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Colleges sell. Yes, it’s true.


A recent article from The Chronicle, written by Dick Merriman, the President of Southwestern University, is titled “The College as a Philanthropy” and makes the case that “a college is not a business”. One key takeaway is this:

“Because the college is a philanthropy, because we are committed to your growth and  development, because we love you, you are permitted to make mistakes here, you are permitted to be confused here, and you are permitted to change your mind and change your plans here.”

Fantastic sentiment from the President of the University. We love our students. We are not a business, we love you. As it should be.  And, from reading the comments that have been posted thus far, this is a sentiment that rings true with many people.

The problem is this: if you believe only that, and you are anything other than the President, your college is in trouble.

Here’s why.

The truth is that college is a business. There, I said it. I’ve sat in more than my fair share of meetings where I’ve heard “But we’re (fill in the blank) University! We don’t *shudder* “sell” anything. We provide educational opportunities for students to better their lives!” Well, the times…they are a’changin’.

The one statement from President Merriman that I do agree with is that institutions would be wise to find their voices and make their intentions clear. With increasing competition from for-profits and the shrinking numbers of graduating high school students, it’s time to try new tactics to get your school’s voice heard.

When it comes to marketing and recruitment efforts, higher-ed needs to look outside itself for inspiration and ideas. Many colleges and universities do it well. But, the majority could learn a lot from the lessons of corporate America.

Students who are looking at your website…checking out your counselor blogs…reading the emails you send…(get the point?) are also on Gawker, playing Halo Reach, buying Nike ID’s online (again, get the point?). They are not comparing your header image to that of BU or Duke. They are looking at your materials and thinking, even subconsciously, hmmmm, not quite as cool as the Pepsi Refresh Everything site.

Did you know that the consumer decision making process for someone choosing a college is nearly psychologically identical to the decision making process of someone buying a car? Think about it: both are about the same cost, ROI needs to be considered, there is an emotional element, will I ‘like’ it after a couple of years, etc…etc…

Also, have you ever gotten a postcard series, sent to you once a month, from the Honda  Element? Does Prius mail out thousands of 20-page glossy catalogs? No. Why? Because they try new things.

Colleges tend to be conservative. Corporations tend to be, out of necessity, less risk-averse. How many times have you been in a marketing meeting and heard “Well, last year we made our app numbers. So, what did we do last year that we can do again this year?”

It’s time to look outside of academia for marketing inspiration. It’s time to stop asking “what did we do last year?” and time to start thinking about “what will we do next year?”