Higher ed marketing 101 — life is not an outcome

Today marks my son’s graduation from eighth grade — which gives me roughly two more years of immunity before the tools of higher ed marketing get turned in our direction. At 14, everything seems possible and parents mostly refrain from worrying aloud about career direction or ambition. My son and his classmates still carry themselves with a certain half-formed awkwardness that encourages everyone to exhale and consider the long view. So, what happens in the ensuing eight years to cause parents and anyone involved with higher ed marketing to become so intensely focused on buzzwords like ROI and outcomes? Human development can never be planned or measured quite as sequentially as we might like. St. Olaf College President David A. Anderson has been a strong and clear advocate for disclosing in detail how students are transformed, and how they transition from college to career. Most college websites lack either sufficient data or compelling translation of placement numbers into story. Alumni survey results often get overplayed. The arc from college freshman to full adulthood and a sense of life purpose goes largely unreported — even at liberal arts colleges where making that case has become an obsession. As higher ed marketing professionals, we need to check our impulse to adopt lazy language or to settle for pithy student success blurbs. The graduates moving across the commencement stage embody your reason for being — your brand promise. Invest some time understanding how your students evolve. Stretch the 15 minute soundbite grab into a full profile. Read some of Gary Smith’s amazing magazine writing. Your student’s life stories, at every stage, provide all of the evidence needed to animate and sustain your brand. To reduce any one of them to an “outcome,” in my opinion, sells everyone short.