What’s a Changing Electorate Have to Do With Higher Ed Marketing?

Like a blindfolded volunteer in an “Old Coke, New Coke” taste test, Republican pollsters and pundits seemed genuinely surprised last week to learn that their trusted brand — “USA” — had changed.

Although demographers and groups such as the Pew Research Center have been charting changing US birth/death rates and immigration patterns for decades, and essayists like Richard Rodriguez have written with depth and nuance about the change, some in the political class seemed caught flat footed, if not flat stunned.

Higher education marketing and enrollment professionals have watched and responded to these trends for years, and college presidents and boards have grappled with a range of issues related to student success, admissions policies, financial aid, and more.

Often, the assumption in higher education circles is that institutions play a significant role in helping first generation students advance professionally and personally. While nobody would argue that case, colleges miss a huge opportunity if they fail to acknowledge a wide range of reciprocal benefits. Even need-blind admissions colleges risk and gain little if the exchange across class and culture lines remains largely arms-length and unilateral.

If the US election in 2008 roused world attention about one candidate’s profile and personality, the 2012 election could invite an even more profound shift in awareness — a sustained curiosity about how the most powerful nation in the world is changing, and not just at a skin-deep level.

As higher education marketing and admissions professionals, we can lead the way by paying close attention to how we report and tell this changing narrative. Enrollment marketing cliches, tropes and stereotypes abound regarding the encounter between first-generation students and colleges. We re-use and recycle these in our PR, viewbook and website content — with a genuine, if largely unquestioned, sense of pride.

Our challenge is to stretch beyond the obvious, and to ask ourselves — strategically and tactically — how our colleges and clients fit into the larger dynamic of an America in transition? How do well-worn interpretations of “diversity” stagnate or weaken the nation’s best higher education brands? What would it take for our institutions to lead rather than follow on the issue of a changing America?

Some point an easy finger of blame at the Republican establishment for missing a crucial inflection point in a changing US electorate.

It may be time for private liberal arts colleges to take a closer look at their exposure to the same risk — and to re-imagine how first-generation college goers might help transform both the institution and the “traditional” college experience. This cohort of students can provide presidents, deans and directors with a wealth of ground-level, personal insight applicable to everything from academic program development and corporate partnerships, to the design of orientation and parent’s weekends, to the intent and mission of study-abroad.

Nobody faults colleges for decades of sustained effort toward providing a much-welcome “hand-out and hand-up,” but that era has passed. We must examine closely held assumptions and subtle matters of bias if we are to imagine and realize a more equal — and far more expansive — exchange.