It is wiser to find out than to suppose.
– Mark Twain
In preparation for our annual trends report to be released next month, The Lawlor Group surveyed a nationwide sample of college and university presidents, chief enrollment officers, chief marketing officers, admissions/financial aid professionals, and marketing/communications professionals. We asked them to share what they think are the greatest challenges and opportunities facing higher education in 2012, replicating a survey we conducted at this time last year regarding expectations for 2011. While a year ago such topics as net price calculators, government scrutiny of for-profit institutions, and retention efforts were top of mind for members of higher education’s senior leadership, this year the discussion of the higher education marketplace is dominated by two themes: affordability and value.
In a word cloud of the challenges that higher education leaders expect their institutions to face in the coming year, affordability, cost, and the economy appear prominently. They foresee difficulty not only in balancing the budgets, controlling the costs, and maintaining the financial stability of their institutions, but also in convincingly demonstrating to the public that they are indeed making every effort to find solutions to the college affordability problem. As one respondent puts it, “The media narrative keeps questioning the value of higher education. Over time, this will shape public perception unless we come up with compelling arguments to the contrary (and then live up to those arguments!).”
A word cloud of the opportunities expected by higher education leaders shows value, outcomes, and differentiation as common refrains. One respondent sees opportunity in the “ability to articulate outcomes and reclaim position in public importance,” and other in “building the case for the great outcomes and contributions higher education brings to the country.” Some also view their ability to provide value as an opportunity for defining their institutional distinctiveness and differentiating themselves in the marketplace. Diversity also appears prominently in the word cloud, because traditionally underserved students are on senior leadership’s radars as a growing segment that colleges and universities have an opportunity to better recruit, serve, and graduate.
Considering the challenges and the opportunities together, the following sentiment is well represented among respondents: “I continue to be concerned about the shifting value equation and what that means for both students and colleges.” One person specifically worries that “the economic downturn is raising tensions about race and class because of the perceived loss of privilege among some groups as it relates to need-based aid versus ‘merit.’ ” Another respondent notes that demonstrating return on investment has greater urgency now: “Families are certainly wanting more information on the value, benefits, and outcomes of the educations we provide. And these conversations are taking place in much shorter windows of time as the stealth applicant pool grows rapidly each year.”
There’s no doubt that the coming year’s higher education marketplace will be populated with consumers who are seeking proof of your college’s value. Most colleges and universities do indeed provide an education that results in beneficial outcomes for their graduates, and so they have therefore viewed their challenge as simply communicating these benefits persuasively. But there are two sides to the value equation—the return and the investment. If the investment itself is an unaffordable amount, then proving the return is irrelevant to families. In 2012, we predict affordability will matter most in the marketplace. Value will still be a variable in families’ selection of a college, but only after their choice set of colleges has been pre-determined based on price parameters.
In preparation for an election year (and perhaps in response to the Occupy movement’s focus on high student loan debt loads), the Obama administration seems to be signaling an addition in emphasis regarding its higher education policy concerns—beyond access and completion to affordability and cost. Several university chancellors and college presidents who attended a White House meeting this month expect the U.S. Department of Education to soon propose incentives for higher education institutions to cut costs in an effort to improve affordability, according to both Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
49% of Americans believe online word of mouth is highly credible.