Why branding can't save higher education

Universities and colleges that rely solely on traditional branding and marketing as some magic pill will be disappointed.

"Disruptive." The term has become sorely overused. It’s too often applied to people, businesses, or trends that disrupt very little and fail the test of time.

To witness a category undergoing true disruption, turn to the seismic upheaval of higher education in the United States. The level of disruption approaches that which turned the retail and media industries on their ear in the last decade. Now similar forces are changing the face of the world’s leading universities and colleges.

Once considered a hallmark of value, opportunity, and human possibility, "college" is no longer the automatic option for students of all ages and phases. What does it guarantee, they wonder, besides a lot of work, some learning and perhaps some fun but also a mountain of debt? Has higher education lost its way and its relevance in the world?  Just why are the fastest-growing segments of higher education the lower cost and job-centric community college systems and for-profit models?

That’s sad to even consider because American colleges and universities still offer a sterling education. (We are fortunate to work for many of the best in the areas of development, branding, and enrollment). Even the most highly rated institutions face strong headwinds. Unsustainable tuition hikes, reduced government support for research, alternative education options, and uncertain job prospects for graduates have undermined both the attraction and perceived return on investment of an undergraduate degree.    

There are approximately 4,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. College enrollments have declined for the last four years. All are contending with students (and parents) demanding changes in education that better prepare young adults to find a viable place in an economic landscape radically altered by technology, globalization, and changing demographics. 

Presidents and boards are scrambling for solutions. They are retooling enrollment models, curricula, finances, and differentiation, and a growing number are dealing with Title IX worries. Many are forced to play the "rankings" game, initiating programs only to influence U.S. News & World Report.

After centuries of taking the long view, colleges and universities are trying to be agile. Some are deploying short-term steps to boost applications, modify pedagogy, engage with alumni, and enter partnerships with industry or competing peer institutions.

Despite these efforts, the closure rate among four-year public and private not-for-profit colleges will likely triple by 2017, and the merger rate will more than double, according to 2015 report from Moody’s Investors Service. Now that’s disruption. And it requires more than a cosmetic solution.

Universities and colleges that rely solely on traditional branding and marketing as some magic pill will be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – there’s never been a more urgent need for colleges and universities to sharpen their messaging, improve their communications, and engage with internal and external stakeholders. But that’s not enough.

Deeply rooted problems demand proportionate solutions. The very mission and vision of the university should be revisited. Is it enough to create critical thinkers and enlightened human beings, ready to tackle messy world problems and to apply knowledge learned inside and outside classrooms? 

Either way, the university of today needs to be realigned to meet disruption head on. Otherwise, branding and marketing programs could actually do more harm than good. Perhaps that’s why the University of Oregon decided recently to dial back an expensive branding initiative with an eye on more money for academic programs.

Unless institutions take steps to improve operational efficiencies, retool their offerings, align faculty talent, and seek ways to reduce the cost of tuition, the disruption is only poised to deepen. It takes strong leadership and bold moves, which can certainly include new branding and marketing programs. But such programs standing on their own without real change inside the campus will not work.

Since the problems in higher education are enormously complex, the solutions must be sophisticated. That means going beyond trial-and-error branding and finding ways to directly change the behavior of prospects, students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, partners, and major donors. Making that happen requires digital platforms, smart use of big data, analytics, quantitative research, and behavioral science. Communications activities and resources need to be integrated across all advancement functions, including development, alumni relations, communications, public affairs, and enrollment.

For centuries, higher education and the liberal arts have shaped the American way of life and the course of the nation. Colleges serve as communities that inspire and nurture curiosity. Let’s not forget that the pure pursuit of research at universities led to many of the applications and advancements we may take for granted in everyday life -- technology, medicine, health care, engineering, science, and public policy.

The "academy" is one we must protect. Losing it would mean losing our future. To successfully manage through the disruption, individual institutions must put into play their own version of disruption. And that starts on campus – now. 

John Brodeur is founder & chairman of Brodeur Partners.

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