Graduates' fears should fuel universities to boost outreach

It's been a lot of years since I graduated college as a journalism student.

It's been a lot of years since I graduated college as a journalism student. I felt pretty fortunate to get a job right out of school at a local community newspaper where I was paid $187 a week and thought I had it made.

It's mid-May as I write this column and the news is full of images of students smiling in their graduation caps, but the angle of every story is heavily weighted in the more serious question of whether or not these students will be able to find a job tomorrow.

From the perspective of someone only trying to write a column rather than trying to find a job, the amount of information, largely conflicting, about the employment market is dizzying.

What is clear is that this year's graduates will have to contend with a struggling business environment and compete with graduates from 2011 still looking for work - and those with a few years' more experience willing to take a pay cut just to have a job.

Another dark cloud looming on the horizon is the impending financial disaster for students saddled with more debt. Total loan debt has reached $870 billion, which exceeds credit-card debt and auto loans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That reality will undoubtedly create a wave of students who are unable to pay off their debt, save, spend, or fuel the economy. It sounds like the mortgage crisis part two.

It's also a potential PR crisis for the "business" of colleges and universities who will likely, rightly or wrongly, bear the brunt of the criticism from a public fed up with escalating tuition for an education that provides a less clear path to the American Dream.

In light of these challenges and in the aftermath of headline-grabbing scandals such as the one at Penn State, communications executives in education and those agencies with clients in that sector need to get more proactive about their story, advance their roles as thought leaders facilitating change, and explain their own challenges. And in this day of the brand as media owner and content creator, universities, with a clear edge in the education area, should be able to leverage that space to the benefit of their brand's reputation.

There is a disconnect when one can easily find a heading under Google News for sports and entertainment, but no collective aggregation of information in the area of education.

Communications pros and agencies need to use PR and effective brand management to get in front of the public and remedy a steep learning curve to avoid potential negative backlash.

Bernadette Casey is the senior editor of PRWeek. She can be contacted at bernadette.casey@prweek.com.

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