There’s been a great deal of recent press and politics around the climbing walls, lazy rivers and other seemingly lavish campus amenities that have become commonplace at colleges and universities. But critics are missing the real arms race in higher education: a new student-recruitment spending war that is orders of magnitude more expensive and ends in only higher tuition rates for students -- with none of the fun and relaxation.
For decades, nonprofit colleges and universities spent around 2 percent of their tuition revenue on recruitment -- on things such as direct marketing and other marketing initiatives. Spending a great deal of money on recruitment was pointless -- while it might yield more applications and therefore a higher selectivity and better U.S. News ranking, a university’s physical facilities limited capacity. Exponentially growing enrollments led to more buildings, professors and maintenance engineers -- all with long lead times and high costs.
Twenty years ago, for-profit colleges emerged in shopping centers and others in physical spaces that were less costly and easily expandable. The for-profits invested heavily in marketing and recruited effectively; enrollment grew by 225 percent in the decade ending in 2008. But though they won reputations as great marketers, they were actually just prolific ones, spending 10 times more than traditional institutions -- almost 20 percent of their tuition revenue.
In the past decade, colleges moved their degree programs online, eliminating physical constraints entirely. With the limitless scaling potential of online learning, nonprofit institutions have brought more and more programs online. This has given prospective students hundreds of new options within easy reach.
In many ways that is what online higher education was meant to do -- increase access and options for students and spur competition among colleges. That, in turn, promised to lower costs through efficiency and produce better quality. And it still can.
However, this access is creating a massive problem: those lower costs allow colleges to spend more on marketing, and the new competition forces them to spend more. As nonprofit marketing budgets start to look like those of the for-profits, the annual recruiting spend of American colleges will move inexorably from its current $10 billion to $100 billion a year.
As bad as the amount of this new spend are the tactics. To populate their online programs and appear more selective, colleges hire shady companies to generate clicks and inquiries, then drive those inquiries to call centers using sophisticated scoring algorithms. And to lower risk, many are offering marketing and management firms direct shares of their online tuition revenue. My company, Noodle Partners, has been offered 30 percent of tuition to market and recruit students by more than one university. Needless to say, we declined (among other problems, that violates Title IV regulations).
This new and bizarre arms race could trigger a windfall for education marketers and make recruiting the most expensive component of a higher education. At a time when everyone should be committed to lowering the cost of postsecondary education, this seems an unconscionable use of federal student loan and student tuition dollars -- especially considering that marketing costs don’t directly contribute to better quality or efficiency.
It’s likewise difficult to see a benefit for consumers in other industries with runaway marketing budgets. Pharmaceutical companies have, for example, steadily increased their marketing budgets to 24 percent of their revenue since 1990, but Americans haven’t gotten healthier as a result.
To get this marketing explosion in check, a statutory or regulatory fix may be needed. For instance, Congress could limit subsidized student loans to the cost of the education itself, as the former Senator Tom Harkin once proposed, avoiding subsidies for recruiting expenses and profit. Or the Department of Education could limit outside providers from sharing tuition revenue if marketing spend exceeds 5 percent of tuition (of course, this limit would have to somehow be extended to universities’ in-house programs as well).
Whatever solution we settle on, the higher ed marketing assault needs rules of engagement before it goes nuclear.
John Katzman is CEO of Noodle Partners and founder of The Noodle Companies.
If you could fix just one of the things that many people think are wrong with American education today, what would it be?
Choose revamping the college admissions system and you’d be in distinguished company. A recent report from the Harvard School of Education asserts that some feel-good changes in admissions criteria will readily solve a number of recalcitrant problems.
So why are the educators I’ve talked to -- including the parent of an A-plus student, Arabic and Chinese speaker, two-sport captain just deferred in early admissions at a top Ivy -- so outraged by this latest attempt to reform an admissions system that we all agree is doing more harm than good?
The report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions,”proposes to de-emphasize individual performance and achievement, reduce stress on children and parents alike, graduate better citizens, and level the playing field for disadvantaged students. The magic bullets? A shift from “long brag sheets” about extracurricular activities and community service to a few lines for listing “authentically chosen” activities generating “emotional and ethical awareness and skills.” Group activities will trump individual contributions, because they develop more “gratitude and responsibility.” Experiences with “diversity” are recommended, but only those that are not “patronizing.”
While another recent admissions reform proposed by several top colleges and universities -- the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success -- immediately generated widespread critique, the report’s suggestion that we admit only the most grateful, ethical students has apparently already caught on. One of the 88 and “growing” supporters, Yale University, has decided to add a question next fall asking students “to reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community and/or the public good.”
It’s hard to argue against personal kindness or the common good and even harder to find a college mission statement that doesn’t already say something about making the world a better place. But a moment’s thought about implementing these particular changes invites only skepticism and confusion.
Who will guide and monitor white students to the requisite experiences with diversity, using whose definition of “patronizing”? Can admissions readers equitably compare levels of gratitude and responsibility based on an essay? Whose measures of true citizenship and emotional and ethical skills will they be instructed to use? And if we could address all these questions and actually admit only nice people, how might the culture and pedagogy of, say, Harvard University have to change to serve the social-emotional needs of a more caring student body?
Claiming these changes will benefit disadvantaged students seems especially disingenuous. Under the proposed system, for example, holding a job in order to support one’s family will be a highly prized precollege activity. But in Baltimore, where I live, it’s ludicrous to imagine students in high-poverty families, assuming they can find a job, will have the specific kind of work experiences that colleges are supposed to be looking for: ones emerging from “particular passions and interests” and providing “opportunity for reflection.”
Like many, I believe education should and can make the world a better place. But I also believe we know too little about how and when to identify, characterize, measure and develop the so-called noncognitive aspects of learning that this report asks colleges to evaluate. And I disagree that the gateway to college is the time or place to subject young people to the full impact of our ignorance about how to fairly assess things they should still be questioning and exploring -- like character, feelings, motives and values.
Ten years ago Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, proposed a truly revolutionary solution to the problems of college admissions: a lottery system. Each college or university would identify the threshold of qualifications needed to succeed as clearly and objectively as possible, evaluate which candidates were eligible, and then roll the dice.
That’s not unlike how we do it at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, where I work. We set an eligibility threshold for exceptionally advanced precollege learning, measured by an above-level standardized test and using objective evidence (backed by experience). Anyone at or above the threshold can attend if their parents can pay; if they can’t, we offer as much financial aid as we can fund-raise and find in our budget.
Our system isn’t perfect. Measuring aptitude and potential through above-level testing works for students who have had a reasonable dose of learning opportunities, but we don’t yet know how best to characterize and identify advanced ability in kids who have been shortchanged by poverty and poor schooling. To that end, we also invest in pilot programs to expand opportunities for students from underresourced communities and in research on identification, characterization and practices for serving the needs of advanced learners from all backgrounds. A lottery system, to be equitable and inclusive, would also require significant and persistent investment in strategies to level the playing field before college.
Instead of wasting time trying to fix today’s deeply flawed admissions process, there’s a lot to be said for adopting something more like Schwartz’s lottery. We could then spend our collective time working on how to improve what we do from K-12 through graduate school to develop human potential, before and after admissions letters go out.
Elaine Tuttle Hansen is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, the former president of Bates College and past provost of Haverford College.