Can a National Marketing Campaign Change the Souring Conversation About College?

Higher ed has an image problem.

Everyone is eyeing the same surveys and headlines with gritted teeth: the Gallup and Pew polls showing declining public confidence in colleges and universities, particularly among Republicans. The donors and politicians trying to take a heavier hand with public institutions in Florida, North Carolina, and elsewhere, signs that they no longer trust college leaders to run their own affairs. The enrollment declines that can’t entirely be explained by demographics.

On average, college remains a good investment. Getting a degree helps people stay employed, earn more, and live longer, healthier, happier lives. Would-be students who discount college’s worth may be shortchanging themselves — as well as their country. A less educated America could be less economically competitive and its civic institutions more unstable.

“The biggest national-security problem that no one is talking about is the fact that we’re seeing college-going rates decline tremendously,” Seth Bodnar, president of the University of Montana and an Iraq War veteran and former professor at West Point, said at a panel recently.

In the early 1990s, another industry faced falling interest in its product. Californians were drinking less milk — and had been for 15 years. Consumer research showed people believed milk was healthy, yet they had apparently been enticed away by soda and Snapple.

So California’s biggest dairy processors decided to try something different. They began funding a marketing board, which in 1993 launched a campaign that would eventually go national and gain such cultural cachet that celebrities such as Britney Spears and Whoopi Goldberg would appear in ads. The next year, California milk sales increased for the first time in a decade.

A college degree and a gallon of milk are hardly comparable products. Still, some leaders are entertaining the idea that a unified marketing campaign could help change the souring conversation about college. Should higher ed craft its own answer to “Got Milk?”

Photo illustration of an illuminated billboard that features the phrase “got college?”

Chronicle photo illustration; iStock image

The public conversation about college has come to focus on its faults. The average American likes their local institution but has misgivings about “college” in general.

This is a headache for college leaders. For marketers, it may present an opportunity.

“There are myriad situations that call for a brand refresh,” said Melissa F. Richards, who promoted small businesses and technology companies before coming to higher ed more than a decade ago; she’s now Hamilton College’s vice president for marketing and communications. “An important one is when a brand and its audience are misaligned,” she said, “and that’s really relevant right now in higher education.”

“A lot of us in the sector have been crying out in the wilderness for this,” said Dana Cruikshank, a vice president at VisionPoint, a marketing firm that works exclusively with colleges.

A few of higher education’s big acronyms have begun thinking along the same lines. In 2017, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges gathered research and talking points to help board members and trustees argue for the value of their institutions and of higher ed generally. This month, the National Association of System Heads announced a campaign to prove that college is worth it, via a combination of public relations and goals to reduce student debt and improve graduates’ salaries. Although NASH members are public-college systems, the message is meant to apply to all of higher education. (For now, details on how the colleges will actually achieve their return-on-investment goals remain light, Inside Higher Ed reported.)

This is a problem that’s been building for decades, and it’s not going to be solved quickly. It will have to be part of a sustained effort over time. This is an initiative that’s designed to be a first attempt.

In 2018, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education organized a panel on the campus of American University, in Washington, D.C., about public perception and trust in higher ed. The panel itself was hardly unique, but it yielded action. While standing around afterward in one of American’s big conference rooms, leaders from CASE, AGB, and the American Council on Education came up with the first inklings for their latest project. They thought they should make a sectorwide public-relations push: “To get a group of like-minded institutions to speak with one voice, synchronously, around the set of messages that everyone’s agreed to use,” said Teresa Flannery, executive vice president for CASE, which is leading the project. Several experts said it was the largest such push they had ever heard of in higher education.

CASE staff members consulted with a group of volunteers, marketing professionals from two- and four-year public and private nonprofit colleges around the country, as well as a representative from Universities UK, which had run a messaging campaign about how British universities helped “improve our everyday lives.”

In November 2020, CASE got a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which promised $699,000 for the project, to last until the fall of 2024. That relatively modest pot of money pays for a dedicated staff member to manage the project; a website; research and surveying CASE did to get feedback on the development of the campaign; and an in-person event scheduled for February 2023. Jamey Rorison, the Gates program officer who funded CASE’s proposal, said he hoped the project would get “policymakers, institutional leaders, [and] the general public, in some regard, to really think about and understand the wide array of benefits that postsecondary education can provide.”

CASE and their advisers met five times over four months. Ultimately, they agreed on four messages: that colleges create innovation, grow the economy, help individuals achieve, and nurture communities. They came up with a name, Discover the Next.

Discover the Next’s creators want participating marketing departments to place op-eds in newspapers that talk about their colleges’ contributions to science, the economy, personal achievement, and community; to issue press releases, social-media posts, in-house magazine articles, and other marketing material that hopefully journalists will pick up; and to get their presidents to hit on the four messages during their public-speaking events.

The tactics are similar to those often used by political campaigns, Flannery said. (Or, indeed, any entity trying to polish its reputation or sell its product.) “But this is strictly not political,” Flannery said. “It’s just using the same tools.”

Discover the Next is still recruiting colleges to join the effort, which means submitting contact information through the website, appearing on the “participating institutions” page, using Discover the Next logos to label marketing materials that fit one of the four messages, and submitting press releases to the website. There’s no fee to join.

Discover the Next’s coordinators have hired a PR consultant to help with a public opening, planned for February 9, 2023. At that point, they’ll shift from trying to recruit participants to actually talking to the public.

Jovandra Cox, for one, was ready for something like Discover the Next. The marketing director for American University, she had been feeling awash in negative news stories about exploitative master’s degrees and college not being worth the money. Then she heard her 18-year-old niece “parrot the headlines.” The “conflated” message that all college is unaffordable and doesn’t pay off is “such a disservice to young people,” she said.

So when she spotted Flannery at a recent conference, she approached her with these worries. That’s when Cox first learned about Discover the Next. She was “relieved” to hear someone was doing something, and she thought it could work. “A larger effort has the ability to reach the same channels that carry this message to begin with,” she said — meaning the media outlets that broadcast stories about college scandals and affordability.

Eddie Francis, director of communications and marketing for Dillard University, felt similarly. He worries that the “College isn’t for everybody” message might be especially discouraging to Black students. “As a Black man, I start thinking to myself, ‘Well, that’s one less Black doctor that we need,’” he said. “‘That’s one less Black lawyer.’”

He, too, liked the idea of a big-tent marketing campaign. He’s seen it work in Dillard’s home city of New Orleans, where “StudyNOLA” urges students to attend any one of the 13 colleges and universities in town, depending on their interests. He envisioned a national campaign that would metaphorically “spread all of these brochures out for you on a table” — a “buffet” of choices to entice diverse potential students.

This year’s annual conference for college marketers, put on by the American Marketing Association, was held at a hulking, glass-encased hotel at the National Harbor in Maryland. The three-day meeting drew staff members of college marketing and communications departments, as well as consulting firms. The Chronicle asked attendees about their thoughts during buffet lunches, coffee breaks, and lulls before sessions and speeches began.

Most interviewees had not conceived of such a project before but reacted warmly to it. Teresa Valerio Parrot, principal of TVP Communications and a member of the conference’s planning committee, brought the notion of a “Got Milk?” campaign for higher ed before other committee members on Sunday morning, before the conference began. Half an hour later, they were still enthusiastically hashing out its pros, cons, and potential, said Francis, who’s also a committee member.

Yet even as informal conversations buzzed about the possibility of a unified message, on the formal program, speakers urged attendees to emphasize what was unique and special about their institutions. “We need everybody to dig deeper and really figure out where their sparkle is, what they’re known for, what truly is differentiating,” Valerio Parrot said on one of her panels.

The contrast illustrates just how big a shift a cooperative campaign would be for college marketers, whose primary role is to help their institutions meet their enrollment goals. Even now, distinguishing your college from the one across town, or the ones in the surrounding states that also feature a 2,000-person campus in a bucolic New England village, is seen as key to success. For many campuses, it’s paramount to convince students and families to come here, not there.

Rutgers University buys billboards to plug its football team in New York City, while the State University of New York system recently advertised it would match Rutgers tuition for New Jerseyans. Several years ago, the Philadelphia Business Journal reported on Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh advertising in each other’s cities. Competition, especially in an age of declining enrollment, is unavoidable.

That hasn’t stopped some coalitions of colleges from banding together to try to boost enrollment and public support for institutions within their groups. States have run campaigns touting their public institutions. The American Indian College Fund has long promoted tribal colleges and universities, while the United Negro College Fund’s “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” rivals “Got Milk?” as a tagline in its reach. CCsmart aims to up college-going rates by reducing the stigma around community college.

At the American Indian College Fund, ads often revolve around the idea that going to college helps Native students to give back to their communities and to participate more fully in their cultural traditions, because they need financial stability and resources to do so. “We’re not just talking about your ability to acquire material wealth. We’re talking about your ability to lead a full human life,” said Cheryl Crazy Bull, the fund’s chief executive officer. “Higher education might be able to learn from us.”

Three photo illustration images featuring ficticious “got college?” usages, including a city bus advertisement, a coffee cup and t-shirt

Chronicle photo illustration, Getty and iStock images

Campaigns by institutions that share a common characteristic make sense in a landscape as varied as American higher education. But can any snappy pitch encompass the whole sector? Higher ed isn’t one institution, but many. At best, it can be hard to talk about in singular terms. At worst, it might be downright dishonest. The success of higher education in advertising itself as a path to a better life in the late 20th century is partially what led to this moment of self-reflection, as students’ and families’ willingness to pay for degrees, for any higher ed, regardless of price, have left many feeling they got a raw deal.

There also remain substantive issues to address. Why focus on image when the sector still has opaque pricing, equity gaps, and an obsession with prestige and rankings?

For the dialogue to change, it’s not going to happen if the sole voices behind that are higher-education people.

Indeed, a focus on messaging may miss the need for a larger discussion. The cultural fights Americans have over college suggest the absence of a common understanding of what the country wants from higher education. The answer will have to come, in part, from outside higher ed. “For the dialogue to change, it’s not going to happen if the sole voices behind that are higher-education people,” said Brian Prescott, vice president for the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which recently recommended that the state of Oregon lay out a vision for what it wants its public colleges to accomplish.

“There needs to be an equal amount of pull from the business community, the folks representing the work force, and civic leaders who say, ‘We really need a commitment to postsecondary education to ensure a civil society,’” Prescott said. “Those are the kinds of things that I think would be more helpful than a marketing campaign. I’m not saying a marketing campaign isn’t helpful at all. I just think it would probably be better positioned if it was clearly not self-serving in its origin story.”

Flannery, who worked for decades in marketing and communications for Stony Brook University, American University, and the University of Maryland, knows many in academe are skeptical of marketing and branding.

Discover the Next’s planners will look for concrete wins, she said, evidence that what they’re doing is working, before moving on to more ambitious phases. Campaign staff will see how many colleges agree to join before the end of the year, which would signal that a diverse set of institutions believe in what they’re doing. (They already have a mix of participating institution types.) They’ll track how often colleges invoke the four messages, and how audiences respond to them.

In an interview held on a park bench outside the hotel at this year’s American Marketing Association conference, on a mild November afternoon, Flannery tried to temper expectations. “It’s with some humility —” she began, before saying, “This is a problem that’s been building for decades, and it’s not going to be solved quickly. It will have to be part of a sustained effort over time. This is an initiative that’s designed to be a first attempt.”

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