Colleges think marketing will solve admissions declines

In an interview in today’s New York Times book review section, National Public Radio host Ira Glass declared that messaging outweighs reality.

"Costs and dead-end majors are driving students away, but, hey, we'll fix it all with marketing."

“Could someone please write a book,” he asked, “explaining why the Democratic Party and its allies are so much less effective at crafting a message and having a vision than their Republican counterparts?”

Well, Ira, if public radio and screenwriting ever go bad for you, six-figure jobs are waiting for you at universities that share your belief that messaging is superior to fact.

Colleges across the country (but apparently neither the University of Richmond nor VCU) are hiring chief marketing officers to create messages that will divert prospective students’ attention from the harsh realities of their schools’ very real product and pricing problems.

“[A] number of universities, wary of the public perception that the degrees they offer may not be worth the student loan burden, have taken to hiring highly-paid ‘CMOs’ (Chief Marketing Officers) to build their brands and coordinate their admissions offices’ sales pitch,” Walter Russell Mead writes.

The advertising industry has long believed that consumer perceptions — even counterfactual perceptions — are marketing realities that no effective strategy or execution can afford to ignore.

In this case, though, the perceptions are totally factual.

High costs, broken promises

According to the Economic Policy Institute:

For young college graduates, the unemployment rate jumped from 5.7 percent in 2007 to 10.4 percent in 2010, dwarfing the increases in prior recessions.

Between 2000 and 2011, the real (inflation-adjusted) wages…of young college graduates declined by 5.4 percent.

The cost of higher education has grown far more rapidly than median family income, leaving students with little choice but to take out loans, which, upon graduating into a labor market with limited job opportunities, they may not have the funds to repay.

Average debt for graduating seniors at public universities was $21,105 in 2008, and average debt for graduating seniors at private non-profit universities was $28,888.

While the Obama Recession accelerated these trends, it didn’t create them, the EPI notes. “[W]ages of young graduates were dropping even before the Great Recession began.”

For those college graduates who can somehow get work commensurate with their learning, the added value of that bachelor’s degree is a mere shadow of what Fraser Nelson calls “the mis-selling of higher education” led them to expect. This, he adds, “is one of the least remarked-upon scandals of our time.”

“For years, back-of-the-envelope estimates suggested that a bachelor’s degree translates into lifetime earnings of more than $1 million on top of anything one earns with just a high school diploma,” Dan Kadlec writes in Time, but “[t]he College Board later estimated the value was $800,000. Two years ago, a sobering and widely read report further downgraded the figure to $280,000.”

It could be even worse.

In the UK, whose university problems are similar to ours, evidence has surfaced that a four-year degree can actually reduce graduates’ annual earnings.

A British government research paper reports that

…doctors and dentists…will earn £400,000 more over a lifetime…But for students admitted to less rigorous degrees, the premium quickly diminishes – especially for men. Those who graduate in…history and philosophy, can expect to earn a paltry £35 a year more than non-graduates. For graduates in “mass communication” the premium is just £120 a year. But both are better value than a degree in “creative arts”, where graduates can actually expect to earn £15,000 less, over a lifetime, than those who start work aged 18.

Of course, those salary premiums are gross, before deducting student loan repayments over the years.

Empty seats

“The cost of college is really beginning to alarm families,” saya David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling [NACAC], “and that creates a real threat to enrollment.”

More than half of private colleges had to give higher discounts to attract students this year, according to credit-rating firm  Moody’s. Despite that, 41% saw enrollment fall, and more than a third saw it fall 5% or more.

Even Harvard, Princeton and Yale took in record-low 5.9%, 7.9% and 6.8% of applicants, respectively.

With the fall semester already starting, at least 375 colleges report places still open — up 34% from  last year and the most vacancies of the century, according to NACAC. The percentage of accepted students who enroll is down about 18%.

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…

Here you have colleges across the country with rising costs and falling enrollments offering educations their target audience doesn’t see as worth the money.

So what are they doing about it?

Not shrinking the expensive administrative bloat of non-academic departments, such as Purdue University’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion.

And not doing a better job of preparing their students for what USA Today calls “an economic reality few saw coming.”

“We have prepared the path for the child instead of the child for the path,” says author and lecturer Tim Elmore.

Instead of better preparing the child, colleges are resurfacing the path.

They’re hiring chief marketing officers to persuade prospective students and their parents that the problem doesn’t exist. “These marketers manage schools’ identities and messaging, a role covering everything from admissions brochures and Twitter feeds to brand management,” Emily Glazer writes in the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, they’re careful not to use the word “brand,” for fear of offending tender academic sensibilities. Instead, they say “identity.”

Teri Lucie Thompson, for example, joined Purdue — home of the Division of Diversity and Inclusion — from marketing jobs at national insurance companies. Presiding over a team of seven, her mission is “to connect the messages” — that word again — “of Purdue’s 13 colleges.

The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, in Massachusetts, hired a former hospital vice president to “explain and generate interest in Olin’s curriculum and offerings.”

Many other colleges seem to be following suit, the Journal reports.

No official count of college chief marketing officers exists, but one metric is attendance at the American Marketing Association’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. The 2011 conference had 727 paid attendees, up from 473 in 2005 and 393 in 2001, its first year.

Change of paradigm

This development represents a major change of strategy in college recruiting.

For the last half-century, at the least, colleges, while having no formal strategies, followed a de facto strategy of category expansion — growing the pie to get more and more high school graduates to go to college, figuring they’d get their fair share.

In light of today’s higher costs, lower degree value and shrinking student bodies, the hiring of university CMOs represents a switch to a share conquest strategy — fighting for a bigger (or at least not smaller) piece of a shrinking pie.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, for example, sees colleges’ marketing-and-messaging tactic as abandoning their core mission of learning and abnegating accountability. If you buy a steak knife on TV and it doesn’t work, you get your money back, he says, but if your college degree doesn’t work to prepare you for a job, tough luck, kid.

“If you need large marketing budgets, it suggests that something has gone wrong with the substance of the product” he adds.

While papering over substantive, largely self-inflicted, problems with messaging may be a quicker “solution,” working to actually solve them would be a better one — better for the colleges, for students, for the nation as a whole.

The next sound you hear may be a higher-education bubble bursting.