Higher Education Marketing

Branding Inside-Out

In higher education, I believe the most important audience to influence when launching a brand is the internal audience; more specifically faculty and staff.  I liken it to a popular saying (although slightly modified), “Keep your friends close and your critics closer.”   I believe the culture of an academic institution requires even greater attention to branding strategies internally prior to any external launch.  In academia, it is encouraged to challenge theory, practice, and concepts.  It’s a kind of safe place where voicing personal opinions are encouraged much more beyond what I believe you would find in any commercial industry.  I just don’t see a factory line manager emailing the company CEO criticizing the company branding campaign.  Please share with me if I’m wrong here.  But, this happens in higher education.

Successful adoption of a brand internally requires dedicated attention by the marketing and leadership team.  Let’s be fair, with almost any new idea or concept, we have those that are on-board.  We have those in the middle who seek rationale and edcuation for them to buy-in.  And finally, we have those who will always find fault regardless of fail-safe rationale.  They cannot be wooed.  Nevertheless, we can’t assume that the middle group will become any level of brand ambassador without appropriate attention.  Moreover, effective buy-in may take time and therefore cannot be obtained with a single-moment experience. It must be a campaign.  It must be an important strategic initiative to a brand launch in higher education, equally if not more critical than the external launch.

Last November, Doane College launched our new brand, the “College of” Campaign.  We began with an event to introduce the brand concept and educate the internal community on how it came to be.  We made our case and asked the campus community to partner with us to help build the brand.  This event was just the beginning.  As we launched the external campaign, we continued to build the brand internally with social media, email signatures for the new brand, t-shirts, approved slogans, and also campus signage.  Although I’m not satisfied that we’ve gone far enough to this point, I do acknowledge that we are making progress.  Having said that, some of our critics will share concern for higher education becoming too commercialized.   My response; Absolutely!

A singular example (albeit relatively small in scale) epitomizing the culture change that we are trying to encourage at our historically conservative Midwest college is the addition of a large brand slogan on a bright orange wall in our renovated cafeteria.  This replaced a very nice mural that had been there for some time.  I have no doubt that this created consternation with some campus community members.  But, it also caught their attention and it will catch other’s attention.  Our approach to this brand is not guided by conservatism or being safe.  Rather, we are interested in taking more of a bold approach in order to capture the attention of those that currently are not seeing us or hearing our message.  We cannot expect to reap the rewards of a strong brand that is sheltered and saved only for billboards and radio advertising.  A brand provides an opportunity for personal reflection and ownership.  A brand, particularly in colleges and universities, evokes a very strong sense of pride.

Doane Cafe Photo

High Point University:  An example of a strong internal brand.

I had a great opportunity this last spring to visit High Point University (HPU) in High Point, North Carolina.  HPU is a perfect example of a university that embraced a brand and leverages that brand to the fullest extent.  HPU has undergone an incredible transformation in the last 5-10 years.  The purpose of our visit was to engage Dr. Nido Qubein, HPU President, in a conversation about growth and their incredible success transforming a struggling college to a thriving university in a short period of time.  A little research will tell you quite a bit about their transformation.  It required and continues to require substantial financial investments in their core business to be better and better.  And, while I was interested in learning much on my half-day campus visit, I did not expect to leave with such an incredible first impression that was the incredible result of their brand.

HPU embraced a branding campaign on steroids which included significant investment in on-campus branding.  Everywhere you were on campus, it was clear that you were a HPU community member.  The feeling of belonging was tough to ignore as a result of signage and other unique attributes.  This got me thinking.  I believe HPU did a tremendous job creating an internal culture of excitement and pride.  And, it wasn’t about athletic pride!  Instead, they took their mission and created an opportunity to brand themselves internally…basically selling a dream to their students, faculty, and staff.  They inspire the campus to “Be Extraordinary”.  On just about every door on campus you will find ‘Be Extraordinary”.  Walk into the cafeteria, you will find large banners, “Be Extraordinary”.  The campus is branded with their colors of purple, black, and white.  It is impossible to leave the campus without easily understanding what they stand for.  They’ve made it simple.

I’m on a mission with our Strategic Communications Team to brand Doane’s campus with aggressive vitality over the course of the next two years.  I want this to be a place where it’s impossible to not feel the incredible pride and confidence in our mission and purpose.  I want our campus to be the place where prospective students step onto campus and get goose bumps.  I want faculty and staff to walk across campus and read and see visual symbols of what makes this a special place.  Wherever you are on campus, I want it to be obvious you are on Doane’s campus.  You are a Doane Tiger, or you wish you were.

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Enrollment Management

College Tuition – the Price and the Cost

This is the time of the year in higher education recruitment when rubber hits the road.  Students begin to make the often tough college choice.  An important factor in that choice for most is the cost of education.  And, the cost of education depends greatly on the *price.

The price of tuition at private, independent colleges has received a great deal of criticism as of late.  There are those that feel that tuition prices have escalated far too high as a result of college greed or unwillingness to take into consideration the impact of that cost on families.

First, price does matter.  Let’s say you are considering two pair of shoes.  A brand name shoe has a price tag of $70 while a no-name brand has a price tag of $35.  Quick, which shoe in your opinion represents higher quality?  What if the $70 shoe is 50% off?  Now, both shoes will cost you the same amount out of your pocket.  Does that change your opinion of the quality of the higher priced shoe?

Although I acknowledge that this is a bit of an oversimplification, price is often perceived as representative of a specific product’s quality in the market.  While I recognize that there are other impacts on price such as demand, price can be very important in the context of competition in a specific demographic and geographic market.  Consider the private, independent colleges in the state of Nebraska.  List each college and their respective tuition. Tuition amounts are typically within $2,000-$3,000, and sometimes within less than $1,000.  The fact that these colleges have tuition prices so close is not by chance.  But this still doesn’t answer the question as to why tuition prices continue to escalate.

Price does matter but the increasing price is not necessarily attributed to a college’s incessant desire to fill their coffers with your money.  What is easily misunderstood is a college’s ability to maintain appropriate net revenue to operate (with modest program investments) without increasing the price.  In order for a college to operate annually with net revenue from tuition, it must not only consider the price of tuition but also the amount of discounting required in order to meet overall enrollment targets.  Essentially, to what extent must a college put tuition on-sale in order to meet or exceed enrollment targets?

Consider the shoe example above.  Let’s try to keep this relatively simple.  Both shoes will cost the consumer the same out-of-pocket cost.  In turn, each company receives the same net revenue.  Private, independent colleges can be considered similar to the name brand shoe while a public university is the no-brand shoe.  While tuition is high, often the cost is discounted with significant merit aid and grants.  This discount is equivalent to a sale.  Each year enrollment managers assess the amount of aid required to yield the previous class.  Consumers are expecting more and more aid each year.  To be clear, this discussion is not addressing state and federal aid such as Pell Grants and loans.  I’m simply speaking to the funds provided independently by the institution which are not loans.  The amount of average institutional aid (merit or grant aid) for each student divided by the tuition translates into a college’s average tuition discount.

PRICE

Tuition = $20,000

———–

 Average Merit/Scholarship/Grants (provided by institution) = $7,000

Tuition Discount = 35%

———-

COST

$13,000

Many colleges are discounting tuition at historically high rates in order to meet enrollment goals.  If tuition does not increase and the rate of discount increases, a college will lose net revenue and be forced to operate with fewer resources than the previous year.  Think about this in the context of a family budget.  Fewer resources lead to decisions that ultimately can affect quality of life.  At a college, this can affect the quality of the educational program.  In order to account for a significant sale (discount) on tuition, the price must increase to protect net revenue and maintain operations with the same consume value expectations.

It’s important to understand that when a college provides a discount on tuition with institutional aid, rarely is that aid actually funded by actual paper money.  That’s not to say it never is, but most colleges simply don’t raise enough money annually to off-set the financial aid that they fund.  Do some quick math.

(Enrollment)  x  (Tuition Price) x (Sale/Discount) = Financial Aid Funding Required Annually

1,200$20,000  .35  = $8,400,000 (that is 8 million!)

There are not too many colleges that fundraise $8 million annually to support financial aid.  Nor are endowment returns (even on substantial endowments like Doane College’s) enough to support the scholarships/grants provided to students.  And, this example uses a tuition discount of 35% rather than upwards of 40% which is becoming more typical for some schools.

So, if the example above holds true, why not decrease tuition by $10,000 and stop discounting?  First, let me bring you back to the shoe comparison.  There is a strong theory that if a college cut tuition by 50%, it would impact their perception of quality.  There are schools that have done this but not without a great deal of research, consternation, and some risk.  Pricing may seem elementary on the surface.  Unfortunately, it is a significant issue and one that colleges wrestle with each year.  The price of tuition is one number while the cost of tuition to a family can be something quite different.

*For the purpose of this post, price is reflective of tuition only.

P.S.  Doane College approached tuition pricing a bit differently in 2013.

This academic year Doane College approached setting tuition slightly different than in the past.  First, internally administration discussed tuition considering the ongoing debate of increasing prices.  Doane considered holding tuition also known as “freezing tuition” for a year.  Doane considered lowering tuition, albeit for only a short conversation.  Ultimately, Doane decided on a 4% tuition increase but rather than make this decision in February – the customary time – the college’s board approved the tuition in October.  This move was an acknowledgement of the importance of financial planning and providing families with definitive costs for which to plan early in the year rather than in late February.  In addition, Doane College also modified academic scholarships and increased allocations of merit aid to historic high levels for new students enrolling in fall 2014.

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Higher Education

A hybrid proposal to the gap year.

Have you heard of the “gap year” concept?  Basically, the concept suggests that a student should consider taking a year between high school and college to work, explore, and mature.  It’s the notion that a seamless and immediate transition from high school to college may not be the best approach to career preparation. While there may be some truth to that, I don’t believe too many colleges outwardly support this idea out of fear that a much greater number of students would ultimately choose not to attend college especially with today’s already frustrating college-going rates. Frankly, I’m not interested in arguing the value of a college degree in this post.  Instead, I’m interested in exploring the idea of the gap year under a different structure – a way to leverage the perceived value of that “real world” experience within the confines of a college experience and curriculum structure.

What I like about the gap year concept is two-fold.  First, I think it provides an individual time to get out of high school mode and really think about what they want to do in order to make the best college decision for him or her.  Rather than make a “safe” choice (or even too radical a choice), a little time in the real world might just ignite something within the student’s soul.  Second, I think students should try to find a job and work full-time for a period of time if for no other reason than to realize that minimum wage or even slightly better may not pay for that car they want or that trip they want to take; let alone paying for cable and utilities.

Now, consider a college that takes this gap year concept and makes employment a component of the general curriculum.  Here is my vision (albeit potentially oversimplified). A college requires second-year students to enroll in “Real World 200”.  Consider the following course requirements:

  • Students must seek and ultimately secure full-time employment.
  • Students must maintain a daily journal.  Content is focused on what they learn each day from experiences interacting with others, following orders, meeting expectations, etc.
  • Students must participate in a 2-hour course during each semester focused on discussion of the job, what they learn, what they like, don’t like and ultimately what it’s helping them to learn – finances, getting to work, etc.
  • Students must complete a course paper related to what they learned and how they will use what they learned to improve their college experience and opportunities in their final two years.

My vision is a full-year program providing 16 credits per semester (14 credits for employment and 2 credits for the course discussion).  Ultimately, the student’s grade is based on participation in the 2-hour course, securing a job, the daily journal entries, and a final paper.

I completely recognize that this concept has not been vetted to satisfy many reading this post.  While many may seek to identify reasons that this won’t work, I wanted to share my idea for bigger purpose – I’d like to encourage college faculty and administrators to consider looking at general curriculum differently.

There are colleges that approach learning one course at a time. There are colleges that don’t issue grades.  There are colleges that don’t have a general curriculum program.  Colleges are being challenged at local, state, and the national level to produce greater results to substantiate the cost.   Rating and ranking systems are being introduced to suggest that we can arbitrarily determine the quality of a college in comparison to all others.  I don’t see this pressure going away soon and while I don’t endorse government-created rating systems, I do appreciate the notion that education must evolve at a greater pace than it has.  And, this isn’t the responsibility of government.  This is our responsibility in higher education.  We should challenge the traditional approach to college education.  Is four years the right amount of time in college?  Does time really matter?  Are 16 credits the right amount of credits per semester?  Is a 2-semester system still the right approach?

Colleges and universities are in a dogfight with each other for students, particularly in the Midwest.  What if we embrace being different not just to be different but because different may produce better results?  Change is hard.  Change takes time.  Admission offices recruit students differently today compared to five years ago.  Recruiting offices are adapting because they must to secure enrollment objectives.  I believe there are many people like me in higher education (faculty and staff) who have day-dreamed about doing things differently, but unfortunately our lives get in the way and we quickly fall back into doing most the same way we’ve done it in the past.

For you dreamers out there, what do you think of my idea for a “Real World 200”, or better yet, do you have your own idea(s) that you believe would challenge the traditional methods of education and ultimately improve our students’ experience? Don’t focus on being realistic and conservative.  Some of the best ideas stem from being unrealistic and radical. Thanks for taking the time to read this post.  What is your idea?

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Enrollment Management

We are in sales!

I still remember a conversation I had with a gentleman when I was about 23 years old.  He was recruiting me to sell life insurance – New York Life I think.  I listened.  He wanted me!  Nevertheless, I was scared by what I thought was a stigma of selling life insurance.  Little did I know that everything I would do in my career shared many commonalities to that of a successful insurance salesman…cold calls, making appointments, managing a schedule, marketing, communication.  Nevertheless, no regrets.   I didn’t think I wanted to be in sales. How naive was I?  We are all in sales one way or the other.  We are either selling a product or selling ourselves.

Sales often gets a bad rap.  Is it because people believe that someone in sales is trying to convince or trick you to buy something that you don’t need or want?  We treat the word “sales” with kid gloves in higher education, particularly with faculty.  I’ve been told, “Don’t use the word sales.  It makes them (faculty) uncomfortable.”  The words “recruitment” and “enrollment management” are so much better right?  But, the truth is that those of us in higher education, particularly recruitment and enrollment management, are in sales.  It’s what we do.  We have something of value that people pay for.  Often the more important question we ask is how much will people will pay for the value we provide.  As a result, we must justify our value and rightfully so.  Today, more than ever, students and parents are questioning the value of private college education.  College administrators are spending much more time today on providing outcomes of a degree and establishing a value proposition.  People must expect outcomes or value from what they buy.  Regardless of your role; whether it’s admission counselor, faculty, coach, music director, aid officer, the job is to articulate the value of the product.  We sell our college experience.

Response to recent blog comment connected to sales:

Following my last blog, I received a quick text from a friend…we’ll call him Jim.  Jim tactfully accused me of taking advantage of the word “guarantee”, possibly overusing it.  He felt the word guarantee was too strong.   We have a 4-Year Graduation Guarantee at Doane College.  He had remembered years ago when we worked together and I scoffed at the notion of any type of guarantee in higher education calling it a gimmick.  I remember and he was right.  At the time, I felt it was a gimmick.  Anyone can offer a guarantee provided they are ready to back it up.  In our line of work, it’s tough to offer satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.  The outcome of an education isn’t always that tangible.

At Doane College, we’ve had our guarantee for many years.  In fact, we were the first in the state to offer this.  It’s a signed contract between the student and the college faculty and administration.  The student does their part and the college does theirs, the result is graduation in four years.  It’s not rocket science.  In fact, it’s what students and parents expect.  But, they also know it doesn’t happen as much as people would like.

Over time other institutions have implemented a similar guarantee.  For example, Midland University did so just recently.  So, to my point, anyone can do this.  Or can they?  You see, the value of our 4-year Graduation Guarantee isn’t in the signed contract between the student and the president.  The value is in the ownership that our faculty have in the foundational reason for the guarantee.  At Doane, the faculty feel like it is their duty to graduate our students in four years, if not sooner.  This became obvious to me when I first got to campus and began to watch how our faculty interacted with students during advising.  But, we don’t just stop there.  We also have what we call our HELPS program which stands for Higher Education Life Planning Systems.  This program supports our alumni whose chosen field just doesn’t seem to fit anymore.  It provides two semesters of free tuition to graduates who have gone into the workplace and not been able to flourish.  It brings them back to campus for coursework to prepare for better career opportunities.  So, in a way, it is satisfaction guaranteed, or come back for free.

So yes, anyone can create a contract and implement a guarantee.  But that doesn’t mean the culture is any different.  The culture at Doane College has been around for many, many years and the 4-Year Guarantee is a component of our beliefs and our values.  Similar, our HELPS program takes the guarantee to the next step.  This is not a sales gimmick.  This is not purely administrative.  It’s a way of life on our campus and one that I believe cannot be easily copied.

QUESTION TO READERS:  This is one man’s opinion on sales in higher education.  I welcome thoughts from others.  Tell me, do you believe admission counselors are (or should be) sales representatives or are they purely advisors/counselors to prospective students/parents?

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