Marketing in the Age of Measurement

What are colleges and universities really selling?

May 12, 2016

What are colleges and universities actually selling?

This isn’t a rhetorical question, nor is it one with a universally-accepted answer. In fact, it’s a question that’s rarely asked, even though it’s at the heart of the ongoing debate about the value of a college education. After all, if we can’t all agree on what colleges are selling (and students are buying), how can we even have a discussion about “value?” And if we can’t agree on the value of a college education, how are we supposed to market it?

At the moment, the value of a college education seems to be tied to future employability. In fact, many of the metrics in the new College Scorecard to rate colleges and universities are tied directly to measures such as the median wage of graduates 10 years out of school, their ability to pay back their student loans, and overall return on investment based on the cost of their degrees. These numbers aren’t just being recorded to guide students (and their parents) to the “best” institutions: they’re also being used via the “gainful employment rule” to determine whether institutions should be allowed to participate in federal student aid programs. The message to institutions is clear: prepare students for the job market or shut your doors.

So is the promise of future gainful employment what colleges and universities are really selling?

If so, they’re doing a pretty lousy job of it if the ultimate measure of value is post-college employment and earnings. In that case, instead of applying in record numbers to institutions like Harvard, students looking for the best return on their tuition bucks should be applying to SUNY Maritime College, the Colorado School of Mines, and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy according to recent figures from Payscale.com.

But why bother with college at all? The New York Times reports that community colleges and trade schools offer a better return on investment in as little as two years of schooling and so-called “coding bootcamps” can turn turn a student into a 6-figure earner in only 12 weeks, at least according to NPR. Students concerned about employers recognizing their MOOC-acquired skills merely have to purchase “verified certificates” or qualify for badges. Voila! Job-ready!

The fact that students are not abandoning their dreams of college for coding bootcamps or MOOCs and are, in fact, continuing to enroll in college at a pretty brisk clip, more than hints at the fact that most prospective students and their parents don’t consider future employability to be the main feature of what they’re buying when shopping for higher education.

In order to get to a metric (or a set of metrics) that more accurately measures the real-world value of a college education, we first have to really understand what is being “sold” to those who are buying it.

If colleges and universities want to avoid being disrupted out of existence, they have to focus on the value that they provide beyond the commodity of “employability.” After all, that should be a given. Instead, schools should work to communicate the more intangible—and, arguably, more important—benefits that can’t be turned into commodities. While these certainly include the good ol’ “liberal education” benefits we all know and love, they also include a wide range of other benefits, many of which vary by institution but all of which share two things in common: they can’t be automated and they can’t be condensed into a 12-week sprint.

So why aren’t more schools working to differentiate themselves from the pack by promoting the qualities they have that can’t be replicated? If anything, it seems all too clear that many schools are in a rush to be more alike. Why? The answer’s simple: fear.

Competition for students is tough and it’s only going to get tougher. And as the cost of college goes up, going to college becomes a higher-stakes game for everyone. For institutions, being different means risking alienating prospective students. For prospective students and their parents, “different” often means taking a chance, too. Bland, cookie-cutter, STEM-grad, job factories might be boring, but at least they’re safe, right?

In the immediate term, maybe. In the long term, history doesn’t seem to favor the followers or the risk-averse. The past couple of decades have provided us plenty of examples of what happens when brands – or entire industries—lose sight of what they’re really selling in order to play it safe in the face of massive change.

The record industry is a perfect example. They thought that what they were selling was music…what they were really selling was the plastic containers that held music. When digital music came along and the music (i.e. information) could be separated from its container, their business model fell apart. But instead of asking themselves “what can we sell that can’t be digitized?” they fought back with lawsuits and doomed copy-protection schemes. In the meantime companies like Apple made music cheaper, easier to buy, and more portable. We all know what happened.     

Discussions of “disruption” in the Digital Age are often reduced to the benefits of one technology over another, with the “better” technology as the winner. But to do so is to miss what’s really going on. If “education” is reduced to a commodity – transmitting enough information from teachers into the heads of students so they can get jobs, as so many seem to want to reduce it to—then higher education as we’ve know it is doomed because it’s a much less efficient, much more expensive way of delivering information than online or intensive vocational programs (i.e “bootcamps”).

But that’s not what colleges and universities have really been selling. The “college experience” – even as a commuter or an online student—is about a lot more than just cramming enough information into one’s head to qualify one for a job. It’s about the intangibles, too, the hard-to-measure qualities of learning how to work with others, learning how to think critically, learning how to navigate new spaces, and learning how to be self-reliant. It’s about the experience as much as – if not more than—the information, because the information always changes. As the National Science Foundation recently stated, higher education is about more than economic development, instead “play[ing]  a broader, intangible and crucial role in supporting the past, current and future success of our democratic society."

That’s what colleges and universities should be selling…even if it’s not easily measurable.

Sean Carton is chief strategist for idfive and the founding dean of the School of Design and Media at Philadelphia University.


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