Game Plan

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Selling the value of higher education

Four years ago, the marketing and communication teams at Lafayette College decided to mix things up a little. The plan entailed replacing its annual viewbook with a tri-annual magazine. The print and online publication—Cur Non—would combine the emotional impact of storytelling with the facts, figures, approaches and traditions prospective students and their parents would want—and need—to know.

A stroke of marketing genius, Cur Non honed in on the three pillars that the historic private liberal arts college on the banks of the Delaware River thrived on: The student experience; how that experience enables what a student decides to do in the years immediately after graduation; and how the experience is still influential in a graduate’s life decades after leaving campus.

Mark Eyerly, VP of Communications, says his team viewed the strategy behind the publication as an ode to the essence of what higher education stands for, i.e., an achievement that keeps on giving. The phrase, cur non, was the motto of Marquis de Lafayette, the Revolutionary War hero that the university is named after. The school’s impassioned rallying cry means “why not.” For the scores of students and graduates, it serves as a reminder that anything is possible at Lafayette.

“Marketers need to be able to introduce the possibilities that getting a higher education degree affords.”
— Mark Eyerly, VP of Communications, Lafayette College

“At the right time of year, we can introduce prospective students to some of their potential classmates who have already enrolled,” Eyerly says. “We can highlight a young alumnus who’s involved in the headlines, or interview current students about the research they just published, their multiple internships or their plans for graduate school.”

Lafayette College’s marketing strategy is a calculated attempt to brand all of the values that higher education offers in a time when some are reluctant to invest the time and money into the process. According to the most recent data by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, spring enrollment appeared to show the same level of enrollment losses overall as the fall 2020 trend. Undergraduate enrollment was down 4.5%, while graduate enrollment is up 4.3%. Overall, college enrollment is running 2.9% below last spring’s level.

Higher education marketing and communications specialists like Eyerly believe that the decision-making process is an emotional one for today’s prospective students, not an intellectual endeavor—even when it comes to education. “You have to go beyond telling to showing,” he says. “How does it feel to be on campus? How does it feel to be a student? A young alumnus? You must help the prospects imagine what their success looks like in that environment.”

The ethos at Lafayette College is to challenge its students to move beyond the familiar, the comfortable and the easy. Being a Leopard means daring to become a thinker and leader. To take risks. To set your destiny’s course. “Marketers need to be able to introduce the possibilities that getting a higher education degree affords,” Eyerly says. “It creates opportunities. It enables achievements. It offers self-awareness. It builds empathy. It demands critical engagement.”

At a time when the pandemic is causing higher ed universities to crash against the shores, Lafayette College is doubling down on its benefits. For example, classroom instruction was not the only process that moved online during the pandemic. Lafayette administrators moved its internship and career fairs online, too. Last summer, it invested $1 million in technology enhancements to sustain academic excellence, expand alumni networking and provide career internships via the virtual world.

Eyerly says the school’s message was loud and clear. The reasons that made a school a good fit before the pandemic probably still apply once we get beyond COVID. “The distinguishing attributes of a research university or a liberal arts college, or of a public or private institution, are still relevant to your plans. The fit you’re looking for is about the longer term.”

Administrators wanted to show that a one-year disruption did not necessarily need to push students off course. On the other hand, they knew it was smart to ask how a specific school handled this crisis. How well did they balance competing pressures? Did the school focus on its students even when some of its decisions disappointed students and parents? How well did the school explain its decisions? Did it adjust if circumstances warranted? Did it provide alternative approaches to important events and ceremonies?

The value is the value

When it comes to the word value in the context of higher education, Steven Pearlman, PhD., co-founder of The Critical Thinking Initiative, says the word is operative, but not in the way we might hope. For example, while the Strada Education Network’s recent “The Public Viewpoint: COVID-19 Work and Education” study found that people think learning online provides the most value for your money, the findings come with a significant caveat: People also found online learning to be the least effective means of education.

In fact, data by Prokes and Housel also found that students learning online during COVID report declines in learning across the educational spectrum, including but not limited to: less motivation to work, less note taking, less participation in class discussion, and a lower likelihood to remember what they learn. “What we must add onto that is a survey that found that one in four Americans who do not possess a college degree do not believe that earning one would improve their employment situation,” says Pearlman, also author of “America’s Critical Thinking Crisis: The Failure and Promise of Education.”

Pearlman says the overall answer is a complicated one. On one hand, people prefer online education because of its availability and convenience, with some research showing fewer students viewing on-campus experiences as important as they were before. But valuing convenience over genuine learning can only degrade the overall importance of education itself.

“Colleges may see paths to strong enrollment through online learning, but if they do not find ways to make learning online more effective, the move to online will save the present at the expense of the future,” Pearlman says.

So, as the world shifts and continues to navigate a world challenged by COVID, what messages should colleges relay to today’s prospective students? Pearlman says educational institutions must reconceptualize themselves fast. If they don’t, they may become nothing more than vocational institutions. When that happens, many students and businesses will expectedly seek out on-the-job training.

“If students are going to feel confident in their investment moving forward, they’re going to need to believe that their degree will provide them with the flexibility and agility to adapt to a world that could suddenly find itself in flux once again.”
— Steven Pearlman, Co-Founder, The Critical Thinking Initiative

“With the value of higher education finding itself under increasing scrutiny, marketers really need to demonstrate the value of the investment, especially when people have seen so many jobs, if not entire careers, vanish in the last year,” Pearlman says. “Assuring students that certain degrees will result in certain careers has become a more perilous proposition for most. If students are going to feel confident in their investment moving forward, they’re going to need to believe that their degree will provide them with the flexibility and agility to adapt to a world that could suddenly find itself in flux once again.”

As the population changes, the fight for the college-age student pie will become harder. For today’s higher ed marketers, that means understanding what students not only need today, but tomorrow as well.