The range and scope of academic programs in higher education has become increasingly complex. New programs emerge almost daily to adjust to consumer demands and workforce needs. Applicants can easily become confused as they attempt to judge quality, complexity, cost, and a return on investment.
The result is often a mishmash of academic offerings developed upon a foundation that no longer seems to be built upon bedrock principles.
- What is the purpose of a new program offering?
- Is it a response to workforce demands?
- Does the program emerge from a particular academic strength for which the college or university is noted?
- Do the outputs – notably an education path that leads to a productive life – match the potential of the program?
These questions mask a transition that now faces American higher education. Consumer demands and expectations shift depending upon factors that go well beyond the academic program. One of the most notable shifts since the Great Recession has been the consumer attention paid to why students choose majors in employable fields. The best example is the effort to develop public policy to promote education in STEM fields.
By itself, choosing a STEM field is an admirable decision. America needs more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. The jobs often pay well, and STEM graduates contribute enormously to the common wealth.
But the country also needs social workers, poets, and museum curators. For America to prosper, its policy makers must not pick winners and losers, narrowly choosing economic benefit and workforce development in key fields over breadth and the social good in American society.
America is only great when it is as complex as the problems that it faces and the potential that it promises to those who seek a college degree.
This is where American colleges and universities receive a failing grade. It is ludicrous and shortsighted to expect that colleges should adopt a mindset that effectively says, “build it and they will come.” (Apologies to “Field of Dreams.”) To do so would presume that American families understand what colleges do, how they educate, and why they exist.
For many families, a college education is simply a pathway to a good job. In the last century, this argument was sufficient and filled seats when demographics and government policy worked in favor of college admission practices.
College Admissions Now a Marriage of Academics and Business
These days are gone. College admissions has become a marriage of academics and business, introduced by the admissions office through marketing and communications strategies and tactics. Critics will complain that education is a business. They believe that this business mindset is the root cause of many of higher education’s problems.
But others will point out that those families who pay steep tuition prices – tuition discounts disguised as scholarships notwithstanding – have every right to understand more about what they are buying.
College Marketing Fails to Differentiate Academic Programs from Competitors
What is most lacking on this issue is clarity – or expressed differently – a coherent and compelling academic marketing strategy. The problem begins with how colleges market their academic programs. While there are innumerable exceptions that display creativity and focus to lay out quality indicators and outcomes expectations imaginatively, most are described by worthless four-color brochures that fail to differentiate how their program differs from those of peer and aspirant institutions.
Academic Programs Without Direct Career Outcomes Often Given Short Shrift
It’s a shame because there are many outstanding academic programs that receive scant attention after the deals struck among the promotional efforts of marketing, communications, admissions, financial aid, and academic leadership. It’s easy to promote management, nursing, or engineering because these academic disciplines are linked to employment outcomes that are easily understood by consumers.
If a college or university offers a comprehensive field of academic programs, however, it is equally critical to think imaginatively about how students in fields like English, history, and sociology will be shaped by the unique quality of the academic program that they will consider.
Faculty are Keepers of the Higher Education Flame
The answer to “why us” in a particular field begins by emphasizing the quality and creativity of the faculty. The faculty are the keepers of the flame, outlasting students, administrators, and trustees in tenure. This means that faculty must be chosen well and resourced sufficiently.
But the defense of any academic program to a broader constituency must go well beyond dollars to explain what contributions an academic program makes to learning, how it fits into a broader curriculum, and why its presence is important among the academic disciplines offered.
We can predict that as the business of higher education and academics continue to be intertwined, there will be growing calls to defend the size of upper division classes, the amount of money appropriated, and the number of majors graduated in a particular discipline.
Before we get there as a society, however, it is critical to build a case for the academic programs that a college supports by explaining what’s unique and special about them. It may turn out that differentiation communicated through better marketing aligns best with a college’s mission and consumer interest.
Writing in the New York Times last month, Laura Pappano offered a thoughtful analysis of the efforts by public colleges – principally public flagship universities – to find new sources of revenue, diversify their student bodies, and expand their national reputations. It’s an interesting trend that should be watched closely.
America’s colleges and universities have different funding sources. Historically, public systems relied most heavily upon direct state support. Drawing upon the research of Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Ms. Pappano notes: “Nearly thirty years ago, legislative appropriations provided 59 percent of core revenues at public four-year colleges. In 2013, the latest year available, states covered 27 percent on average.” Absent historic state support, America’s public colleges and universities have turned increasingly to alternative funding sources, tuition, fees, room, board, additional auxiliary enterprises, public private partnerships, endowment drawdown, and debt.
Out-of-State Recruitment Brings Revenue
As the article suggests, one approach is to think big and move recruitment goals beyond the state’s borders. Ms. Pappano profiled a number of public colleges and universities, including the University of Alabama, University of South Carolina, Miami University of Ohio, Rutgers University, Arizona State University, and the College of William and Mary, to demonstrate how these institutions used various recruiting strategies to expand their base of out-of-state students. The results speak for themselves. From 2010-2015, freshman applications at Arizona State rose 42%, at the University of South Carolina by 39%, and at Miami University of Ohio by 62%.
On the surface, the tactic seems like a good way to balance a university’s budget and replace a dwindling source of revenue from the state. And in fairness, public colleges and universities should not be blamed for seeking such a solution. In fact, it precisely mirrors the tactics used by private colleges and universities with regional and national reputations. It is an entrepreneurial and creative approach. Indeed, for the profiled institutions, expanded recruitment appears to be paying a handsome dividend.
We can set aside, for example, some of the approaches taken by flagship public universities to recruit out-of-state like using merit awards to crack into ZIP codes that in later years might produce additional students, many of these full pay. It’s not so much the tactic but the policy that comes into question. The policy reflects the new realities that public universities now face.
Regional Public Universities Have Less Recruiting Power
First, there is a growing disconnect between flagship publics and the regional public sector institutions. The latter do not have the reputation, alumni base, facilities, breadth of programs, personnel, and resources to mimic the public flagship’s admission recruiting beyond state boundaries.
In an era of stagnant or declining enrollment of traditional age students, the failure to make investments in the rest of the public system will only exacerbate the chasm between the public flagship research university and the other public colleges in the state.
The recent efforts by the University of Wisconsin to separate itself from the Wisconsin system suggest the level of acrimonious warfare that might break out.
Second, changing financial fortunes call into question the historic mission of public colleges and universities. There are at least two ways to think about this issue.
On the one hand, America established public colleges and universities as the “people’s schools,” training students for a variety of occupations – many of them critical to the economic wellbeing of the state. They consciously subsidized the tuition charged, thereby making it possible for generations of first-time college bound youth, including immigrants, to receive a college degree. On the other hand, flagship research universities also provide a public good by serving as powerful economic engines that can drive a state and even regional economy. This mandates that they acquire and retain the best talent that they can attract to the state.
Third, every action has a reaction. As the stronger public universities expand their admission recruiting efforts beyond state boundaries, the burden of educating a state’s workforce will fall increasingly on other colleges and universities, notably non-research public colleges, private colleges and universities, community colleges, for-profit institutions, and online educational providers.
Is the effect of out-of-state recruiting effectively to “flip” how a state educates it students, relying on groups like small, regional private colleges to meet the state’s workforce needs?
Finally, what is the cost of out-of-state recruitment? Should public tax dollars be used as merit grants to attract an out-of-state student? To maintain a quality flagship research operation, should public research universities put additional money into expanded programs and expensive research facilities to compete on a national level? If so, is the solution more debt, public-private partnership investment, or a new operating model built to sustain an evolving mission?
Sometimes short-term solutions can cause long-term headaches in higher education. One concern to watch is that public flagship universities might adopt a private higher education operating model that focuses on higher tuition, deep financial aid discounts, and growing debt to fund “turf” war academic and residential life facilities. It may mean in the end that they can win the battle but lose the war.