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The Monday, May 2 article about higher ed marketing (“Your future starts here. Or here. Or here.”,) prompted a wave of comments espousing just about every point of view on whether and how colleges and universities should distinguish themselves in the marketplace. This post develops some ideas originally sketched out in a comment of my own.

Let’s start with an exercise: Trot out to your car and quickly check something for me. Is the steering wheel still on the left? Good, I thought so.

Now run around the house and inspect your light fixtures. Do they mostly take the same threaded bulbs? Yeah, no surprise there, either.

Any chance you can run a package down to the mail shop for me, while you’re at it? Send it UPS, FedEx, whatever works. Your choice.

Our lives are filled with standardized products and services. We derive considerable benefit from the resulting predictability, interoperability, and interchangeability. I expect that if I buy any make and model of car I can drive it safely on the roads, and that if I need a package delivered any service I select will get the job done.

But even while we encourage these basic standards, we also value choice. You probably chose your car after comparing a number of models against your wants and needs. Similarly, I would consider differences in price and delivery time before choosing who will ship my package.

I’m not a fan of treating higher learning as a product or a service, and that’s not my goal in this piece. But there is a lesson within these analogies for those of us in higher ed marketing. Colleges and universities have to contend with the same conflicting pressures toward convergence and differentiation as sectors that do offer commercial services or products. Based on the evidence—including that cited in Monday’s article—we, as marketers, aren’t bridging those pressures well

On one hand, as Monday’s commenters were quick to point out, the offerings among schools within broad categories look pretty similar on paper. Liberal arts colleges, state flagships, regional schools: the common features of these institutional types are artifacts of their similar historical origins, missions, and objectives. Students and families benefit from that consistency, in the knowledge that they'll get a similar quality education no matter which institution they choose. Employers, too, should have confidence that a college degree has predictable meaning.

On the other hand, our system also requires schools to compete for students. And competition requires differentiation. If our educational core is so laudably consistent, then what do we have left to differentiate us? Mainly, the peripheral features: location, campus culture (whatever that means), traditions, sports mascots, amenities, etc. As higher ed historian John Thelin noted in a comment of his own to Monday’s article, “That’s not necessarily good or bad, but... It's very good news for marketing and public relations firms.”

Americans want our schools to be similar, but also unique. In such an environment of incoherence, it’s not surprising that marketers tend to play it safe by touting trivial or even false distinctions (you say your campus is “uniquely global”? Really? Prove it.). More substantial differentiation could result in our institutions being positioned outside the herd. And that exposure equates with risk in a resource-starved environment, characterized by tuition-driven bottom lines.

Sadly, even within the herd, most of what passes for marketing intelligence really isn’t. Facebook engagement rates tell us next to nothing about likelihood to apply. We need to have an honest reckoning with ourselves, with our institutions, and with the public: We don’t know much about what influences people’s decisions in one of the biggest choices of their lives. Hence the mountain of unopened envelopes composting on my daughter’s desk the summer before her senior year. Institutions send them because we don’t know what else would be better, and we can’t do nothing. In such situations the allure of ploys and gimmicks is understandable: we all try to convince people that future happiness depends on their ability to hang out with our diverse students, under our tree, on our quad. Or paint their faces in our colors and cheer wildly for our football team. No other will do.

In reality, whether they know it or not, most students could probably enroll at just about any school of a given type and caliber, comparable to what they’re looking for, in any location, characterized by any campus culture, any wacky traditions, and on average they’d probably fare equally well. The differentiation on which our livelihoods depend doesn’t maximize students’ educational opportunities, and it doesn’t even reliably enrich the learning communities on our campuses. What it produces are status anxiety and debt.

How would we practice a more honest form of the trade? What would happen if we walked away from the amenities arms race and engaged students in a serious reflection on their life’s ambitions? How different do we really need to be—and how similar? Are we that afraid that students might discover that their future really starts not here, but… there? And if they did, would that be a problem?

Probably not. Unless you make a living doing what we do. Then it’s different.

We do what we do because we care about education. So, what do you think? Should colleges and universities be bolder and move toward more responsible marketing practices? Would our presidents and boards be okay with honest portrayals of who we are and what we offer? And how can we try out new approaches, without placing our enrollment futures at risk?

Jim Reische is Chief Communications Officer for St. John’s College.

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