When officials in higher education hype a public outreach campaign as being edgy and entertaining, there’s plenty of reason for skepticism.
“There’s no question that perhaps higher education is a little stodgy,” said Roy Spence, president of GSD&M, a Texas-based company that produced television spots intending to show the practical relevance of colleges and universities. “We used humor to disarm and engage. That is the first round of reaching the masses.”
The campaign , sponsored in large part by the American Council on Education, the main umbrella group for higher education, includes radio public service announcements, news media advertisements and television spots  that will debut Thursday during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
In one 30-second segment, a police dispatcher informs a frantic homeowner who is being burglarized that “our local community college had its budget cut, so we’re a little short on police for the moment.” She then asks if the woman knows jujitsu as an alternative method of protection.
The announcement ends with a statistic: “83% of first responders are trained in community colleges,” and a mission statement: “America’s colleges and universities: We teach the people who solve the problems and change the world.”
The other television spots feature laughably clueless medical professionals and a shipping staffer who attempts to send a package by attaching it to a pigeon. The unambiguous message: Higher education serves an important societal role by providing a knowledgeable work force capable of innovation.
“It’s no secret that those who go to college have higher incomes and get better jobs. The public understands this,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “The public doesn’t always recognize [the other] outcomes as fast or clearly as we’d like.”
Hundreds of colleges and universities will participate in the campaign, called “Solutions For Our Future,” by promoting the message on their campuses. The University of Texas System is putting together a 13-part television series on how higher education is improving life that will air as 30-minute segments.
Hartle said the intention is for audiences to understand the public benefits of higher education, not just the private, individual ones. The campaign is not intended to address particular state or federal legislation, he said.
The television spots will be shown on CBS, ESPN and Fox stations. The most visibility will undoubtedly come from the more than 20 public service announcements that will appear during the NCAA basketball championships -- a dozen coming during the highly viewed men’s tournament.
The NCAA has donated this air time. “We see this campaign as critically important to raising the profile of needs of higher education,” said Myles Brand, the NCAA's president. “An educated populace is key to making a democracy work.”
The campaign is a response to drops in both state and federal appropriations to higher education, intense criticism about rising tuition and increased international competitiveness in academe.
The campaign was crafted based in large part on data from an American Council on Education-sponsored survey  of 1,000 registered voters. It shows that while more than eight in 10 surveyed said that investing in higher education today will help solve future problems, only 33 percent saw colleges as the primary source of innovation (business and industry garnered 43 percent of the vote).
That statistic was the catalyst for a campaign centered on the role higher education plays in providing solutions.
Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University and chairwoman of ACE’s board of directors, said the media campaign will help “dispel the notion that colleges are up on a hill” and don’t provide any services to the common American.
Spence said market research showed that humor was the best way to go in the television spots. But not everything in the campaign comes down to laughs: A forthcoming advertisement in The Wall Street Journal is heavy on statistics. Hartle said all the material is intended to draw viewers and readers to the “Solutions” Web site , which provides more information on the campaign.
Charlene Nunley, president of Montgomery College, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, said the message is an important one for the public to hear. “Community colleges prepare our police officers, our doctors, our teachers, our scientists,” she said.
Nunley, who is a member of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education , said the combination of the commission and the public outreach campaign will help foster a “broad discussion” of higher education’s role in society.
To gauge the effectiveness of the campaign, the American Council on Education is planning to sponsor another higher education survey in about 18 months, Hartle said. The council has budgeted $1.5 million to the campaign over the next three years. Additional funding has come from individual institutions and business partners.