• August 31, 2015

The Coming Meltdown in Higher Education (as Seen by a Marketer)

The Coming Meltdown in Higher Education 1

Alan Defibaugh for The Chronicle Review

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Alan Defibaugh for The Chronicle Review

For 400 years, higher education in the United States 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 amounts of time and money and prestige in the college world have been climbing.

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

Most undergraduate college and university programs 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 college it is? While there are outliers (like St. John's College, in Maryland, Deep Springs College, and Full Sail University), most colleges 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 missions.

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 graduate dwarfs the cost. But ...

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

As a result, millions of people are 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 who can (and will) no longer just blindly go to the "best" school they get into.

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 colleges can reject more applicants. The more applicants they reject, the higher they rank in U.S. 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?

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

College wasn't originally designed to be merely 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 show that a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn't translate into significantly better career opportunities, a better job, or more happiness than does a degree from a cheaper institution.

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-return policies on institutions and rewarded colleges that churn out young wannabe professors instead of creating 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 colleges 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 that students 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 spend on marketing themselves and making themselves bigger 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 teaches you to make a difference (see DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, by Anya Kamenetz). Most of these ways, though, aren't heavily marketed, nor do they involve going to a tradition-steeped 200-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.

Seth Godin is the author of 12 books, including Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, published this year by Portfolio. He is founder and CEO of Squidoo.com, a publishing platform that allows users to generate Web pages on any subject of their choosing. This article is reprinted from his blog.


1. sugarintheraw - May 04, 2010 at 08:37 pm

You could have done so much more with an article of this topic.

2. stillaprof - May 04, 2010 at 09:06 pm

I have to agree with sugarintheraw - why on earth is this in the Chronicle? Editors, please contact me if you are running short on copy, happy to oblige!

3. mucwp602 - May 05, 2010 at 08:44 am

Isn't the Galileo issue a myth?

Fact check!

4. kurtosis - May 05, 2010 at 11:11 am

The author could really benefit from taking a course in (or reading up on) game theory. So many confused ideas in this short piece. And the non-sequitur aimed at NYU is odd; but, biting the hand that feeds you does give the appearance of unbiasedness.

5. procrustes - May 05, 2010 at 02:11 pm

While there are many problems with our traditional way of doing things, this is a very mixed critique. Godin is almost certainly right that US News and the traditional accreditors are part of the problem, leading us to mediocrity and worse, but some other points are dubious. University libraries, for example, subscribed to many high-priced databases and electronic journals that offer no or limited, high-priced access to the general public. Students interested in science and technology have access to labs and can be involved in faculty research, which is much less likely in the types of experiences outside universities that he cites. The article is unbalanced and unsophisticated. C-.

6. dhume - May 05, 2010 at 03:45 pm

So all of the problems in higher ed today boil down to...marketing? Hm, I thought there were some sorts of problems related to the defunding of public education by craven politicians eager to win elections by slashing taxes without any thought of the consequences, the damage inflicted by an irrational free-market health care system whose costs have spiraled out of control, and the misrule of business-minded administrators who don't care about the quality of education provided as long as it's provided in sufficient quantity to pay their salaries. Oh, and the problem that secondary education in this country is an absolute farce. I'm glad to know I was wrong about all that, and it was really just marketing all along.

7. shermandorn - May 05, 2010 at 06:27 pm

The majority of college students attend public two- or four-year institutions that are either nonselective or minimally selective. "Brand" is irrelevant for these students, and their institutions.

8. prhelm1 - May 06, 2010 at 06:44 am

I have to agree with most of these comments. The threat is real, but your diagnosis of the reasons misses the broad side of the barn. Your only helpful point is that tuition increases are outpacing the rise of disposable family income. The reason for that at many institutions is the considerable amount of financial aid that we must award to enroll the class each year.

9. handley - May 06, 2010 at 08:01 am

A provocative piece, judging by the alarmed response above. Change is in the air.

10. mmccross - May 06, 2010 at 08:27 am

Higher education does face some daunting challenges. But this piece sheds little light on the most pressing issues (e.g., declining state support of public universities, relentless conversion of tenure lines to adjuncts, steep escalation of electronic journal subscriptions, etc.). Having said all that, a good university education has more value (in every sense) now than ever before.

The tone of this piece reminds me of the Kaplan University advertisements on TV. Strident advertisements and thoughtless opinion pieces such as this will not change the fact that there is an immense difference in quality between a real university education and a degree from an on-line diploma mill.

11. mgcardin - May 06, 2010 at 08:27 am

I agree with Handley that it's a provocative piece, and I think some of you may be missing the point, which is contained in the parenthetical part of the article's title: This is an analysis of how the situation looks *to a marketer*. That's a singularly relevant viewpoint in our current marketing-dominated culture. And the fact that Godin's overall prognosis echoes what a lot of the rest of us are seeing and saying based on other ways of looking adds a valuable element of consensus to the conversation.

This piece first appeared at his blog about a week ago, btw, and I was struck by it then. So I, for one, am really glad to see it being broadcast specifically at the Chronicle crowd.

Matt Cardin

12. fosca - May 06, 2010 at 09:26 am

"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 teaches you to make a difference . . . ."

In my experience, students don't want an education; they want a degree. And they want it while putting in the minimum amount of work required. This idea might work with the best or most dedicated minority of students, but the rest will find it "too much work" and will hope to find an easier path. And if it's a diploma mill, well, the students won't know the difference, and won't care.

13. tridaddy - May 06, 2010 at 09:50 am

"In my experience, students don't want an education; they want a degree. And they want it while putting in the minimum amount of work required."
The previous statement could be slightly modified and describe those in the workforce, so let's don't be too hard on students since most are only modeling the example they witness in the work world.

14. rcs2349 - May 06, 2010 at 10:00 am

The colleges that are so busy trying to get new applicants they can reject are typically not those that offer the "same" programs to everyone.

15. archdiva - May 06, 2010 at 10:59 am

Rather than complain about the niggily little details in this piece, step back and look at it as a whole. I think Seth is spot on -- higher education has always moved at a glacial pace in adapting to change, especially at large schools or those that are tradition-bound.

Our society is changing at an incredible pace these days and higher ed is not keeping up very well, especially four year institutions, because we've never been well equipped to do so. So marketing has substituted for substantive change in how we operate and educate. Personally, I'd love to see the money spent on those glossy mailers put into my departmental budget instead, but I'm certain that's not going to happen anytime soon.

And having worked at a couple of those very expensive private schools for the better part of the last 14 years, I am incredibly frustrated with the idea that more expensive = better education. There doesn't seem to be any correlation. Half the battle for students being successful is finding the institution with the right fit for their needs, whether that's an expensive Ivy or a inexpensive community college.

16. andyj - May 06, 2010 at 11:02 am

Sugarintheraw and Stillaprof, go write the article that you want to read. I'd be happy to read it. Til then, I found this one useful from its perspective. Mucwp602, unless time travel was involved, or Galileo was headed to Harvard at age 5, you have a point.

17. greenroof - May 06, 2010 at 11:03 am

Interestingly, every couple of years the Chronicle hires some corporate mackdaddy to write an article about the failings of higher ed (Marty Nemko was the last one, I think). This is not to suggest that higher ed is a pearl without a flaw (we all know this essential truth) but what up Chronicle? Is there some rage there against the acadmeic world you cover? Do we really need pointers from the corporate world on how to ethically manage ourselves? And does Mr. Godin wax with a bit of bathos and hyperbole there? From where I'm sitting [in an office on the campus of an institution of higher ed]there are certainly some gears that need oiling, but I am not seeing any crashing nor burning.

Perhaps the Chronicle should hire a Daddy Warbucks to write a column on journalistic ethos and ethics?

18. kwrigley - May 06, 2010 at 11:04 am

Actually, library access is worth a lot MORE that it used to be worth. The major difference that I see (I'm a library director) is that size of the "big" libraries (the old volume count)is not as relevant as it used to be. Students may find excellent resources in comparatively "small" academic libraries, thanks to online content.

19. 22235933 - May 06, 2010 at 01:07 pm

I nearly thought I was reading something in the Huffington Post rather than the Chronicle of Higher Education. As the kids say, this is some "weak sauce."

20. 11274135 - May 06, 2010 at 01:58 pm

The access to information afforded by the digital age has probably increased the importance of college education. Increased access to information has also increased access to misinfomation. The staggering increase in the amount information readily available to large numbers of people does not speak to the increase in the potency of the information. It says nothing about the increase in validated knowledge. More information is not better information. The critical function of college education is to help students build a solid foundation of validated knowledge and to develop critical and analytical skills to identify the solid knowledge in the unevaluated mass of information that threatens to overwhelm us.

21. atodd - May 06, 2010 at 02:13 pm

Obviously Seth Godin has struck a chord within the higher education community. I believe his message boils down simply to this; "market forces are increasingly coming to the world of higher education and non-selective schools better have a strong value proposition and differentiators in order to remain successful". Those who believe that the already-broke government (federal and state in most of the USA) will continue providing huge subsidies are in for a rude awakening.

Seth Godin is refreshingly and excitingly striking a chord with this audience! Bravo.

Alan Todd

22. gomiller - May 06, 2010 at 03:35 pm

For one thing, the Chronicle didn't ask Seth Godin to write this artice - it was posted on his public blog a week ago. I think the claim that he's making about universities dumping large amounts of money that could probably be better spent elsewhere into marketing because that's a quicker fix than assessing and adapting to our rapidly changing world is a valid one - especially since so few people reading the article seem to be aware of the original source of the article.

Are there other reasons why higher education's in such trouble? Sure. Does that mean we should completely ignore other factors? That doesn't seem smart to me. And since Godin has an MBA from Stanford and has written extensively on marketing and the spread of ideas, it makes sense that he'd choose to expand on the idea that he can discuss most credibly.

Though I do think that the possibility exists that a lot of the way colleges are marketed the way they are because they are often not marketing to the actual consumers - students - they are marketing to the parents, who give permission, provide guidance, and often pay. If institutions were truly at the cutting edge of what is going to be useful for this generation, parents (who attended college a couple of decades before) would probably fail to appreciate its value and be very hesitant to send their children there. My biggest critique of this article is that this concept is only implied, and only by the reference to helicopter parents.

23. jffoster - May 06, 2010 at 04:57 pm

When we have
1. Too many colleges, especially middle tier (or is hat 'tear'?) colleges chasing

2. too few students, and

3. an economy which can't generate real, adequately remunerative and non marginal jobs for many of its 18 - 24 year olds,

Marketeering is apt to increase both to attract students in the bona fide pool and to generate a larger pool.

24. elgato1204 - May 06, 2010 at 06:06 pm

Woooooh! Lots of heads in the sand here. He's not an academic like us and he doesn't write like us and he says things we don't want to hear. So what he says must be worthless. Seems pretty close to the mark to me. He wrote this on his blog and the CHE gave it to us. I'm glad they did, even if most would rather they hadn't.

25. princeton67 - May 06, 2010 at 09:02 pm

Every Pronouncement Rebutted
1. "Most are...average." By "average", the author means "cookie cutter".
Well, the same catalogue description for, say, Calculus 1 or Organic Chemistry can't be too different, but the prof, the teaching assistants, and the fellow students make a different experience. Reading The Iliad with Robert Fagles, and having David Kasten sitting next to me (google them) pemanently stretched my brain.
2. "College has gotten more expensive....". Actually, the "better" the school, the greater the student aid. It was cheaper for me to attend Princeton than to Georgia. Most Ivies don't even have loans anymore, just flat-out grants.
3. Why the mass mailings? The more applicants, the more differentiated the applicant pool. My roommates were an All-American athlete from Pa. and a "percussionist" (as he put it) from NYC.
4. "success". If you're going to be unhappy and unfulfilled, might as well learn to think.

26. honore - May 07, 2010 at 09:25 am

Seth, as far as you went, you are on the right track, however, as referred to in a couple of other posts, you could have and the CHE editors should have required you to probe further. The topic of shamelessly peddling the academy to the bulge of the normal American demographic distribution is topic RIFE with proof from many angles.

Most obvious is the trend toward mediocrity that becomes more and more pronounced everyday, but that is NOT just in the realm of academic requirements or grading.

The intellectual sloth and professional cowardice that we see on our campuses today is appalling. No longer do we strive to be the best. Today, just getting by is fine, especially in academic/administrative cultures mesmerized by the shiny allure of political correctness so easily achieved with a handful of smiley face stickers artfully applied across the org. charts by “decision-making” charlatans who would have done better by staying in their library carrels for 40 years and letting truly inspired academic/administrative visionaries actually take their institutions to the next century. Droll thinking is rampant on our campuses and their legions grow bigger each semester. Why? Changes TERRIFIES this ilk and they surround themselves quickly with their own kind. It's an old story and only the names of VPs, VCs and their retinue of “advisers” changes.

Strategically released press releases about “access”, “tolerance”, “diversity” and now “inclusive excellence” by hypocrite administrators (when they aren't vacationing at all-white, 100% organic, totally cosmic resorts) doesn't hurt either.

And so, the contemporary American academy has become a sorry collection of not-so-useful idiots following trends they hear about at national “all-expenses-paid” fora, which they then return to campus to bring everyone under their purview "on board" with the latest and best idea. Never mind that that their Titanic goals were never examined for their utility on this particular campus or culture. We all see this on our campuses and the money spent on these useless, one-size-fits-all "efforts" would have paid the tuition of many, many students who didn't make it to campus for lack of funds. And yet they dare to preach about “access” and “reaching out” to innumerable communities they couldn't care less about.

But alas, our arrogance combined with our colossal ignorance provides an impenetrable wall around our campus cabbage patch and their marketing, advertising and PR dullards continue to tweet each other from across the room about fantastic ideas that have just popped into their moussed heads, that is when they aren't scheduling their next tanning and teeth-whitening appointments.
And we wonder why the rest of world goes on without us? American navel-gazing has reached epidemic proportions and the creaking of our cultural Titanic CAN be heard across our campuses, but only if you are listening and I'm sorry to report that the Ipod earplugs will have to come out first.

Our future leaders will still emerge from the top tier schools where competition still has some intrinsic value and the lesser tier schools will be left to excell in producing the followers.

Seth, you make some good points but from what I saw on my campus, when it comes to middle-of-the-roading, pointing future trajectories downward and “tolerating” the dumbing down of all aspects of Mr. Chips' World, we haven't seen even the snowflake on the tip of this iceberg.

Pass me that low-sodium Margarita pitcher, would you, I have a "dish-to-pass-end-of-the-semester" retreat to run off to ......Madison, WI

27. markcarnes - May 07, 2010 at 10:06 am

Those interested in exploring an active-learning, "problem-solving" approach should look at "Reacting to the Past," in which students play elaborate games, set in the past, their roles informed by classic texts. Some 300 colleges, and a few graduate programs, have adopted Reacting: www.barnard.edu/reacting. The annual Reacting workshop in NYC is the best place to learn it, June 10-13.

28. sgreerpitt - May 07, 2010 at 12:47 pm

"The data I'm seeing show that a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn't translate into significantly better career opportunities, a better job, or more happiness than does a degree from a cheaper institution."

If there is real data that is showing that graduates from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc. are not favored in entrance into elite MBA, Law, and Medical schools, and that graduates of those elite programs are not favored in access to top jobs, I'd like to see it. Seems that the writer could have told us whose data it was and where to find it.

"The only people who haven't gotten the memo are anxious helicopter parents, mass-marketing colleges, and traditional employers."
And, duh, if "traditional employers" still value degrees from traditional colleges, than that seems to me to undermine all the previous claims in this piece.

29. christophknoess - May 07, 2010 at 02:32 pm

An industry that spends more than $2000 per "customer" to buy its service and on average is wrong 45% of the time (average 6-year graduation rate is 55%) certainly has a very significant marketing problem. In this case it also has a significant cost problem and relies on public subsidies, that are dwindling as policy makers and tax payers get frustrated with the industry's inability to fix it many other problems. Higher Education is in deep trouble, irrespective of whether the form of the article merits a C, a B or an A.

Christoph Knoess, Engaged Minds

30. amccray1 - May 07, 2010 at 03:50 pm

I with the majority of your points. I think that it is time to adapt to the changes in our economy and the same for Higher Ed.

31. citizenwhy - May 10, 2010 at 10:59 am

The issues raised are potential problems only for private colleges that are not rich and are not able to offer need-blind admissions and full scholarships. State schools, although losing state funding at a rapid rate, will still be the lower-cost solution for enough applicants to fill their seats. By spending very little on faculty salaries for the humanities they will be able to pay for expensive business, econ, and science faculty.

The three critical issues here are: cost, rankings, cultural pressures, amenities, and the student experience (with academics not necessarily a top priority for students).

COST ... Most costly private colleges charge very few students the full price. Reduce any tuition by 20-25% to see what the real tuition is. ... If families are truly concerned by costs the student can spend the first two years at a community college and then transfer, meanwhile picking up some valuable technical skills as well as getting a good to very good foundation in the liberal arts or sciences. In addition, middle class students will experience true diversity, attending classes and working on projects with working class, minority students, and recent college graduates picking up quick and cheap certificate programs leading to good local jobs. Plus the kids will have matured and will be far readier to chose learning over frequent drunkenness.

RANKINGS ... Yes, colleges are soliciting more and more hardly likely candidates so they can reject so many more and then be able to advertise themselves as "very" selective (a key ranking factor). This is especially important now that many colleges must accept a far larger number to get the freshman class they want. But parents love these rankings and a good ranking will make it psychologically easier for parents to sign on to those loan agreements they really should avoid, instead saving for retirement.

CULTURAL PRESSURES ... There is no way to change our brand obsessed culture, which is driven by many factors, including middle class status anxiety and a genuine need for certainty about quality. Colleges are indeed brands. And so are the athletic leagues they belong to.

AMENITIES ... Amenities, even luxuries, are in demand. Colleges are resort spas or holiday cruise ships as well as places with classrooms. The kids have been to disney world and other resorts and want some of that in their colleges. So do the parents.

THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE ... Students are first and foremost adolescents going through some kind of transition to at least a state of proto-adulthood. This means sex and mate selection, same sex bonding, making allies, finding out how to be popular or loved or how to survive with little love or popularity. Plus finding out what they are good at and not good at. Students will prefer colleges where they feel they will like a lot of the other students.


For most colleges stability is the norm. They will have to adjust a few of their marketing and fund-raising tricks and they will figure out how to do so in a way that works for them. They will have to get faculty salaries under control and they are well n the way to doing so. They will survive. Some will thrive.

32. commserver - May 10, 2010 at 06:17 pm

My daugther is finishing her 1st year at Williams College, known to be a very selective college. It doesn't get as many applicants as other schools due to many reasons.

She is glad to be going to Williams. The courses she is taking is way ahead of those offered by other schools, including the local public university that is being affected by fiscal cutbacks by government. Even though Williams has its financial problems, it has strove maintain the quality of the classroom experience.

In the end it is what my daughther is learning that is important.

No regrets on her part.

33. marka - May 10, 2010 at 07:06 pm

I'm with 9, 11, 21, 22, 24, etc. - I think this is a great provocative article, from the viewpoint of a marketer. I'm a bit surprized that many of the other commenters here apparently didn't read the description of the piece, or its author.

For example, one questions data about the worth of a 'top-notch' school. I happen to have read many articles about this, including from the Chronicle. I also happen to have an Ivy degree, and have paid particular attention to those.

All I did was enter the search terms 'worth of Ivy degree' into the Chronicle search, and got the following 61 hits: http://chronicle.com/search/?search_siteId=5&contextId=&action=rem&searchQueryString=worth+of+ivy+degree. Apparently, any number of our other commenters not only don't really read the introduction & identification of author & article, but don't even bother to do some quick research to back up comments!

So ... marketing isn't the only problem academia has ...

34. arrive2__net - May 13, 2010 at 12:47 am

Institutional accreditation is not supposed to be a "be-all end-all" that limits the excellence of the institution. Institutional accreditation is supposed to be a floor that institutions stand on ... so it implies that the school is up to some minimum standard ... better the school is adequate than inadequate. The author seems to feel that this commoditizes higher education, which would make it cheaper and more uniform. Given mass growth in higher education, and mass cost growth, and massive potential pay-off, pressure toward commoditization and uniformity seem likely. However there is substantial market differentiation in higher education, of which the Ivy League is just the best known franchise. Although it may seem from a distance that one college is just like another, they are not. Clearly college attended can make a difference in success in graduation (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/11/five-texas-colleges-have_n_571719.html) and the college's prestige and credibility can help or hurt the graduate getting with into grad school or getting a professional job. The US News ranking system is not necessarily the darling of higher education (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/03/colleges-rebel-against-us_n_560999.html), however it is very powerful and influential because it is a highly available source of data many consumers (parents and students) think is reliable. Before US News there were other rating services, but you had to go to a library to see them. There are such a large number of schools out there ... all that information can cause overload ... I think US News is popular in part, specifically because of simplification, but simplification can unexpected consequences, like Godin suggests. Still I think the US News rankings are usually just that starting point for students. Godin seems to foresee change (not much or a stretch when change is usually the one thing you can rely on) but what is the nature of the change? Currently, higher education seems to be trying to evolve a system of departmental accreditation, but the article doesn't mention that. Perhaps he figures all accreditation is bad, but if you had to interpret the attractiveness of college based on reading long narratives and trying to figure out which prof's classes you could actually get during registration, etc, it would be a much tougher job that may not pay much dividend. Truly a great professor can make a big difference in the life of a student, but it can be difficult to foresee which college that prof is connected to, as a high school student or parent.

Bernard Schuster

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