BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL
The range and scope of academic programs in higher education has become increasingly complex. New programs emerge almost daily to adjust to consumer demands and workforce needs. Applicants can easily become confused as they attempt to judge quality, complexity, cost, and a return on investment.
The result is often a mishmash of academic offerings developed upon a foundation that no longer seems to be built upon bedrock principles.
- What is the purpose of a new program offering?
- Is it a response to workforce demands?
- Does the program emerge from a particular academic strength for which the college or university is noted?
- Do the outputs – notably an education path that leads to a productive life – match the potential of the program?
These questions mask a larger transition that now faces American higher education. Consumer demands and expectations shift depending upon factors that go well beyond the academic program. One of the most notable shifts since the Great Recession has been the consumer attention paid to why students choose majors in employable fields. The best example is the effort to develop public policy to promote education in STEM fields.
By itself, choosing a STEM field is an admirable decision. America needs more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. The jobs often pay well, and STEM graduates contribute enormously to the common wealth.
But the country also needs social workers, poets, and museum curators. For America to prosper, its policy makers must not pick winners and losers, narrowly choosing economic benefit and workforce development in key fields over breadth and the social good in American society.
America is only great when it is as complex as the problems that it faces and the potential that it promises to those who seek a college degree.
This is where American colleges and universities receive a failing grade. It is ludicrous and shortsighted to expect that colleges should adopt a mindset that effectively says, “build it and they will come.” (Apologies to “Field of Dreams.”) To do so would presume that American families understand what colleges do, how they educate, and why they exist.
For many families, a college education is simply a pathway to a good job. In the last century, this argument was sufficient and filled seats when demographics and government policy worked in favor of college admission practices.
College Admissions Now a Marriage of Academics and Business
These days are gone. College admissions has become a marriage of academics and business, introduced by the admissions office through marketing and communications strategies and tactics. Critics will complain that education is a business. They believe that this business mindset is the root cause of many of higher education’s problems.
But others will point out that those families who pay steep tuition prices – tuition discounts disguised as scholarships notwithstanding – have every right to understand more about what they are buying.
College Marketing Fails to Differentiate Academic Programs from Competitors
What is most lacking on this issue is clarity – or expressed differently – a coherent and compelling academic marketing strategy. The problem begins with how colleges market their academic programs. While there are innumerable exceptions that display creativity and focus to lay out quality indicators and outcomes expectations imaginatively, most are described by worthless four-color brochures that fail to differentiate how their program differs from those of peer and aspirant institutions.
Academic Programs Without Direct Career Outcomes Often Given Short Shrift
It’s a shame because there are many outstanding academic programs that receive scant attention after the deals struck among the promotional efforts of marketing, communications, admissions, financial aid, and academic leadership. It’s easy to promote management, nursing, or engineering because these academic disciplines are linked to employment outcomes that are easily understood by consumers.
If a college or university offers a comprehensive field of academic programs, however, it is equally critical to think imaginatively about how students in fields like English, history, and sociology will be shaped by the unique quality of the academic program that they will consider.
Faculty are Keepers of the Higher Education Flame
The answer to “why us” in a particular field begins by emphasizing the quality and creativity of the faculty. The faculty are the keepers of the flame, outlasting students, administrators, and trustees in tenure. This means that faculty must be chosen well and resourced sufficiently.
But the defense of any academic program to a broader constituency must go well beyond dollars to explain what contributions an academic program makes to learning, how it fits into a broader curriculum, and why its presence is important among the academic disciplines offered.
We can predict that as the business of higher education and academics continue to be intertwined, there will be growing calls to defend the size of upper division classes, the amount of money appropriated, and the number of majors graduated in a particular discipline.
Before we get there as a society, however, it is critical to build a case for the academic programs that a college supports by explaining what’s unique and special about them. It may turn out that differentiation communicated through better marketing aligns best with a college’s mission and consumer interest.
This article was first published on the blog of the Edvance Foundation.