When Seth Godin posted The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer) yesterday, several friends and colleagues eagerly asked me what I thought. I admire Godin and value his insights but for those of us in higher education marketing, he didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. I’m not going to examine each point. University web developer Dylan Wilbanks does a nice job of that.
The higher ed bubble has been expanding to a scary bursting for several years. In terms of marketing, the last two decades were “boom years” for higher education. The combination of one of the largest college-bound populations in history and a thriving economy led to too many applicants for the best schools. Every college and university that had the philanthropic support to do so became more competitive – adding faculty, programs, and amenities.
Given the competition for space at top colleges, lesser-known institutions were able to expand the public’s perception of the prestige category of schools beyond the Ivy League, the “Little Ivies” like Amherst and Williams, and the public Ivies like Cal Berkeley and Michigan. Marketing colleges became huge business with media outlets all too happy to produce guidebooks and websites offering new categories of “hot” colleges, “New Ivies,” “Colleges that Change Lives,” and “Colleges with a Conscience.” During this period many colleges and universities not only became stronger due to new resources, they also increased their visibility and prestige.
These boom years are over at least for the foreseeable future. The same factors that led to the boom – greater numbers of college-bound students and a thriving economy have reversed. At the same time the public and government leaders are critical of the high cost of higher education. This has been an issue for several years as tuitions rose at a much higher rate than the cost of living, but economic stress has intensified the issue. This makes perceptions of value versus prestige more important.
In addition a revolution in technology is changing the way the public accesses higher education and the way institutions think about the education they deliver. With more and more online courses and programs being offered even at top universities many in higher education have posited that a sea change is coming just as it has in the newspaper industry. No one is quite sure what the new landscape will look like and what it will mean. But if the institutions I work with are any indication most are trying to figure out how to navigate the new landscape and remain relevant.
I think the truest thing Godin says is that students and their families are not willing to blindly pay for “the best” anymore. He’s also right about the lack of quality in the majority of (but not all) direct mail students receive. (The Wilbanks post is especially insightful on this). Institutions do use direct mail to increase applications. But they also know increased applications are no longer a great measure of success given that students apply to more schools than ever. The real metric institutions pay attention to is the “fitness” of their applicant pool and their matriculating “yield” of admitted students – in other words, the students who actually enroll after being admitted.
Given that pundits have been predicting the end of higher education as we know it for most of the last decade for the reasons that I've described above, my real question is will the “end” come with a bang a la the financial meltdown or by degrees? To my mind, the rise of value versus prestige is one of the biggest changes that has been happening for a few years now. How institutions develop programs of value and prove that value in today’s world is what we higher education marketers need to be marketing. What we’ve been marketing has been mostly about real or wannabe prestige.