Talking about education costs provides value

Those of us who provide communications counsel to colleges and universities can chart our work on a calendar.

Those of us who provide communications counsel to colleges and universities can chart our work on a calendar. 

Spring brings blooming bulbs to the well-manicured campuses and administrative concerns about announcing tuition increases.

These increases are paired with the annual release of the College Board's “Trends in College Pricing,” which allows families to compare sticker prices among institutions. It also generates headlines that scream of price gouging and questions of return on investment.

Of the many situations that campuses may face, they are often most hesitant to talk about costs. We know the discourse is going to occur, so how best to handle?

The most strategic answer is to shift the conversation from one of cost to a description of the benefits and associated value. But I worry we haven't done enough as an industry to provide the necessary context for costs, which leaves administrators paralyzed from taking the steps necessary to describe value.

Below are three simple realities about higher education cost that need stronger communications:

· The average student, per the College Board study, pays less than $10,000 a year for tuition and fees, with a degree earning them at least $400,000 more than a high school graduate over a thirty-year career and as much as $1.6 million, based on a study by Bloomberg Businessweek.

· The big, scary collegiate costs most often reported are the sticker prices for attending a private institution and living on campus. Discount rates for private institutions average 40%, which means few families pay the tens of thousands of dollars per year that dominate headlines, according to a survey commissioned by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

· We need to reframe increases in tuition to reflect the actual cost to a student and his or her family. For public institutions, tuition increased just shy of 8% last year. That sounds like a lot, but it averages $277.50 per semester - a manageable amount.

Once we move beyond our fears of talking about what it costs to keep an institution's doors open, provide quality faculty, and offer the experiences we associate with and expect from campuses, then we can begin to make the case for the value of a school's offerings. Not dealing with the wrong perceptions silences discussions of the benefits.

Teresa Valerio Parrot is SVP and leader of the higher education practice at Widmeyer Communications.

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