What do universities have in common with insurance companies or Ann Taylor Loft? A killer new marketing strategy.
With college costs going nowhere but up, universities are hiring marking professionals who have sold everything from life insurance to trendy clothing. These new departments are stirring controversy from all quarters and many believe that selling a university and its programs is merely a way to whitewash the ballooning costs of attending school. Though college administration is plagued with many issues, these new departments may mark a seismic shift in how we think about going to school, and it might not be all bad.
Between 1989 and 1999, college enrollment increased by 9%. Between 1999 and 2009, it increased 38%. This dramatic jump only continued the trend of rising college enrollment in the United States. The growth of the post-war middle class indicated the prosperity of the American economy, as more young people had the money and leisure to pursue higher education. The rapid proliferation of universities, as with any good in economics, ought to have lowered the cost for everyone. Instead, costs have risen more than four times the rate of inflation since 1982, partially because taxpayers have always been willing to fund the expenses of universities, directly through state schools and indirectly through subsidized student loans.
Many take umbrage at the fact that students are no longer getting what they “pay for” — a good job upon graduation. The truth is, different colleges promise different things. The local community college that specializes in teaching skilled trades and a liberal arts university that emphasizes foreign languages are clearly two different animals. It is absurd to expect the same result from the two organizations.
In the past, schools have tried to remain competitive by overextending their resources. Universities acquire new programs and flashy facilities to woo in ever-increasing enrollment numbers. Instead of trying to spread themselves thin to pull in all demographics and interest areas, colleges should specialize. By finding what they do well and throwing their energy and resources behind it, colleges can actually identify what they plan to deliver to their students and be held accountable to their promises.
Marketing departments may actually help colleges define what they are offering to students. This doesn’t necessarily have to come at the cost of academic excellence, which is frequently touted as a casualty of a business-oriented mindset in colleges. If your university has an excellent graduate program in early modern philosophy, there is a very specific demographic that school wishes to attract. That potential student could mistakenly choose a university specializing in something he is not as interested in. The central concept behind marketing is that no one knows what you offer if you don’t tell them about it. These new departments could help students make more informed decisions about what school best serves their needs and goals.