The College Board's recent Trends reports on college pricing and student aid have painted a not unexpected picture of rising college tuition coinciding with rising demand for student aid. In this financial climate, it becomes all the more critical for colleges and universities to communicate the value of their offerings clearly to financially concerned prospects and applicants.
We asked Robert Massa, vice president for communications at Lafayette College, for some key strategies on how colleges can better convey to their audiences why they are worth the price, even as tuition continues to rise. Massa emphasizes the importance of developing a clear message that connects the cost of education, how the cost impacts price, and the specific value students are getting for that price.
Connect Cost, Price, and Value
In many cases the public is not aware of everything that adds to the cost of education -- faculty salaries, the price of information technology, health insurance, facilities costs, specialized programs such as study abroad or majors with extensive fieldwork. "So first," Massa advises, "convey the cost."
Second, clarify how cost affects pricing. For private institutions, more of the costs are passed on to the students through tuition; for publics, states are covering less and less of the cost. Every leader in higher education knows this equation, but students and parents may not.
Third, convey clearly the value of the specific education you are providing. The traditional way to communicate value has been to point to outcomes, such as job placement or the prestigious graduate schools your undergraduate students are admitted to. But in an increasingly competitive landscape, this may not be enough.
Convey Value in Specific Terms
There are two items to address when communicating value, and the second is more difficult than the first:
- What value can your type of institution (whether small liberal arts college or large research institution) offer that other types of institutions cannot?
- What do you offer that is different than other institutions of the same type?
If your institution is a small liberal arts college, pointing to your faculty/student ratio may achieve the first of these but not the second.
Massa suggests identifying what differentiates the academic experience at your institution and demonstrating how these distinctive opportunities help students develop specific skills and abilities needed "to lead and succeed in the twenty-first century." For example, you can show how at your university, training engineers is not just about designing projects in a back room, but about practicing team leadership in project design.
Or suppose you want to highlight your interdisciplinary approach to learning and your distinctive study abroad opportunities. You can describe how a team-taught course in Russian history and art that includes a spring break trip to Russia helps students learn that there are relationships between government, policy, culture, and human behavior, and that the course helps students develop the global perspective that's becoming more important in our global economy. And make sure to discuss the added cost of offering the study abroad program, and the connection between higher price and added value.
"Education is not a commodity, but an investment. Demonstrate to students and parents what they are investing in, how expensive it will be and why, and what the return will be."
Robert Massa, Lafayette College
Keep Your Perspective
Noting the pressure that the recession will continue to place on institutions, Robert Massa offers these words of caution:
- Make sure your message matches reality, and that you can deliver the value you're promising
- Make sure not to force a judgment of what's of value on others -- different students or families will value different things
- Stay respectful of your peer institutions
"It's important to inform a prospective student and help them make the decision," Massa remarks, "but it's also important that you're helping the student make the right decision for them."
"It's going to be a difficult ride over the next 3-4 years, no question about that. But if we badmouth our peer institutions, or promise more than we can deliver, we'll be going down a very slippery slope, and we'll begin to waver from our true mission."
Robert Massa, Lafayette College