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Higher Education. A Fading Rite of Passage?

July 28, 2009


I walked my daughter down the aisle last Sunday evening. She married the love of her life. It was an event that she had been looking forward to for months, and well, for her entire life. It was an emotional day for all of us. The wedding held meaning. We were different because of it. It was a rite of passage.

In order to grasp it, our daughter laid aside conventional wisdom turning down an opportunity to go pro in women’s soccer. She was an All American last year at UCLA, and was projected to be a late first round or early second round selection in the Women’s Professional Soccer league draft.

We were stunned to hear that she had backed out of the draft. How could she pass up such a rare opportunity? But our daughter’s decision was driven by a strong internal sense of what she wanted to do and what was right for her. She wanted to get married and finish her degree this year. And we are so happy for her.

Such is the power of love, and the power of a rite of passage that creates a pathway for life.

Such a rite of passage has been the promise of higher education. For decades now, this idea that college is a rite of passage to adulthood has been a tremendous advantage in marketing higher education. We haven’t had to sell the dream. We haven’t had to create the need.

In marketing higher education, we facilitate the college search process. Prospective students and parents come to us to see if we are able to deliver on the dream. We try to distinguish ourselves from one another while the media and college football, March Madness and all the other mythic rituals of college life reinforce what a wonderful rite of passage it is that we offer.

So, it should not be surprising that students and families have been willing to go deeply into debt to experience what they hope will be their rite of passage to adulthood. No matter how much we’ve raised tuition, many have continued to chase the college dream. But the dream’s been fading. And truth is, it’s been fading for sometime now.

The number of students in this country who can afford a four-year degree is diminishing. For years, the college dream has been financed by credit. But fewer are now willing to go into debt. And for those willing, the recession has taken away their options for doing so. In a much more racially and ethnically diverse country, more and more high school graduates don’t look to expensive colleges and universities for their future. It’s no longer seen by as many as a rite of passage.

Now it looks as though the government may no longer oblige four-year institutions to the degree it has in the past. With a realization that the four-year higher education enterprise cannot possibly educate all, and that job training will be vital for our country, a new community college initiative is being pushed by the president (which I’ll leave for another post).

I wonder how these sea changes will affect higher education marketing and enrollment management. What happens when job training becomes a legitimate higher education pathway for many?

How will we successfully make our case for expensive higher education to markets that aren’t chasing the dream? In spite of all the wonderful programs to reach into the community to traditionally under-represented student groups, higher education has failed to make the college rite of passage a compelling dream and a financial reality for all students.

What’s clear is that the marketing environment for higher education is changing and will become more competitive. Strategies like predictive modeling that tell us who is most likely to enroll will continue be important, but we’ll need to find ways to be successful in bringing others into the fold. Our branding will need to be well thought out and executed for a broader audience. Collaborative efforts with other colleges and by higher education associations may need to be developed to try to keep four-year higher education as the ideal.

Higher education marketing will require even more finely tuned leadership as institutions look for their share of students, new revenue streams and more fundraising in a market that may be absent a national sense that a four year degree is a rite of passage for everyone.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2009 10:56 AM

    Rick: Such a moving and practical post. You are SO right. That dream is what I speak to and invoke in everything I do. You’ve crystallized a truly important issue.

    • Rick Hardy permalink
      August 1, 2009 11:11 AM

      Thank you, Andrea. I appreciate your comment.

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