Your Institution’s Value Proposition: Affordability or Employability?

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A few years ago, we interviewed W. Kent Barnds at Augustana College because we noticed his college had an especially proactive plan for talking with applicants, admits, and their families about both the value of attending that specific institution and about the return on their investment.

While the national conversation about completion and outcomes has become more complex since, we think these interviews with W. Kent Barnds are even more relevant today.


Originally published in 2012

As the economy continues a slow recovery and media reports about student loan default persist, it’s increasingly critical to communicate to prospective students how a college degree from your institution is worth the investment. But this important conversation needs to move beyond accurately estimating net price to demonstrating how your campus can deliver the outcomes students need – strong professional skills, employability, and earning potential.

This week, we reached out to W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College, who has made some significant strides in reframing those early conversations.

Shifting the Conversation

Barnds has become increasingly concerned with what he calls a “collision of expectations,” in which the federal government and the public expect institutions of higher learning to focus on affordability, while the bond rating agencies expect institutions to show strong financial health — in part by maintaining a low discount rate.

“We know that people want to hear the message of affordability,” Barnds notes, “but are we serving our students well, and serving our institutions well, by this emphasis on affordability? Are we setting student expectations appropriately?”

Barnds recommends that the critical message to communicate during recruitment — particularly to increase yield among admitted students — is not affordability, but employability.

Discussing Investment and Return

Barnds calls this “closing the loop” — offering information to admitted students about the expected outcomes of their experience at the institution, and how well the institution is positioned to prepare them for their career or for graduate school. It’s important not to separate the discussion of cost from the discussion of value.

One effort that Barnds is piloting at Augustana College involves the creation of a value prospectus for a particular academic program. “This is similar in concept to an investment prospectus for a startup company,” Barnds explains. “We are putting these together for 4-5 targeted academic programs, to see the impact on recruitment.”

The prospectus summarizes:

  • Curricular and co-curricular experiences that are unique to this department and this institution
  • Defining experiences or “signature” experiences for the student’s chosen major, in each year of their course of study
  • Qualities that key employers list as most important in a graduate
  • Findings from the institution’s alumni survey, demonstrating the extent to which alumni felt that this major prepared them with each of the qualities employers listed
  • Earning potential (based on alumni salary ranges) compared to earning potential at peer institutions

Barnds notes that this alumni survey is absolutely critical, as you cannot make the case for employability effectively without this data.

“We sent the prospectus to students post-accept,” Barnds adds, “during the period of time we felt they’d be making a final college choice (March/April). Each student received a customized letter estimating the cost over four years (out of pocket, loan, and our scholarship investment in them). We targeted high achievers within our appeal with little or no financial need. We wanted to engage them in a look at both the total estimated cost over those four years and the likely value over those four years and after.”

The Lifetime Relationship

“Talk about more than just the four-year experience at your institution. Talk about the lifetime experience.”
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

While Augustana College has not pursued significant partnerships between enrollment management and advancement, Academic Impressions notes that this is a logical next step, and Barnds agrees. As the recruitment conversation becomes focused on both cost and long-term value, the conversation lays the groundwork for later dialogue and education around:

  • Sources of funding for the education and the scholarships received, and the role of donor support
  • The lifetime relationship between student and institution as a mutually beneficial, two-way partnership, comprising both long-term value and services that the institution will offer to the student after graduation (such as career services, alumni networking, and opportunities for lifelong learning) and the future alumni support that makes the four years of undergraduate education and those lifetime services and learning opportunities possible


Read our member exclusive report and learn whole-campus strategies for “closing the loop” further. Defining a comprehensive student life cycle and being intentional about every touchpoint a student has before, during, and after their on-campus or online experience puts your institution in the best position to cultivate students’ propensity to give as they graduate and become alumni — and to engage young alumni meaningfully in the future of your institution and its students.