CASE recently held an event titled, “Claiming Our Story.” I was excited to watch the live stream, especially as a follow up to the Inside Higher Ed program, “Higher Ed in an Era of Heightened Skepticism,” held in February. The higher ed community desperately needs to get in the driver’s seat and influence the public narrative around the value of a college degree. At no time in my 26-year career in higher ed has the actual value of a college degree been higher. But at no time has the perceived value of a college degree been lower or more distorted.
In “Claiming Our Story,” there was a great deal of productive commentary about diversity, lifelong learning, and student debt. Still, the word “communications” was used too many times to count while “marketing” was mentioned only once and “branding” was never mentioned at all. I understand the event was meant to further the discussion on the public’s mistrust of higher education. But the discussion still led me to believe that colleges and universities continue to avoid fully embracing the vital role that marketing and branding can and should play in fixing the problem.
As I said at the Inside Higher Ed event, our mere existence is not a marketing strategy. Marketing is an essential business function for every type of organization, including colleges and universities. But our industry seems hell-bent on avoiding this fact. Why does the industry still shy away from these important concepts, when the most respected non-profits in the world — Human Rights Watch, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and Doctors Without Borders to name a few — have completely embraced them? All of these organizations are masterful marketers. In a job description for a marketing professional, UNICEF says, “The post is responsible to increase sales and net income from UNICEF Cards and Gifts…to help UNICEF build a better world for children.” Increased sales and net income equals a better world. I could say the same thing about higher ed.
Some in the higher ed community seem to view marketing with disdain. Some appear to associate marketing with greedy, for-profit corporations interested only in tricking customers to buy their products and services. It’s viewed as something higher ed has to do but doesn’t want to do. Expectations of marketing are all off; a college will throw less than 1% of its operating budget at marketing and expect a significant increase in enrollment and fundraising. For so many, the very definition of marketing is too narrow; it’s defined as only the promotion P of the marketing mix. We need to wake up. Better marketing can help save higher education. We have to embrace the fundamental principles of integrated marketing and branding. We have to invest in getting our story out there. We have to staff our marketing departments in a manner that’s commensurate with our goals. We have to integrate our efforts enterprise-wide and even industry-wide. And we need to do it now. Our world desperately needs us, and they don’t even know it.
With all my heart, I believe that higher ed is the answer — the answer to ending poverty and reducing the income gap, combating racism, finding cures to diseases that plague our world, saving the planet, eliminating the possibility of nuclear war, and so much more. Higher ed gives us art, beauty, and community. It lifts us one and all. Higher ed must not only survive, it must thrive. But in order for this to happen, we can’t refuse to market ourselves. We can “claim our story” all day long, but unless we deliver that story to our stakeholders through effective marketing, we will continue to lose the perception battle. Marketing can no longer be a dirty word. In higher education, marketing is spelled S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L.