Debunking Persistent Myths About the Higher Education Marketplace

Tim Goral's picture
Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Changing needs and marketplaces have created myriad conversations around the question: What should we do next? Unfortunately, answering this question is never easy, but persistent myths about the marketplace have made answering it even more difficult. At the risk of offending or over simplifying, I want to briefly explore and debunk a dozen or so myths that are unnecessarily confounding and distracting today’s decision makers.

Myth: As soon as the economy improves everything will return to normal

Reality: The economy has not created many of the problems facing higher education. Rather, it has exacerbated problems and issues that have long been in play. A critical challenge, one that is fraught with tough decisions, is the need to align mission and vision with a declining resource base.

Myth: The basic pricing model of higher education is sound

Reality: Skyrocketing student debt, more students defaulting on debt, more students deferring college, and more students seeking lower cost alternatives suggest that the basic pricing model is broken. The cost of going to college is the single biggest challenge facing higher education.

Myth: There are plenty of traditional-age students to go around

Realty: Currently, only 20% of high school students plan to go to college full-time and live in a dorm and this percentage continues to go down. The elite universities and liberal arts colleges with deep pockets and strong brands will always have an adequate share of these students, but lesser known and lesser quality schools will find themselves scrambling even more for students in the future than they are now.  (For an excellent assessment of these “colleges in the middle” take a look at The Chronicle’s The College of 2020: Students. Also, see Stamats' presentation onassessing institutional vulnerability for boards and senior leadership teams. )

Myth: If we offer more programs we will attract more students

Reality: The word “more” is one of two words that are bankrupting higher education. The other word is “better.” When resources are relatively constant, increasing the number of programs actually reduces quality. Most schools don’t need more programs. What they need are fewer, stronger programs that are in demand. Mission creep and Carnegie climb have imperiled much of higher ed.

Myth: It is important to be unique

Reality: Rather than unique, focus on being compelling. In other words, what is it about you that really attracts students and donors?

Myth: Being good is good enough

Realty: Being good is good. In fact, most colleges are very good. But being good at something that prospective students find compelling is, well, great. Think blue oceans (Blue Ocean Strategy: Kim and Mauborgne. Think “onliest” (Zag: Neumeier).

Myth: To be a credible college, we need to have the same basic programs as our competitors

Reality: Definitely not. While most colleges need some basic courses to fulfill their education mission, all colleges need a significant number of programs that are compellingly different from their competitors. If more than 70% of the programs you offer are offered by your top competitors, then you have missed a significant opportunity.

Myth: Because we are a private, we can charge more for our online programs

Reality: In most cases, online students choose a school based on a couple of key variables including cost and convenience. Privates who insist on pricing their programs above those of their public school competitors because they believe their programs are of higher quality will meet significant marketplace resistance.

Myth: To improve retention, all we have to do is fix freshman academic advising

Reality: Advising is part of the retention equation, but a bigger part is a correct match between the institution and the student. Many admissions offices are under enormous pressure to just get the class, and there is sometimes less attention being paid to the idea of student fit. Even as overall enrollments go up (especially when factoring in adult and part-time students), the percentage of students who complete a degree continues to go down.

Myth: People in the U.S. generally consider college to be a good investment

Reality: An investment is measured by the relationship between initial cost and return. And while it is clear that people with a college degree have significantly greater earnings than do people without a college degree, it is less clear if more expensive colleges offer better employment prospects and earning potential than less expensive schools. All things considered, students who enter the job market with less debt, or who paid less in tuition, will have a significantly different perspective on whether or not college was a good investment than students who paid more or who have greater debt.

Myth: The college admission team is responsible for enrolling the class

Reality: Actually, it takes a village to enroll the class. In most cases, the decision to attend rests on a small set of variables including the visit experience, the major, fit, and net cost after aid. Even the most talented admissions team in the country won’t be successful if your academic programs are not in demand, if you cost too much, or if the campus doesn’t show well.

Myth: More advertising will build enrollment

Reality: Great advertising will help, to a point, especially when married to other communication including social media, direct, brand, etc. However, advertising never generates demand. Rather it builds awareness of the programs you have in place. The programs must be marketable.

Question and comments

If you have any questions or comments about any of these myths, please let me know. Or if you would like us to help you address any of the problems or opportunities alluded to in this article it would be great to hear from you.

Dr. Robert A. Sevier is Senior Vice President, Strategy at Stamats, Inc. He can be reached at bob.sevier@stamats.com.

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