How do we reconcile higher education marketing with higher student costs?

I read with great interest and empathy two stories this past Monday related to the burdensome cost of higher education — one setting the level of total student debt in the US at $867 billion last quarter; the other alerting us that campus food pantries are becoming commonplace as many students struggle to afford groceries.

An hour later I walked into a cabinet meeting at a Midwestern private liberal arts college to make a strong argument for why they should spend significant resources on higher education marketing.


After 20+ years in higher education marketing, I know the lack of scrutiny paid to education return on investment. Too many families pay good money for mediocre outcomes.

Rather than drill into the details of what makes for a solid undergraduate experience, the media often settles for drive-by stories about loan debt.

How can buyers distinguish between shallow higher education marketing and real meaning? Start by reading the Association of American Colleges and Universities study on “high impact” practices — first-year seminars, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service-learning, internships, and capstone courses — that offer the best hope for changing lives for the better.

As someone trusted to apply the skills of discernment and language in pursuit of more authentic higher education branding, I pay close attention to these and other “high impact” practices.

Higher education marketing — left to the wrong hands —produces lazy reporting and half-truths that seduce prospective parents and families.

Some common sense advice. Ask good questions of your admissions counselor. Cultivate a healthy distrust of surface claims and statistics. Access resources such as the pocket guide produced by National Survey of Student Engagement. Demand better.