three rivers (correct pronunciation of "Monongahela" optional).

Step 5: Know that Pittsburgh is made up of many neighborhoods (88, to be exact).

Those are the biggies — local attractions, especially food, and sports related — but the marketing info doesn't skimp on anything else the city has to offer. Pitt's slideshow doubles as a list of every entertainment venue for the city and the greater Pittsburgh area; it's almost exhausting to look through.

In a city that has to compete with other great college cities like NYC, L.A., and Boston, sometimes that exhaustive list is what it takes. But it goes beyond getting students here to keeping them here once they arrive. Making a good case for the long-haul factor is crucial. Witchner says, "They're working at keeping kids here, to work against the brain drain." To play up the benefits of Pittsburgh post-graduation, admissions materials also talk a lot about the good and growing job market and the safety and affordability of the city.

One of the things that benefits the long-haul argument is convincing the parents of potential students about both city safety and city character. The focus is different for the parents. Thompson says, "A lot of parents on the tour will ask about the safety of the areas of Pittsburgh surrounding our campus, and we usually just say that it is a city, so use common sense; but Pittsburgh has been named one of the safest cities in the U.S." Pitt's website says that in Pittsburgh, "Crime is low, as is the cost of living, and it's easy to find a neighborhood that perfectly fits your needs." At Point Park, they recently added patrollers on bicycles for added security — and peace of mind.

It's interesting to note that Pittsburgh fights a long-standing stereotype in its marketing, a stereotype that is probably perpetuated by the same marketers who try to avoid it. There's a constant theme of, "Once we were a steel town, but look at us now!" — an allusion to the old/new struggle or apology for having been a smoggy steel town back in the day.

But, as confidence is what sells, city pride is writ all over the 'Burgh's colleges' admissions material. They hide little and brag about nearly everything — distinct neighborhoods, greenery, city life, low costs of living, low crime rates, a growing arts culture, numerous sports teams, and long-standing traditions (especially in food). Says Witchner, "We have our niche here."
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