Insights — Higher Education's Existential Crisis

Higher Education's Existential Crisis

Thought leadership / May 04, 2022
Jason Simon
Jason Simon

Higher ed CMOs face a myriad (and exhausting) set of challenges. Declining budgets, poor martech, leadership transitions, talent exodus amid the great resignation, ongoing crisis management, and more. But these all pale in comparison to the existential questioning of higher education's value.  

The shifting social and economic landscape has only intensified the questioning of the purpose of higher education and who it serves. A quick Google search of "the value of higher education" reveals a multitude of research studies, opinion pieces, and marketing collateral on the topic.

  • recent Gallup poll pointed to a steady decline in confidence in higher ed among U.S. adults since 2015. Less than 50 percent of those respondents have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the sector. The decline is most evident among Republicans, whose confidence level has fallen by 17 percentage points, but Democrats and independents are also less confident now than three years ago.

  • The pandemic expedited and exacerbated enrollment volatilities ahead of the 2025 demographic cliff. The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) reported a 6.6% decline in total undergraduate enrollment between 2019 and 2021, the most significant two-year decline in U.S. higher education in at least the past 50 years. First-year classes fell even more.

  • These declines have hit underrepresented, minority, and marginalized communities harder and have not rebounded. According to a recent University Business article, FAFSA applications are down by 9% according to Department of Education data, and renewals critical for retention have fallen nearly 12%. 

While these data are not so confidence-inspiring, leaders in higher education continue to be staunch advocates of the inherent value that a college education provides. Bachelor's degrees are still positively correlated to economic and social outcomes like higher wages, lower unemployment, longer life expectancy, and lower incarceration rates. In a recent Freakonomics podcast series on higher education, Harvard professor Peter Blair noted that Martin Luther King Jr. called education preparation for citizenship, stating:

Citizenship has to do with voting; citizenship has to do with contributing to your own economic wellbeing, as well as contributing to the economic wellbeing of the broader society.

- Peter Blair

Though it's clear that a college education benefits the individual and our collective wellbeing, we see that students are feeling less clear about their college choices now more than ever.

As a result of threatened enrollments, a rise of new entrants, and shifting demographics, institutions are leaning heavily on transactional outcomes such as the ROI of specific majors, job placement numbers, and stories of alumni success. 

Others are more concerned with feigning prestige and cow tipping to rankings and other ego-boosting approaches that offer very little to differentiate among competitors and even less towards advancing the shared value of higher education. The questioning of "is college worth it?" only adds to the anti-college narrative that has been exacerbated by institutional struggles to reckon with changing perceptions often fueled by political dissonance and disagreement.

 In an interview for Freakonomics, Miguel Urquiola, professor of economics at Columbia University, noted: 

I think the U.S. has gotten into a situation in which sometimes I joke that the university doesn't have a lot of friends. From the right-wing, there seems to be a lot of suspicion of the university because it often is perceived to be friendlier towards a more left-leaning orientation. From the left wing, the university is viewed very badly because they're basically perceived as this machine for perpetuating inequality. And so sometimes I think the university is basically left abandoned, and no one's going to protect it.

- Miguel Urquiola

This decline in public perception should be a wake-up call: now is the time for leaders to come together to protect higher education and collectively articulate the narrative of value. 

In other words, higher ed needs a rebrand.

But where to begin?

Many of us at SimpsonScarborough have been reading Simon Sinek's The Infinite Game, which describes the need for leaders to recognize and develop an infinite mindset for challenges that have no apparent finish line. Sinek's approach begins with the idea of advancing a "just cause" or "a vision of a compelling future." Any effort to rebrand our sector will require collaboration among higher ed leaders and marketers to begin the work of crafting a shared vision for the industry. Though higher ed's problems don't have a visible finish line, a roadmap built around a "just cause" and mutual buy-in from various stakeholders can (and will) help the industry align in anticipation of more challenging economic and social shifts

We also must find the right voice and spokespeople for the effort. It cannot be the highly rejective institutions with giant endowments that already dominate the spotlight and have much of the industry's narrative built around their needs. While those schools do a wealth of good, they are no longer the trusted bastions of a growing enterprise. Instead, as Freakonomics noted, they are targets and easy press fodder for things like the Varsity Blues scandal, admissions lawsuits, and soaring college debt.

This higher ed rebrand should be led by those mission-driven institutions that serve large numbers of students with goals of social mobility and economic opportunity. Mid-tier publics, small privates, HBCUs, and other often-overlooked institutions must come together to lead and fuel a collective narrative about our "just cause."

While higher ed's version of "Got Milk" might make a ripple in the busy minds of parents and families questioning the value of college, marketers know much more is needed to combat this growing decline in public perception. As noted in The Atlantic's article, "Why The Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid".

Many of America's key institutions have gotten stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted. The shift was most pronounced in universities, scholarly associations, creative industries, and political organizations at every level (national, state, and local), and it was so pervasive that it established new behavioral norms backed by new policies seemingly overnight.

We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.

Jonathon Haidt for The Atlantic

It's time for our schools to stop being afraid of the political and social darts and demonstrate value by demonstrating their valuesPurdue's 10-year tuition freeze and the UC system's recent promise to offer free tuition to California's Native American students are examples of institutions articulating their values and creating meaningful programs to serve their student populations. Another instance is PASSHE's campus consolidation effort which, at first glance, can be misinterpreted as a cost-cutting measure but actually positions their institutions to serve more students in a differentiated manner for years to come.   

As higher ed marketing matures, some well-positioned marketing professionals are already using the right data and metrics to craft audience-informed brands that highlight the importance of their institutions and shape their retention strategies. Industry-wide collaboration that normalizes these approaches and advocates for more significant marketing resources can allow institutions of all sizes to address their own public perception barriers, define their values, and help restore higher education's overall reputation in our society. 

Higher education encompasses so much more than a degree and (possibly) a job, and we must do better to convey this to prospective students and their families. It is our just cause. Let's start this work together and speak with a unified voice to articulate the true value in the journey.

Jason is CEO & Partner at SimpsonScarborough. Before coming to SimpsonScarborough in 2014, Jason led the marketing communications teams for the University of California System and North Carolina State University. In 2013, he was named Higher Education Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association. Known for being our chief Peloton evangelist, he and his wife, Meredith, live in Oakland CA with their daughter, Amelia. Learn more about Jason here.

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