Friday, April 30, 2010

My Take on Godin’s Higher Ed Melt-down

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.


Andrea Jarrell said...

Great convo on this post via Facebook. Here are the comments:

Commenter #1: Another variable? As a high school teacher (and the parent of a child headed off to Columbia in the fall), I wonder what effect the chaotic decisions will have on the situation. Every year, students seem to have tougher time predicting where they might be admitted. The outcomes are often strange and contradictory. Many end the admission season ... See More with as many more wait-list decisions than acceptances or rejections. The seniors scratch their heads and the juniors take note: "Apply to more colleges just in case." The students I teach are beginning to see luck as a primary factor, and I wonder what that will do to prestige. With a few exceptions, marketing materials from colleges seem nearly indistinguishable. And, as students have no idea what colleges are really considering, the selectivity of schools seems equally indistinguishably mixed-up. I like the idea that "fitness" and "yield" will be the new measure of success for college admission, and I hope it will move each university to communicate its particular character and mission more narrowly and helpfully.

Commenter #2: Really interesting comments. This isn't my area, but I'm interested in bubbles of all kinds (and as a parent interested in learning that my meagre college savings will accomplish something someday for my child).

Commenter #3: I agree with David about strange and contradictory outcomes because of what I hear from kids we know (my daughter is headed to ASU in the fall.) No wonder they feel the process is random.

Andrea Jarrell said...

More Facebook discussion on post:

Commenter #4: Not new for "us" but he's highlighting the change to a wider audience.

Re marketing: will be very interesting to see how well non-prestige privates have done with the "value proposition" about 5 years from now. They've got a much steeper road to climb now and getting traction (while holding down tuition discounting) won't be easy. Average discount rate now is 43%... can that fall back below 40% in 5 years?

My response: Oh, he may be highlighting it for the public but he's talking to "us" I think -- he always talks to the people/industries who need to change. He does so by pointing out how we're perceived by the public. Yes, my point is that the value proposition will make some colleges go away or change how they do business and isn't that Godin's point as well? That the old structures are insupportable. To be "valuable" down the road many institutions will have to change what they deliver and how they deliver it.

Andrea Jarrell said...

Another great insight from Facebook commenter:
Yep, that's it. So far Middlebury is my favorite private sector model of early recognition and adaptation. Others, one suspects, are still waiting for the storm to pass and the seas to calm themselves. I'll add growth of low cost 4-year degrees at community colleges to my tuition discount element as another marker to watch over the next 5 years.

Andrew said...

Terrific post, Andrea. Wish I hadn't overlooked it earlier because it would've been nice to weave some of your thoughts into my own post on this subject.

I'm grateful to Seth Godin for one thing: He's sparked some great discussion among those of us in the higher ed marketing/PR sphere. I hope we'll keep this thread going for a while. Thanks for your contributions.

Andrea Jarrell said...

Thanks Andy. Always appreciate your sharp insight. (Read Andy's great post here: ). I especially like that you point out your previous post on fall of higher ed and what to do about it - one of my all-time favorites! (read it here:

RB said...

The comments from Facebook are great. I'm always interested in hearing what people who don't work in higher ed think of these issues, because their perspectives reflect a wide array of feelings about the process, how it works and what they feel about it throughout.

Andy said...

Good points re: Godin's posting, Andrea. One thing to consider about the "prestige" model is that, by definition, the smaller the number of schools in that category, the easier it is for them to maintain their prestige. So, the issue isn't whether "Yale is worth it" - Yale will survive. It's whether the vast array of mid-tier institutions (especially private ones in the US) can compete at that level of cost/access. Middlebury, mentioned in your comments, is a perfect example of the type of school that is approaching the crossroads.

Andrea Jarrell said...

So true, Andy. Even Middlebury is in a much better position because it has some name recognition in a way that the majority of liberal arts colleges don't. It's one of the more prestigious lib. arts colleges so those looking for that are likely to look at M. But all the others -- tiny, unknown or religiously affiliated schools -- their value proposition has been declining for a good while now, especially when they charge as much as the name schools. Some are trying different tactics. I'm sure you read the NYT "Making College Relevant" ( but others are sinking fast. One small, religiously affiliated liberal arts college I know well just canceled all printed recruitment materials without a web strategy in place because they can't afford even to reprint what they had. This is a school that was doing a well a few years ago with loyal alums and great outcomes. Not doing the same thing may be just right for them but not knowing what they're going to do instead or how to change in a new environment sounds an alarm.