Tag Archives: Higher Education

Seth Godin – The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer)

For 400 years, higher education in the US has been on a roll. From Harvard asking Galileo to be a guest professor in the 1600s to millions tuning in to watch a team of unpaid athletes play another team of unpaid athletes in some college sporting event, the amount of time and money and prestige in the college world has been climbing.

I’m afraid that’s about to crash and burn. Here’s how I’m looking at it.

1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students.

Pick up any college brochure or catalog. Delete the brand names and the map. Can you tell which school it is? While there are outliers (like St. Johns, Deep Springs or Full Sail) most schools aren’t really outliers. They are mass marketers.

Stop for a second and consider the impact of that choice. By emphasizing mass and sameness and rankings, colleges have changed their mission.

This works great in an industrial economy where we can’t churn out standardized students fast enough and where the demand is huge because the premium earned by a college grad dwarfs the cost. But…

InflationTuitionMedicalGeneral1978to2008 2. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up.

As a result, there are millions of people in very serious debt, debt so big it might take decades to repay. Word gets around. Won’t get fooled again…

This leads to a crop of potential college students that can (and will) no longer just blindly go to the ‘best’ school they get in to.

3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege.

Why do colleges send millions (!) of undifferentiated pieces of junk mail to high school students now? We will waive the admission fee! We have a one page application! Apply! This is some of the most amateur and bland direct mail I’ve ever seen. Why do it?

Biggest reason: So the schools can reject more applicants. The more applicants they reject, the higher they rank in US News and other rankings. And thus the rush to game the rankings continues, which is a sign that the marketers in question (the colleges) are getting desperate for more than their fair share. Why bother making your education more useful if you can more easily make it appear to be more useful?

4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect.

College wasn’t originally designed to merely be a continuation of high school (but with more binge drinking). In many places, though, that’s what it has become. The data I’m seeing shows that a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn’t translate into better career opportunities, a better job or more happiness.

5. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

A lot of these ills are the result of uniform accreditation programs that have pushed high-cost, low-reward policies on institutions and rewarded schools that churn out young wanna-be professors instead of experiences that turn out leaders and problem-solvers.

Just as we’re watching the disintegration of old-school marketers with mass market products, I think we’re about to see significant cracks in old-school schools with mass market degrees.

Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One reason to go to college was to get access. Today, that access is worth a lot less. The valuable things people take away from college are interactions with great minds (usually professors who actually teach and actually care) and non-class activities that shape them as people. The question I’d ask: is the money that mass-marketing colleges are spending on marketing themselves and scaling themselves well spent? Are they organizing for changing lives or for ranking high? Does NYU have to get so much bigger? Why?

The solutions are obvious… there are tons of ways to get a cheap, liberal education, one that exposes you to the world, permits you to have significant interactions with people who matter and to learn to make a difference. Most of these ways, though, aren’t heavily marketed nor do they involve going to a tradition-steeped two-hundred-year old institution with a wrestling team. Things like gap years, research internships and entrepreneurial or social ventures after high school are opening doors for students who are eager to discover the new.

The only people who haven’t gotten the memo are anxious helicopter parents, mass marketing colleges and traditional employers. And all three are waking up and facing new circumstances.


Tuition fee discussion in the UK – “It’s time to set fees free”

This is the best way to maintain standards while at the same time serving public benefit, argues Aldwyn Cooper

Some of us look back to the golden era of the Fifties and Sixties when a bright state school pupil had the opportunity to get a council scholarship to public school and then go on to any university, fees free, in receipt of a generous subsistence grant that covered bed, board, books and beer.

The scheme was not fully equitable then, and now it could not meet the needs of UK higher education in an increasingly competitive global market. There is no appetite in the UK for increased investment in higher education to be paid out of taxation. It is likely that the government budget for the sector will soon be reduced considerably.

The only answer is student tuition fees, but at what level?

My institution is in the private, not-for-profit, sector. We receive nothing from government funds. All our students pay full fees – even though half are from European Union countries and could attend any UK university, but choose to pay our fees. Why? It is because they are discerning consumers who are buying the learning experience they want to give them a return in the longer term.

Whether public or private, in order to decide on fee levels we need to look at what we believe the sector should deliver and explode a number of myths that linger on.

I still have the romantic view that universities are the engine room for the generation and debate of ideas and philosophies. Managed correctly, this centrality of thought is the starting point for contribution to local and national economies, commercial research and international impact.

UK higher education should fight to hold its position as the gold standard, providing first-class education and intellectual leadership. It is simply impossible to do this on current funding levels. Recruiting large numbers of international students and failing to support them effectively is not a solution and is starting to do irrevocable damage to the UK’s reputation worldwide.

In an equitable society, every individual who has the potential to benefit from study should be provided with the best possible opportunity. This does not imply an arbitrary participation figure set by politicians. It is no use spending vast amounts of public money to recruit students and then failing to retain them. It reinforces their sense of failure.

Most arguments about fees appear to take it as axiomatic that all institutions offer the same experience, have the same needs and that a first-class degree from one has the same value as from another. This is patently absurd. So why should the fee be fixed at a level that is unrelated to experience or long-term value?

The reason given is social equity. It is suggested that the fees that could be charged by the large metropolitan universities are almost at the maximum now. However, they face the strongest challenges of recruitment and retention in creating the social change that is a major part of their role. It has been suggested that a “regrettable” rise to £5,000 a year may accommodate this and may just be acceptable.

But why restrict everybody to the value that the metropolitans can charge? It is argued that the fees the best universities could charge would be a deterrent to financially disadvantaged students unable to take on the levels of debt. However, the truth is that Britain’s top universities have always been enthusiastic about students with the best potential, no matter their background. Most wish to become fees-blind in the longer term.

Allowing them to set fees at the same levels as international competitors would enable them to offer major bursary schemes. This would enhance social mobility more effectively than the current system and would fund additional research excellence.

Also, is it not absurd that we allow people to pay substantial sums to private schools to enhance their prospects of getting into top institutions, then do nothing to ensure that they continue to contribute at an appropriate level at university?

Institutions in the state and private charitable sectors must operate for public benefit. This means providing access to those who would not otherwise be able to gain entry to the most appropriate programmes. Therefore, the time has come to take a deep breath, remove the fees cap and let the market float.

Source: Cooper, A. (2009), “It’s time to set fees free” Times Higher Education [online]. Available at: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=409137&c=1 [Accessed on 23 November 2009]