Perception is Reality

In the past decade, competition among post-secondary educational facilities has become fierce. And with annual tuition increases oftentimes reaching double-digit percentages, today’s colleges and universities are realizing more and more that attracting and retaining students is imperative to the financial success of their schools.

To sell their particular campus, these institutions are making every effort to impress — literally spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on student recruitment programs and activities vying for the best and the brightest to attend their school.

But while developing a great ad campaign and hosting the latest pop musical acts will most likely get the attention of the students, smart colleges and universities are implementing a more traditional, subtle and effective way to help pull at the purse-strings — with a clean, safe, well-maintained campus.

Studies at Home and Abroad

In Japan, a school’s appearance and cleanliness are held in high regard. Most parents consider clean schools a sign of respect to both them and their children, and would not think of sending their children to (or paying for) a school that was not clean or well maintained. And school administrators — at all levels — are well aware of this and enact every measure to keep their institution looking its best at all times.

But Japanese parents are not alone in this belief. Studies indicate that clean, healthy school environments are also important to American parents and students when they are selecting a college or university. Additionally, executive administrators at post-secondary and graduate institutions have also found that a clean facility plays a role in attracting and securing research funding and grants.

In a study conducted by Saddleback College, Mission Viejo, Calif., students were asked to list why they chose to apply at Saddleback College. The study revealed that these were their five major reasons.

1. The geographic convenience of the school
2. The school’s reputation for quality instructors and programs
3. The variety of classes and programs it offered
4. Its cost as compared to other schools in the area
5. Its cleanliness

It’s no secret; students are shopping around for a college or university that best meets their overall needs and expectations. But the leading reasons for choosing a college are closely tied to their own — and their parents’ — personal values, including cleanliness and appearance. The report concluded,“These qualities can be leveraged in marketing strategies and used to differentiate…a college from competing institutions.” As a result, some administrators now think twice before cutting custodial and maintenance budgets.

Clean + Safe + Good Education

Calvin Strong is the director of Building and Landscape Services at the University of Memphis in Memphis, Tenn. Also a former police officer, Strong says that his experience in law enforcement has actually helped him better understand how important cleaning is as a marketing tool. “As a cop, I knew if a building has a broken window, it’s more likely to get broken into,” he says.“And if it has graffiti on the walls, it most likely will attract more graffiti. But a clean, well-maintained facility is likely to be treated with respect and less likely to be vandalized.”

Strong says that his university did its own study, similar to the one conducted at Saddleback College, to find out why parents and students chose his school. “We noticed a significant percentage of them said the school’s clean appearance was a major factor,” says Strong. “To parents, a clean appearance says the school is safe and that their children will get a good education.”

Although the university has always been known for its cleanliness and well-maintained grounds, after the study, it incorporated measures to further raise its maintenance standards. “Enrollment has been increasing steadily, and these new measures have played a role in this,” says Strong. “Additionally, it has helped us compete and secure research money and funding for special projects.”

And, according to a similar survey taken and published by SchoolMatch, an information and counseling service based in Columbus, Ohio, parents indicated they were not as concerned with how new, old or exemplary their child’s school facility was — as long as it was clean.

Out of the Custodial Closet

What Strong, and other facilities departments, have been saying all along, is that cleaning, long considered a necessary expense in schools and universities, should be viewed as a way to help build and grow a college or university. Along with spending huge sums on books, computers and recruiting to attract new students, spending money on cleaning and maintenance — including with the most efficient tools and equipment to do the job — can pay off tremendously. Indeed, according to researchers William Fisk and Arthur Rosenfeld, the potential benefits from increasing and improving cleaning can exceed its costs by a factor of eight to 17.

Administrators would do well to take a walking tour and try to view their campus with fresh eyes, just as a first-time visitor sees it. Check the classrooms, offices and residence halls, and ask themselves are parking lots and green areas presentable? Are trash receptacles empty? Are the floors clean? And, most importantly, are the restrooms up to par? That’s right. Think of the personal biases that are assumed about an institution when the restrooms are visited. A clean, well-maintained restroom makes an excellent first — and long-lasting — impression. And to keep this valuable marketing tool headed in the right direction, the universities’ custodial laborers (and their health) will play an integral part in making it a dependable, attractive feature.

Safe and Sanitary

One way school facilities personnel are making the process more efficient and, at the same time, protecting themselves from cleaning chemicals and the repetitive labor tactics employed in cleaning restrooms is by not touching restroom fixtures, floors and counters at all. This is how Jonathan St. Dierre, a building service contractor near Ontario, Canada, performs all of his restroom cleaning in educational facilities.

“We use a no-touch cleaning system that has proved to be healthier, faster and more thorough for us,” he says.

Apparently, the switch to a no-touch system happened after an emergency call from one of the schools his company cleans. A couple of people became ill, vomiting in the restrooms. “Normally, the staff takes care of these things, but it was so bad, no one wanted to touch it,” St. Dierre explains. “After that incident, we never cleaned restrooms with sprayers and cloths again.”

Debbie Matthews, assistant director of Operations and Building Services at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has also recently made the switch to a no-touch cleaning system to maintain the restrooms in their student services centers.

With the no-touch system, a chemical solution automatically mixed by the machine is applied to all areas to be cleaned. Proper dwell time, usually just a few minutes, must be followed. Then the areas are pressure rinsed and “blasted” clean. This step loosens and removes soils and bacteria deeply embedded in the grout and tile areas. Doing so often helps eliminate odors as well. Although a squeegee may be used to remove the rinse water and solution into floor drains, it is often best to wet/vac the fixtures and floor since this helps remove all remaining contaminants and speeds drying time.

“It is really like detail cleaning every time. Grime is washed away without ever touching surfaces,” St. Dierre says.

The Right Tool for the Job

In order to take advantage of cleaning as a marketing tool, a college or university needs reliable and high-quality cleaning tools and equipment so that its custodians can effectively and efficiently maintain the institution. No school can be clean — and therefore leverage it in recruiting — without providing dependable, efficient and thorough cleaning equipment for its custodians.

As one cleaning professional put, “It would be like asking a carpenter to do his job without a good hammer or a sharp saw.”

Dawn Shoemaker is a writer and researcher for the cleaning and buildings industries working for AlturaSolutions Communications. She may be reached at 773/525-3021.