Ideas, insights and inspirations.

After two decades of brushing aside concern for how digital would disrupt higher education, college presidents recognize that the wolf may be arriving in the form of large, gold-plated public universities investing hundreds of millions to capture a winner’s share of the adult/online and military market.

Penn State Global, Arizona State University, and Purdue Global will soon be joined by the University of Maryland Global Campus, which plans to increase its marketing budget by $500M to grow online students from 90,000 to 120,000. The University of Massachusetts system vowed to become a leader in online education by investing heavily in marketing, as has the University of Missouri system looking to invest enough marketing dollars to grow their online enrollment from 75,000 to 120,000 by 2023.

They’re pursuing a digitally savvy market of over 8 million non-traditional students — working professionals, active-duty military personnel and veterans — either starting or re-starting progress toward a degree.

Welcome to the marketing arms race

Online education stands as the fastest growing sector in higher education. Public universities, facing state budget cuts, are eying it as a cure-all and as a path to financial independence.

Southern New Hampshire University spent $132M on advertising in 2017 and enrolled over 63,000 students from 48 states. Western Governors spent close to $100M on marketing in 2018 and now enrolls over 115,000 students from all 50 states. Similarly, for-profit universities like University of Phoenix and Grand Canyon University each invest over $100M annually to enroll their 100,000+ students.

Such gaudy numbers finally have caught the attention of some public universities looking to add online revenue to dwindling in-state, on-campus tuition dollars. Even if a few of them realize their ambition, the higher education landscape will change dramatically in the next decade.

Impact on marketing

Looking at the situation using the 5 P’s framework of marketing, here is what might ensue.

The marketing arms race drives increases in Google, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn paid advertising costs. In the last decade, for-profit colleges have doubled the Google PPC bid prices (from $5-$8 to $15-$20 per click) and Facebook PPC bid prices (from $1-$3 to $5-$7 per click) for degree and program related keywords. Public universities – loaded with marketing war chests – will further increase bid prices.

Just as Amazon and Walmart have gradually forced small businesses to become more specialized, public universities will force small, regional colleges to limit their offerings to areas where they have a true competitive advantage – forcing them to shut down non-distinctive programs.

People & Place
Adult students, accustomed to national for-profit and non-profit institutions, will welcome well-known educational brands from across the country.

Increased competition will lower the overall price of online education, lowering the margins for online education providers.

Winners and losers

In this emerging landscape, winning colleges will either be immune to market forces or be adept at simultaneously balancing excellence, access and impact.

Public universities: The few who succeed in overcoming political, structural and faculty barriers to spawn massive online divisions will be the clear winners. They will succeed at the expense of for-profit colleges at first, and then, in the long run, community colleges and non-profit colleges.

For-profit colleges: Once the pioneers in online education, they’ll be the biggest losers primarily because their reputation has already been tarnished by scandals resulting from low-graduation rates, loan-defaults, closings, and their profit motive.

Community colleges: Despite their price advantage, they will abdicate some of their revenue to the stronger brand-named public universities. Their low-end certificates will be most vulnerable to competitive forces.

Private non-profit colleges: In this emerging landscape, a handful of elite four-year private colleges with strong brands and deep endowments will likely remain immune to market forces.

Life continues to get harder for underdog private non-profit colleges with high tuition dependency, small endowments and small marketing budgets. In the last two decades, their once safe existence has been threatened by for-profit colleges, upstart community colleges, demographic declines and, more recently, the promise of free college education. As the Google PPC market and paid social media platforms become cost prohibitive, and public universities threaten to peel off their cushion of online revenue, they must act now, decisively, to balance the forces of excellence, access and impact.

Nine steps private four-year underdogs should take to mitigate risk

They must:

  • sharpen their unique selling proposition – providing multiple “hooks” that foster brand preference
  • offer a more distinct portfolio of programs – resisting the temptation to start new me-too programs
  • create programs that require experiential learning – building immunity from online learning
  • narrow focus on fewer programs – where they have indisputable competitive advantage
  • reimagine their publishing potential – creating, monetizing and weaponizing valuable content from their natural wellspring of ideas, innovation, and intellectual capital
  • abandon ineffective and expensive student search models – embracing new ones based on machine learning, big-data algorithms, affiliates and feeders
  • leverage intrinsic differentials – such as geographic advantage, institutional legacy, and large capital investments
  • adopt new business models – creating collaborative bridges between themselves and their corporate, government and civic partners
  • invest in brand – lifting the college from obscurity to national prominence

When for-profit colleges arrived on the scene in the late nineties, they shook up the higher education landscape with their new innovate approaches to education. As public universities catch up, another tectonic shift is underway. To survive and thrive in this future, underdog colleges must reimagine themselves — leveraging their inherent creativity by outsmarting without outspending their competitors.

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College marketing and communications teams increasingly look to boost video teams and budgets. All well and good, but we should not overlook the enduring value and impact of your still image library.

It’s easy to grow complacent and assume that last year’s photos will meet this year’s needs. It’s tempting to hire less qualified photographers, and to cram too many shots into a long day of shooting.

Here are 5 Quick Tips on how to build, maintain and mature your campus photo library.

Frequency: Many college photo libraries grow stale without anyone noticing. If you want to maintain a viable collection of photos, plan on four, two-day shoots each year. Story needs and brand understanding change — as do seasons, fashion, hair, and the campus environment. You will need to schedule multiple shoots each year for photos to keep pace.

Quality: Staff photographers spend so much time shooting grip-and-grin, raise-a-glass campus events that few have time to hone their editorial POV and technical craft. And while you can find plenty of less expensive, “I know a gal/guy” photographers, inexperience will show. Quality wins. One great image will outwork 50 pedestrian images. Better to find a great photographer willing to negotiate a longer-term contract than settle for fair-to-middling assets that offer all pain and no reputation gain.

Editorial Planning: Editorial planning should be a year round activity that covers all publication, marketing, campus and social media needs, including photography. Rather than building a shoot schedule around people, let the story lead. Curate photos — considering how stories, events, and schedules might align. But don’t prioritize convenience. If you’re not photographing for story first, you will end up with images that fill space but fail to serve a need.

Student Faculty Encounter: As Wesleyan College President Michael Roth writes: “The richness of the curriculum and high quality of the instruction may receive a nod, but they are rarely celebrated. Promoting everything except what happens between faculty and students may be good for short-term appeal, but the result is to make the entire enterprise of higher education more fragile.” Rather than simply “book” photo appointments with faculty/students, it’s worth a conversation to discover how best to capture the encounter. Each relationship has distinct contours, and the photo should capture something essential.

Scouting: The best way to ensure a productive shoot day is to scout early and often. Send both an art director and writer – each brings a different perspective.

Bonus Tip:

Stylist: Some photographers will insist on working with a stylist. That may seem like an unnecessary expense, but it’s worth paying the extra level of attention to the details of hair, clothing, accessories and overall vibe. This is one place where you might find a staff member or student worker who clearly brings an eye for this detail, and knows how to work a comb, brush or touch up mirror under pressure.




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By now, you may have started in on your summer reading list for beach, cabin, She-Shed or hammock. Why not a summer reading list for the office?

Yes, higher education marketers often move even faster in the summer months. All the more reason to give yourself a once-a-week moment for reflection and inspiration. This list of 10 books, curated with the help of friends who routinely write, photograph, film and illustrate, may help ignite the creative spark.


A Dictionary Of Color Combinations by Sanzo Wada

Based on Japanese fine artist Sanzo Wada’s original 6-volume work from the 1930s, this book offers 348 color combinations that remind us that great design always takes grounding from the past as it places the audience in a still developing future. 


San Francisco, Portrait of a City: 1940-1960 by Fred Lyon

Fred Lyon’s mostly post-war San Francisco study reminds us of why we love cities, especially one so compact, composed, defiantly pedestrian and residential and yet aware of its precarious geological and climatic  reality. Every picture begins and completes a story.


Mirror by Suzy Lee

Suzy Lee’s dynamically illustrated, wordless book is part of a series (Wave, Lines, Shadow) that quiets the busy editorial mind and reminds us of the role of tempo, mood and narrative beat structure.


A Comedian Sees the World by Charlie Chaplin

Editor Lisa Stein Haven adds some context and insight to this collection, originally published as a set of five articles by Charlie Chaplin in Women’s Home Companion from September 1933 to January 1934. Part memoir, and part history lesson, Chaplin’s lens on the world remains relevant to anyone — students and staff — engaged with college study abroad.


The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick

In an age when we perpetually mine the raw material of life (social media), Vivian Gornick walks us through great works of memoir (Edmund Gosse, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, or Marguerite Duras) with a simple goal, to help us distinguish between the situation and the story.


Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays by David Ball

David Ball’s patient investigation of plot, character, theme, exposition, imagery, conflict and more may help you to rethink every aspect of the enrollment dance (online, on paper, on campus) as part of a larger craft and work.


Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas by John Pollack

Former Bill Clinton speechwriter John Pollack gives plenty of examples of analogies that clarify, as well as some that confuse and deceive, a good primer for anyone routinely charged with creating infographics, or writing “vision” pieces for a college president.


Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte

Poet David Whyte knows this borderland between language and relationship, and he uses a reflection on 52 ordinary words to remind us that we are — in our personal development and professional practice — the story we choose to tell.


Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn McEntyre

Remind yourself that author Marilyn McEntyre published this book in 2009, which makes her declaration that “caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words” all the more prescient. Our vocabulary for lifting higher education is certainly as depleted as any, and this book arrives like two charge paddles to shock us back into writing with greater purpose and verve.


Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing by Robert A. Caro

For the legions of young PR, advertising and communications graduates working within your college marketing teams, Robert A. Caro might loom like a dinosaur of the highest order. But the reason most college communication fails can be traced to either a lack of reporting instinct or effort. Caro reminds us that the point of the interview is less for the reporter to learn something new, and more for the subject to reveal something to themselves that they could never before acknowledge or articulate.


Admission numbers are trickling in. Highly selective and less selective colleges are both missing their enrollment targets.

We believe that enrollment VPs and college presidents ought to be examining their shared, but ineffective habits, instead of blaming the usual suspects: unfavorable demographics, increased sensitivity to the rising cost of college, society questioning the overall value of a college degree, reduction in international student applicants, and students applying to multiple colleges. Not that these forces can be ignored, but the real test of leadership for enrollment leaders is to claim an outsized share of an uncertain and dwindling market.

In our view, Enrollment professionals share, and must break, the following ineffective habits:

1. They are buying names of high school seniors and juniors instead of cultivating names of right-fit prospects.

Instead of attracting right-fit prospects with inspired marketing, they are employing tired enrollment tactics from firms who buy names in large numbers, then throw commoditized direct mail/email at prospective students, hoping to snare a few. These outdated methods disregard the habits of savvy Gen-Z kids who are maintaining five to six email accounts to filter out email noise from colleges, and are mercilessly tossing away the similar-looking direct mail pieces. These tactics result in the traditional admissions funnel.

Traditional Admissions Funnel

Instead, the Enrollment VPs need to market to create an inverted funnel. They ought to be focused on promoting the various segments of their star students and alumni, which in turn will attract look-alikes, creating tribes of like-minded prospects. This will increase the number of prospects who are likely to convert into applicants, engaged students, loyal alumni and lifelong donors.

Inverted Admissions Funnel

2. They are investing in expensive or ineffective paid digital media instead of data-driven machine-learning strategies.
Many VPs of Enrollment Marketing, comfortable with traditional out-of-home advertising, are investing in ineffective display advertising; they are also buying expensive Google paid advertising where the prices have been jacked up by for-profit schools; publics like Arizona State and Purdue; and privates like Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire.

The should invest in cheaper, less wasteful paid social advertising, A/B testing, look-alike marketing and micro-targeting which all leverage partly human judgement and partly machine-learning based on data-rich social media.

Deploying these smarter strategies will turn admission funnels into admission pipes.

3. They are communicating exclusively with students instead of a broader set of audiences.

Instead of making a shortlist of colleges on their own, Gen-Z’s are heavily influenced by the opinions of their social network of peers, teachers, college counselors, principals, parents and friends.

Instead of investing most of their marketing dollars on high school seniors and juniors, the VPs of Enrollment should target a mix of students, parents, teachers, college counselors in high schools, and principals. This creates a stereophonic set of messages that surround and engage a prospect with what’s distinctive about a college.

4. They are investing in an ineffective media mix of direct mail and emails instead of one-of-a-kind memorable pieces.

Gen-Z kids are maintaining five to six email accounts to filter out email noise from colleges, and are mercilessly throwing away the similar-looking direct mail pieces they are receiving. They are only paying attention to and keeping the most memorable pieces (what Seth Godin calls “the purple cows”).

Instead of wasting money on big print pieces which are tossed, or generic emails that are never opened, the VPs of Enrollment ought to be creating smaller attention-grabbing pieces. Harvey Mudd’s playing cards and North Central College’s iSpeak book are good examples of innovative marketing.

5. They are presenting their academic product pages on their websites as commodity products instead of programs of distinction.
Mobile-friendly, price-sensitive, data-driven Gen-Z and their parents are researching programs/schools with more intensity than ever before.

Program pages, what we call “money pages” on a college website, are where many college decisions are made and college preferences are created. Even though the colleges are asking families to pony up fees that are close to the price of expensive cars, it’s rare to find the level of romance and presentation that even economy car companies put into their entry-level model pages.

Instead of settling with bland program pages packed with facts, the VPs of Enrollment Marketing must create program pages that romance prospects and their families. They must feature stories of peer students, faculty and labs, facilities, studios, and centers of excellence where the students’ minds will be shaped and skills will be developed. They must paint pictures of exciting opportunities that await them after graduation and offer stories of alumni as demonstrable proof of their program’s distinction.

6. Their teams are overly dependent on tools, technologies and analytics rather than leading from the front.

Enrollment is sales. It demands the highest form of persuasion and consultative salesmanship.

Enrollment teams must be equipped with data to help guide their conversations, but they can’t hide behind a sea of data with limited instinct and ability to create trust and comfort with the most important decision of a student’s life.

7. They are producing a sea of content but aren’t weaponizing it.

Google page 1 is destiny. As is high-fidelity, persuasive content “discovered” on social media.

Staff at many colleges don’t have the wherewithal to weaponize the content they create for the digital world in which Google page 1 rankings are shaping institutional reputation. They are creating new content (news, social media, university magazine, blogs, website, etc.) at a furious pace without informing it by a Keyword Lexicon – comprised of high-value words and phrases they can rightfully claim and “own” to drive right-fit conversions and marketing ROI.

8. Their enrollment marketing budgets are meager in comparison with their competitors and online juggernauts.

Most non-profit colleges and universities are investing between 2% and 5% of their total revenue on marketing (most rarely invest marketing budgets in excess of $1M annually) . Many of them are reluctant to grow the marketing budget annually despite the fact that the pay-per-click costs and media costs are rising annually. They are also oblivious to the large sums of money that for-profit colleges are throwing into the market – investing almost 20% of their total revenue on marketing. The University of Phoenix and Grand Canyon University alone spend over $100M on their marketing respectively. Even non-profits like the Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors, Arizona State, Purdue and Liberty each spend over $100M on their marketing budgets. A handful of public educational systems, like University of Maryland and University of Massachusetts, are about to join the $100M marketing club.

In the face of such odds, the enrollment VPs must embrace the mantra of “money makes money”.

In conclusion, blaming the usual suspects isn’t going to solve the problem of enrollment declines. As the author Rita Mae Brown famously said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” I urge VPs of Enrollment to shed their tired habits and adopt new and innovative ones – or at least invest in new tactics that might give them a fighting chance at reaching the promised land.

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Achieving Google page 1 rankings is the road to prosperity for brands. Since 90% of the users never go beyond page 1 of Google search results, and Google now commands close to 90% of global searches, getting on page 1 is critical for brands. These Google page 1 rankings are also a critical foundation for the emerging voice search arena.

I’ll first provide a little background on how Google’s algorithm works. Then I’ll share some tips on how to get ready for voice search on mobile devices and home gadgets like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod.

Factors That Influence Page 1 Google Rankings

Getting on page 1 is not a one and done game. Because Google’s algorithm changes periodically, the strategies for securing page 1 positions must be adapted periodically.

In general, Google wants marketers to provide concise, helpful and useful information to all prospects so they can evaluate their options and make their choices. It doesn’t want marketers to game the bot or game the prospect. Google rewards websites when it finds consistency between the marketer’s website content, its social media conversations, and broader social discussions around the brand. It gives a higher rank to websites that provide assistance that reduce its bot work load, follow standards and adhere to best practices.

To give you a sense of the big changes in Google’s algorithm and the ranking factors in the last decade, I have created a simplified chart below:

Keyword Strategies

The search terms people type in the Google search box have changed dramatically too, and can be understood in three distinct epochs:

The Keywords Era: In the beginning, people used to type in keywords (2-3 words on the average), when looking for products, services and information. The early Google index was initially organized around keywords. SEO marketers gamed the system by increasing keyword density on their website pages. They did this by packing keywords in the page content and in the invisible meta-data fields. This was the “Keyword” era of Google.

The Keyword Cluster Era: When Google added the auto-complete and auto-suggest features to the search box, it changed everything. Keywords turned into key phrases which were 5-7 words long. Instead of keywords, SEO marketers now had to optimize their content around a set of keyword-informed phrases. A set of long-tail phrases began outperforming the top-performing short keywords of the previous era. This was the “Keyword Cluster” era of Google.

The Natural Language Era: The search game is changing yet again. We are now entering a new era of search with the advent of voice activated search on mobile phones (like Google Assistant, Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa) and gadgets like Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod and others. This is ushering in a completely new paradigm of search based on “Natural Language Processing”. People will utter sentences containing approximately 8-12 words to get answers to their questions. By year 2020, 30% of searches are expected to be voice driven.

Getting Ready for Voice Search

Marketers will have to do six things to show up more frequently on voice searches:

1. Get responsive. Speed it up. If your website isn’t responsive yet (i.e. auto-adjusts gracefully to mobile devices, tablets and desktops), it’s time to build one now. And make sure it’s fast, fully SEO optimized and running in secure mode.

2. Write colloquially. People won’t change their speaking habits for the computer. Computers will have to adapt to human beings speaking a less than perfect language – at the proverbial ninth grade level.

3. Write page summaries. Start thinking about writing short, persuasive, 29-word page summaries above the screen fold on long-form pages. These summaries will act as pop-up snippets served up by voice searches on mobile devices and home gadgets; they will also appear as answer boxes on desktop search results.

4. Build social shares. The more shared the page is on Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn and other social channels, the more likely it will surface on voice search.

5. Think globally. Act locally. Since more than 20% of searches are local, consider adding phrases such as ‘near me’ into your copy, especially if you have a local or regional business.

6. Rank high on desktop/mobile search. If your website is not ranked on desktop/mobile search, it is unlikely that it will be ranked on voice search. Before investing in voice search, focus your marketing efforts on achieving top rankings on desktop/mobile search.

Learn more about our search marketing services.

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Great marketing campaigns are powered by a brand-inspired strategy followed by the creation of high-fidelity content. The attention-grabbing content is presented to right-fit prospects using micro-targeting by placing it in the right channels at the right time. Campaign teams measure the performance, and adjust the campaign based on the insights gleaned from analytics data.

Anatomy of a Successful Marketing Campaign

1. Brand Inspired: Campaigns are infused with brand essence.

2. Strategy Directed: They are informed by research insights that steer the campaign in a direction most likely to succeed. They don’t meander.

3. High-Fidelity Content Powered: In the age of “show, don’t tell”, they are comprised of authentic high-fidelity content to win hearts, minds and bots.

4. Micro-Targeting Aimed: They are personalized, then adjusted based on A/B testing of the creative. They lean on algorithms to augment human judgement. They result in little “ad waste”.

5. Multi-Channel Deployed: In an era of rapid media channel growth, the campaigns are released in the fewest – but best – digital and traditional channels where right-fit prospects hang out. They only expand channels as necessary.

6. Timed Perfectly: In an always-on world, they are timed perfectly to coincide with the peaks and valleys of prospect engagement.

7. Analytics & Metrics Driven: Campaign teams mine the data to uncover insights that elevate the developing story.

These steps reflect a new marketing paradigm. Ad creative augmented by artificial intelligence, precision marketing backed by mathematical models, and operating in stealth mode is the new normal. Adoption of this new methodology is more uncommon than you would think. In the new world order, losers will be those who will hang on to the old ways of visible, wasteful, mass-marketing campaigns using a few traditional media channels.

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Not a week goes by that we don’t see the news of a college closing, merging or downsizing. Unfavorable demographics and remote locations are purported to be the primary reasons for their troubles. We disagree. Having served numerous colleges over the past two decades, and observing the evolving collegiate scene, we believe that the following reasons are the key drivers that put colleges in distress:

Marketing Imagination

Many colleges in distress lack marketing imagination. They fail to invest in creating a distinctive brand based on their one strong-to-impenetrable differentiation, learning to speak with their one true brand voice, nurturing the brand with thoughtful communications, or protecting the brand from being fractured by the forces of efficiency.

They fail to shift their overall communications perspective from one that is centered around what the institution offers to one focused on projects, ideas and stories of their students, faculty and alumni (the real “heroes” of the story).

Enrollment Management Practices

The enrollment practices of many colleges in trouble are focused on meeting short-term targets, irrespective of right-fit.

Instead of motivating prospects with inspired marketing, they are employing tired enrollment tactics from firms who buy names in large number, then throw commoditized direct mail/email at prospective students, hoping to snare a few. These outdated methods completely disregard the habits of savvy Gen-Z kids who are maintaining five to six email accounts to filter out email noise, and are mercilessly throwing away the look-alike direct mail pieces.

As a result, their students melt away, and their graduation and placement rates are low. Brand loyalty is not formed.

Academic Innovation

The academic offerings of afflicted colleges aren’t keeping up with the times. Instead of creatively re-imagining their program offerings for the integrative Gen-Z thinkers, they are making simple-minded choices between Liberal Arts or STEM, Business or Liberal Arts, etc. Instead of creating new degrees that the marketplace would reward for their distinctiveness, they are creating traditional degrees in over-crowded spaces.

Additionally, they are reluctant to explore and harvest new student streams such as adult students, online learners, distance learners, career enhancers, and corporate education professionals.

Caring for Students

The staff of many colleges in decline either has not been trained to serve the students, or doesn’t have the heart to serve their student audiences. They give lip service to the promises made in their mission statements. They want students’ (and their families’) hard-earned money, but don’t offer the empathy and support services that lead to student success.

They don’t invest in the support infrastructure to proactively help each student segment work through the unique obstacles they’ll inevitably face on their journey to graduation and beyond.

The net effect is weakened staff morale and high transfer rates.

Management Practices

The management practices of many colleges in decline need to be rejuvenated. On the one hand, they create org structures that foster or perpetuate departmental silos; and on the other, they hold senior people accountable without giving them the authority to “own” decisions.

Budgetary Practices

Many colleges in trouble allocate more money to traditional media when, in reality, their audiences are spending almost all their time on digital devices and channels.

They haven’t embraced the mantra of “money makes money”. They are under-staffed and under-resourced.

Weaponized Content

The staff at many distressed colleges doesn’t have the wherewithal to weaponize the content they create for the digital world in which Google page 1 rankings are shaping institutional reputation. They are creating new content (news, social media, university magazine, blogs, website, etc.) at a furious pace without informing it by a Keyword Lexicon – comprised of high-value words and phrases they can rightfully claim and “own” to drive right-fit conversions and marketing ROI.

Agile Culture

The cultures at colleges in decline are not adaptive and dynamic. Doing it the way it has always been done gets in the way of doing the right thing that emerging situations demand. They move at a glacial pace because of too many friction points and unwieldy bureaucracies.

Culture of Giving

A culture of giving is missing at most distressed colleges, resulting in a smaller endowment war chest to either attract the brightest students or reduce dependency on tuition revenue. They fail to maintain sustained communications with alumni. They send tone-deaf communications, which are insensitive to emotions, motivations and needs prevalent in different stages of life of their alumni. They don’t cultivate alumni engagement with programs commensurate with what they can give: time, treasure and/or talent. They don’t have customized models to place alumni in a spectrum of ‘likelihood to give’ tiers, and sending customized communications to each differentiated segment.

As a result, their giving rates are low and their endowments are small.

Activist Boards

Many distressed colleges have board of directors who are lifestyle board members. They are not willing to actively lean in to help create institutional inflection points.

Community Relationships

Many colleges in decline lack porous walls between the institution. Thus they are disconnected with the vitality of external communities including corporations, non-profits and civic organizations.

The net impact of this is that they are not perceived as schools of consequence.

Metrics That Matter

Many distressed colleges operate with either squishy metrics, too many KPI’s, or lack a disciplined culture of accountability by essential metrics that truly matter.

These schools meander instead of realizing their destiny.


Healthy colleges typically are run by a strong partnership between the President, Provost, VP for Enrollment & Marketing, and Chief Fundraising Officer. This group hires outside branding and marketing talent for the digital age that knows how to create the very best first impressions; they commandeer budgets steering them in the right direction; they foster a culture of academic product innovation; they expect porous walls between the institution and the outside world; they care deeply for the well-being of students throughout the student lifecycle; they monitor a set of metrics that matter to gauge progress; and they welcome polarity with contrarian and activist board members. In a nutshell, they run an autocratic democracy where everyone is heard, but the right things are done.

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I have read dozens of reports on Gen-Z (born between 1996 and 2010) including those from Pew, HubSpot, SHRM, and other credible sources. But watching my own three teens and dozens of their friends has given me a nuanced understanding of Gen-Z. Here are my observations:


The Many Faces of Gen-Z


They are race-blind, faith-blind and gender-blind

As part of the most diverse generation in the U.S. history, they take diversity for granted. They accept, not just respect, others for who they are – irrespective of their race, religious beliefs, and their gender preferences.

They are digital natives

Born in the digital age, they live on YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr and Google. The internet is an extension of their brain. They have an app for everything they do, or have an interest in. Memes are a part of their daily lives.

They are data literate and research driven

Rankings, ratings, scores, research studies are part and parcel of their daily lives and conversations. They don’t understand the nuances of data and the gamesmanship behind data creation, but they’ll learn that too in due time.

They are the “AND” generation that wants it all

To them double and triple majors are the norm. They’ll listen to all genres of music – rock, classical, jazz, electronic, electronic dance music (EDM) and more. They’ll pursue what they love, irrespective of whether it belongs to their own, their parents’ or their grandparents’ generation. They’ll learn multiple computer languages and digital tools.

They are self-directed

They have planners, schedulers, and alerts all worked into their daily lives.

They respect brands with values

They are keenly aware of what brands stand for – and they endorse brands whose values resonate with their own. They want to be a part of something greater than themselves.

They expect authentic, show-don’t-tell marketing

As my daughter once said, “I wish colleges would stop spamming me and only share stories of interesting things their students and faculty are doing. I’ll respect them more and then consider going there.”

They have a voice and want it to be heard

They speak their hearts and minds. They take protesting as a part of their moral duty. They want to make a difference locally, nationally and globally.

They are stressed

They feel the burdens and expectations of their families, society and global issues on their tender shoulders. They are worried about money and college loans. Perhaps that’s why they have a deeper need for humor (consumed on YouTube of course).

They are entrepreneurial

Perhaps because they are worried about money, they are dreaming of creating their own channels, apps, and startups.

A word of caution. These are generalizations that don’t apply to every Gen-Z person or every Gen-Z micro-community. Each sub-group and each individual’s behavior varies depending on their personal circumstances and the special communities they are part of. For instance, when we interviewed groups of elite private school kids, inner-city kids, first-generation in college kids, and hispanic kids, their characteristics, values and behaviors were quite distinctive and unique. Of course, life is far more complex than all the theories of life put together.

What have you observed about your teens and Gen-Z?

If the 20th century was the century of specialization, then the 21st century is becoming the century of integrative thinking.

In the twentieth century, colleges and universities offered choices of majoring in professional, STEM or liberal arts disciplines. In the first two decades of this century, there is now a discernable movement towards creation of a fourth choice: programs that integrate arts and sciences, technology and humanities, business and liberal arts, law and medicine, computing and finance – in short of almost anything one can imagine. New alloys of knowledge are being created and pursued by Gen-Z and millennials, whom we refer to as the “AND” generations.


A Few Examples of the Integration of Disciplines

Allegheny College: “Liberal Arts-Plus”
Allegheny College “Liberal Arts-Plus” requires their students to declare a major and a minor, creating interesting combinations like “Business & Philosophy” and “Economics & French”. The college has also recently launched a pioneering program in “Integrative Informatics” to help students “understand the impact of information, data and technology on society and learn to develop new uses for data analysis.” Allegheny College takes pride in preparing adaptive, lifelong learners for a “dynamic society”, says Stephen Onyeiwu, Economics Department chair.

Bryant University: Business+Liberal Arts OR Liberal Arts+Business
Bryant University’s innovative curriculum mandates business majors to minor in liberal arts, and vice versa. A bold and daring experiment in combining the professional and foundational. The curriculum was designed to address the number one need of recruiting managers at corporations: to hire well-rounded business minds. Visit their website.

Carnegie Mellon: Multidisciplinary Degrees
Over the years, Carnegie Mellon has created several multidisciplinary degree programs such as Entertainment Technology Center’s Masters in Entertainment Technology, Masters in Computational Finance, Integrated Innovation Institute’s Masters in Integrated Innovation for Products and Services, Masters in Software Management, and Masters in Technology Ventures.

Most recently, Carnegie Mellon University’s top-ranked Tepper School of Business and School of Computer Science joined hands to create their new Master of Science in Product Management – the first-of-its-kind degree in the world. The degree is designed to accelerate careers and boost earning potential of software developers. The 12-month Master of Science in Product Management program provides a thorough, challenging and balanced curriculum that enhances the technical skills, business acumen and social intelligence students will need to be successful in the role of a Product Manager.

Columbia University: “Engineering Plus”
Columbia University’s “Engineering Plus” was redesigned from the ground up “because we live during an unprecedented time when engineering is the key to so much from medicine to moviemaking; from smart cities to smart policies; from new journalism to new economics to new technologies.”

North Central College: “21st Century Engineer”
North Central College launched their “21st Century Engineer” program designed to produce customer-facing engineers who are also ethically-minded problem solvers, consummate communicators, agile thinkers, and idea generators.

Stanford University: CS+X
Stanford’s CS + X initiative where X = {Art Practice, Classics, Comparative Literature, English, French, German Studies, History, Iberian and Latin American Cultures, Italian, Linguistics, Music, Philosophy, Slavic Languages and Literature, or Spanish} honors integration and human complexity. Here is an excerpt from their website:

Intersecting opposites create altered perspectives, fresh intellectual possibilities and new strengths. CS+X is an initiative designed to allow students to pursue their academic passions in multiple academic fields. It aims to help undergraduates balance pragmatism with ambition. And it affords them intellectual environments in which they can develop their creativity and analytic robustness by acquiring skills in separate but mutually galvanizing fields of study: engineering speaking to the imagination while literature, philosophy and language imbue technical challenges with human significance.

University of Pittsburgh’s School of Computing and Information
The founding Dean at this new School of Computing and Information formulated a vision “to create technology and expertise that enables evidence-based modeling and decision making in the context of interacting natural, social and engineered systems” and a mission “to make the world a better place through polymathic education and the science of interacting systems.”

Wake Forest University: Engineering
Wake Forest recently launched their engineering program in the context of a liberal arts school.


What’s Driving Integration of Disciplines

Enlightened Employers
Employers have been telling colleges and universities that they want well-rounded (polymathic), customer-facing, agile thinkers, idea generators who can also communicate impeccably. Employers hope that the integrative thinkers will help tackle problems like: How do we go about building ethical AI? How do we deploy science to restore balance to the planet? How do we advance medicine and humanity together? How do we develop interesting engaging products that drive growth?

Gen-Z Students Growing Up in A World Filled with Complexity
Gen-Z is the most diverse and most educated generation yet. They value creativity, have global aspirations, draw inspiration from anywhere, and want to make the planet a better place. To them, the internet is an extension of their brain.

Integrative Thinking: An Idea Whose Time has Come
In 2007, Roger Martin, then the Dean of Rotman School of Business at University of Toronto, wrote the thoughtful book titled “The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking” with the premise that the new leaders creatively resolve the tension in opposing models by forming entirely new and superior ones instead of choosing one at the expense of the other. He arrived at this insight by interviewing 50 successful leaders who shared a distinct common characteristic – “the predisposition and capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”

In 2011, another book — “Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession” — which comes out of extensive study by the Carnegie Foundation, argues for a more integrative approach.


Moving forward, we anticipate that integrative programs will become more pervasive. Instead of having to choose between Professional, STEM, or Liberal Arts, prospective students will be able to choose Integrative programs that suit their intellectual needs best.

Full disclosure: Elliance has had the good fortune to market some of the innovators listed above including Bryant University, Carnegie Mellon University, North Central College, and University of Pittsburgh’s School of Computing and Information.

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Although the future of work has become increasingly technical and vocational, the future of innovation and leadership remains solidly in the hands of people who majored or minored in liberal arts and humanities. There is a good reason for this paradox: liberal arts teach people how to learn, think, create, communicate, connect the dots, handle ambiguity, and adapt – qualities that are vital for introducing change and causing disruption.

Listed below are, in my view, the five key habits that liberal arts colleges cultivate in their graduates:

Five Competencies of Liberal Arts Graduates

Liberal arts graduates become anthropologists and life-long learners because they are trained to constantly gather data (scan and research) and analyze it. These traits are critical for learning professionals of today since, in every profession, the ground looks completely different every 3-5 years.

By consuming myriad of variations of the human condition, they begin to better understand fellow human beings, cultivate empathy for others, and see multiple perspectives.

By continually prioritizing and synthesizing information, liberal arts graduates become clear thinkers, natural connectors and good communicators – vital skills for increasingly diverse work environments.

By perpetually consuming great productions and performances, liberal arts graduates develop the essential skills to instinctively curate, orchestrate, choreograph and mythologize new creations. No wonder so many of them become storytellers, experience designers, scientists and innovators.

As Shakespeare said, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. Liberal arts education prepares the mind to accept the mantle of greatness, whether one is born, or aspires to be an entrepreneur, responsible leader, engaged citizen, thought leader or change maker.

These soft skills partially explain why many parents question the value of a liberal arts degree. In the short run, the technical and vocational degrees win the compensation race, but they also plateau earlier; however, in the second and third stage of career development, liberal arts majors begin to outperform the technical and vocational majors. Studies also show that people who enter the professions directly earn less than those who get there indirectly through the liberal arts route.

Most liberal arts colleges have failed to construct a cogent argument about the value of liberal arts. However, a few schools are beginning to make bold efforts to articulate the value. One noteworthy example of such an effort was completed by Satyan Devadoss, then a Professor of Mathematics at William College, who mapped the career paths of its 15,600 liberal arts alumni to show that they go on to successful careers in all walks of life. It’s instructive to see how their data maps out by visiting this website.

Visualizing Career Paths of Liberal Arts Majors

What additional competencies would you like to add to my list? What interesting efforts have you seen that articulate the value of liberal arts?

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