Last week, the American Council on Education (ACE), a consortium of more than 1,600 US colleges and universities, launched "Solutions for the Future," a national, three-year effort to promote higher education as a crucible of science, culture, and social progress.
The campaign, backed by donated media time from the NCAA and networks like Fox, and done pro bono by GSD&M in Austin, TX, includes print and radio ads, as well as a Web site, solutionsforourfuture.org.
There is justification for a major push trumpeting colleges and universities as beacons of hope. A recent Winston Group and Peter D. Hart Research Associates survey showed 84% of Americans think investing in such institutions will help solve future problems. The terms "colleges and universities" and "higher education in America" resonated strongly as brands for almost 80% of those surveyed. Such results suggest ACE's campaign will find receptive ears.
Still, advertising can only do so much and may even create distance between the public and the universities, partly because the idea that "higher education" is serving them might seem a little abstract, even specious, for people who can't afford to go to college.
As Charlene Nunley, president of Montgomery College, a two-year school in Maryland, put it, "Many Americans see higher education as a privilege for the few, rather than the many; a benefit for the individual, rather than society." Indeed, according to ACE's own statistics, college tuitions have increased on average 54% at public four-year schools in the past decade.
I'm sure a national TV campaign airing during NCAA tournaments will help spread the message that college is more than a place for training football players and educating private school graduates. But a far more effective route to creating good will is local PR and grassroots efforts to bring the universities into the communities that house them and vice versa. In far too many university towns there is an impermeable membrane separating the university and the community.
As such, the national effort will be supported with local efforts by universities and colleges. The University of Texas, for instance, is producing a program explaining how research done there has benefited the state. The University of Maryland system will do a listening tour for communities in the state. Those kinds of efforts, especially efforts in colleges' immediate communities that create opportunities, are likely to create more lasting good will than a national TV effort.
Ultimately, though, the best tool may not even be a marketing one - affordable education. The value of touting universities as fonts of social, scientific, and cultural progress dims as fewer and fewer Americans can afford to drink there.
To the extent that the public's "brand image" of universities as nurseries of progress is bound up with the cost of higher ed, these efforts may be hampered by Washington. The federal fiscal 2006 budget includes a record $2.1 billion in cuts from education programs.