show us the money . . . and more

February 22, 2012 by

is the axe about to fall on higher education?

The heat is on

'So, from now on I'm telling Congress we should steer federal campus-based aid to those colleges that keep tuition affordable, provide good value, serve their students well. We are putting colleges on notice.'   Barack Obama, State of the Union Address 2012

Budgets are already tight, but colleges and universities are now likely to be faced with further cuts if they can't justify the cost of tuition/fees at their school.

And with good reason.  According to a recent Wall Street Journal article on student debt levels, students graduating in 2010 walked away with 5% more debt than in 2009.  And that's in the context of unemployment rising from 8.7% to 9.1% for college graduates.

It's no wonder that students and their parents are questioning the value of a college education.

Here's what two students recently said to NPR  about money and their education:

DESMONIA COUNTS: College students, we're basically, like, the future. We're the ones who's going to have to pay for everything when everybody else dies. So, I think they should be making it cheaper actually because we're the ones who's going to holding up and sustaining America.

MARK SLATER: I know a lot of friends, a lot of them older than me who haven't gone to college and they're making fairly good money without really doing the investment of college. So, now it's kind of different how it was back then - everyone should go to college and make a lot more money. . . .  Now, today when you're paying almost twice as much in tuition, kind of makes you rethink it a little bit.

In light of these grim statistics and negative sentiments, colleges and universities have their work cut out for them.  How can they show that they're still a good investment?

1.  make sure that you are (a good investment)

Not really my area, as I've said in previous posts.  I'm into communications, not policy.

But in this climate, every school needs to look hard at what they're doing.  Are they providing the best possible education with available resources?  Particularly to undergraduate students?  I leave that to each school to sort out for themselves, but this is a non-negotiable prerequisite to steps 2, 3 and 4.

2.  show your vital stats to the world

if you've got it, flaunt it

If you're satisfied that you're doing your best with step 1, you shouldn't have any qualms about this.  And it's getting easier for students and parents to find this information anyway.

The US federal government has always collected financial data about higher education, but the Obama administration is taking steps to make it more accessible to the public.  They're especially interested in:


  • graduation rates
  • what a degree costs (taking financial aid into account)
  • how the school ranks nationally in net cost
  • how much students will owe after graduation
  • whether other graduates are able to repay debt

Rather than grudgingly going along with this trend, why not flaunt your stuff with pride?

So don't send people to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Department of Education to find this information.

Put it on your website.  Make it easy to find.  Make sure it's in a student-friendly format.

3.  the numbers don't speak for themselves

That's your job.  Because once the numbers are out, you're going to have some explaining to do.

Consider that an opportunity to communicate the value of your college rather than a risk.

For instance, some of you will inevitably end up being more expensive than average.  Maybe it's because you religiously adhere to a 12:1 student to staff ratio, and you don't want to change that solely to cut costs.  So go into some detail about how that benefits students.  For instance:

  • It gives them direct access to fully-qualified faculty rather than teaching assistants/tutors
  • They're more likely to be recommended for scholarships and awards
  • etc, etc . . .

You probably already talk about this elsewhere within your promotional materials, but link it to the numbers.

On the other hand, your graduation rates might be on the low side, but you're a real bargain and you've got an excellent rate of job placement after graduation.  You need to let people know, and give them some credible scenarios about how this could benefit them or their child.

4.  identify your 'areas for improvement' before your audience does

You know we're living in a new world of communications.  One that your audience, rather than you, controls.

So when you  bare all, be ready for tough questions, skepticism, and irrational rants.  They will probably outnumber the compliments and helpful suggestions you get.  But if you're attentive and respectful in response to all of it, you'll be fine.

On the other hand, if you ignore, diss, or try to hide 'uncomfortable' facts about your school, you could end up like United Airlines.  You don't want to go there.

Accountability is the flip side of transparency.  Find out where you need to improve, tell people, then do your best to actually do it.

So what do you think about the risks and rewards of transparency?  How well does your college or university do with this?  I welcome your comments.

*Photo credit: axe by erix!

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