How to Communicate the Value of a College Education

Written by Andrew Kaufman on August 12, 2012.

The Higher Education community has been dealing with some pretty serious criticism in the media and the court of public opinion lately. With talk about the runaway cost of college, cost of higher educationrecord-breaking student loan debt, and the inability of graduates to find good well-paying jobs in their field dominating the discussion, it’s getting harder and harder for organizations to justify themselves by relying on the old adage that higher education is always a good investment.

In order to survive this current climate, institutions of higher education need to change the prevailing perception that the service they offer is overpriced, and the best way to do that is by doing a better job of communicating the true value of Higher Education.

Higher Education Statistics

If you just look at the statistics, some of the criticism of higher education seems justified:

  • Tuition at public four-year colleges has increased 250% in the last 30 years
  • Household income has only grown 16% during the same period
  • The average student borrower now graduates with more than $26,000 in debt
  • Only 58% of students earn a four-year degree within six years (source)

In addition to pricing out more and more low-income students, the soaring cost of higher education has also resulted in students burdened with debilitating debt. This debt, which can’t be dismissed even through bankruptcy, means that graduates are putting off making large purchases such as homes and cars, which puts an added strain on our still recovering economy. 

None of this paints a rosy picture of the previously revered place that Higher Education has enjoyed in the collective consciousness of the nation.

Obama's Education Plan

President Barack Obama’s recent proposal for a new college ratings system designed to improve transparency and highlight which institutions are providing the best value is a direct reaction to the trends noted above. And while folks in the Higher Education community might worry that these changes will adversely affect their organization’s perfectly manicured reputation, the President’s plan provides a pretty clear picture of the values and priorities that institutions will have to start embracing in order to get back into the Nation’s good graces.

Outcomes vs. Enrollment

Although there are plenty of factors that we can point to for causing this situation, a lot of the blame can be placed on our current system for evaluating higher education success and distributing financial aid.

According to the administration, the major flaw in the current system is that it rewards institutions for metrics that don’t adequately reflect the true value that a school provides to its students. By judging schools on things like enrollment numbers and spending per student (as well as tying the amount of financial aid they receive to criteria), universities have essentially been encouraged to spend more and charge more – while passing on that additional cost to students. And with little in the way of accountability for how that money is spent, we don’t have any way of telling how effective that aid is at producing successful graduates.

The President’s proposed plan would instead shift the emphasis to the overall value that the institution provides, which can be measured by looking at student outcomes. Metrics would include things like:

  • Average tuition
  • Student loan debt burden
  • Graduation rates
  • Graduate earnings and advanced degrees

But perhaps the most important (and disruptive) part of the President’s proposal is that it will start tying student financial aid to school ratings. No longer will colleges be able to spend with the assurance that students and the government will pick up the tab. They’ll need to focus on things that really matter to students and their families, like how many students graduate and how much debt they have, rather than the SAT scores of their incoming class or how many new laboratories they have.

How Do We Measure Value? 

But wait, you say, determining the true value of higher education isn’t just about how many diplomas you hand out or how inexpensive you are. There are a lot of intangible benefits that don’t show up in the statistics. Skills like problem-solving, critical thinking and being able to communicate clearly have value as well.

Fair enough.

But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to need to do a better job of communicating exactly how those things will benefit students if you want them to actually be seen that way. Vague platitudes about how a liberal arts degree will help you “become a better person” or “an ethical global citizen” aren’t going to cut it anymore. You need to provide research and examples of how those skills will translate to real world success. If you can show how these intangible skills have real value, you’ll be able to make a better case for them being included in prospective student’s calculations.

employment chart

The value of a college education has actually been growing

What Schools Can Do

There’s going to be a lot of soul-searching in the Higher Education space if the President’s proposal becomes a reality. Even some of the best schools in the country have fallen prey to the lure of the higher education arms race for more money, more students and more...everything. It’s not going to be easy to switch gears when the status quo has been working for so long.

So what can you do to show that your organization understands the priorities and needs of today’s prospective students?

Consider a few of these ideas when investing in higher education content marketing:

  • Instead of touting a U.S. News & World Report ranking, highlight how your graduation rates are among the highest for schools under [x]$/year.
  • Don’t talk about how low your teacher to student ratio is; provide real data on how much new graduates earn in their new careers or how quickly they were employed after graduation.
  • Instead of talking about a state-of-the-art building, mention how many of your students have access to Pell grants or on-the-job training, i.e. internships or summer work options.

While this data may not always paint as flattering a picture as you’d like, transparency can help you position yourself more appropriately and – more importantly – cut through the static of vague marketing speak that plagues most institutions of higher education.  

Of course, it’s always worth saying that while communicating the true value of Higher Education is important, marketing and branding can only get you so far. A good messaging strategy can’t change the raw data and facts about your university – or lack thereof – but it can help shape the conversation within your organization and the perception of what metrics you value as a University.

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