Interview coaching, a free lunch and discounted exam fees are some of the incentives Japan's colleges are offering as they try to attract applicants from the country's shrinking pool of 18-year-olds.
Universities are radically reviewing their summer campus visit programs in order to lure as many prospective students as possible.
"Competition among private universities has really intensified lately," said an official from Jissen Women's University in Tokyo, which offers eight open-house visit days a year.
Osaka University of Economics and Law pays 15,000 yen ($192) to offset the journey costs of those traveling from distant islands such as Hokkaido and Okinawa. Those who take the shorter three-hour train ride from Tokyo can receive 7,000 yen.
Hyogo University in Kakogawa, Hyogo Prefecture, slashes the cost of its 30,000 yen entrance exam by one-third for applicants who visit a campus open day and complete a checklist of tasks, such as filling out a questionnaire. University officials say almost all visitors receive the discount.
Many universities target parents just as much as school-leavers. While potential students are sitting in on a sample lecture, their parents may be hearing about the extra help offered, such as job-hunting support and scholarships to offset the financial burden.
"The things that parents are especially interested in are cost and finding jobs after graduation," said Yuji Takemura of Mynavi Corp., which operates an Internet site for prospective college students. "While that may diverge from what universities are fundamentally about, that is reality today."
Jissen Women's University and Junior College held campus open-house days in late July and mid-August. Both days attracted about 1,400 visitors to the campus at Hino in western Tokyo.
The college holds eight open days, but places greatest emphasis on the summer dates because 40 percent of its undergraduates come from outside the Tokyo metropolitan area. The school vacation period is often the easiest time to travel.
About half of the visitors are accompanied by a guardian. Some come in a group of up to five people, accompanied by both parents as well as a set of grandparents.
The university provides free transport from the nearest railway station and serves free lunches at the college cafeteria. Across the campus, volunteers help to direct visitors and answer their questions.
The university goes to further lengths too, enlisting teachers from cram schools to advise on how to prepare for the entrance exam and the essays it might require. University staff themselves coach potential applicants by delivering mock interviews.
The university says competitors are keen to study its approach: "Staff from other universities have come to see what we are doing," said one Jissen official.
One of Jissen's tactics is to foster an attachment to the institution. It issues cards on which visitors can collect campus stamps. It gives a prize to those who collect five such seals over the course of different visits.
One 18-year-old third-year high school student from Kawasaki who came with her mother to the July event was visiting for the third time. She said she wants to become a dietician after graduation.
The prospective student sat in on sample lectures and talked to current students to find out about courses and the support offered.
"I was glad to be able to ask about things that were not covered by the university pamphlet," she said.
The girl's mother said: "We have decided on this university."
Teikyo Heisei University, in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, offers some students the chance to bypass the usual entry exam. It accepts them on other criteria, such as recommendations, but requires that such candidates pay a visit on a campus open day.
Prospective students hear an explanation of the admissions process and sit in on sample lectures delivered by the department they will apply to. Officials say the process aims to familiarize the young people with the mood on the campus, and to eliminate any possible gaps that may arise between preconceptions and reality.
In some cases, senior high school students in only their first or second years visit the university campus. In early August, a 15-year-old first-year high school student was seen visiting Rikkyo University in Tokyo clutching a bag with the insignia of the competing Meiji University. It turned out that the student was fulfilling a vacation homework assignment to report on visits to various universities.
"Visiting the campus, I thought the buildings and undergraduates were so cool," the student said.
Increasingly, senior high schools are encouraging pupils not to pick a university until they have paid a visit. Takemura of Mynavi said universities will likely have to continue investing in such visits as they cannot afford to let prospective students go elsewhere.
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