How to Sell a (Pricey) College Degree

Has it become trite to say that Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs at Apple never finished college?

And with college costs soaring, is it any surprise that higher education is getting pummeled with questions about the value of a degree — especially when many recent graduates struggle to find work in today’s tepid economy?

The University of Alabama’s website shows that the estimated annual cost for in-state undergraduate students for tuition, board, fees, parking and books is closing in on $25, 000.  Annual tuition is $9, 200, almost three times more than a decade ago. It’s about the same for in-state students at Auburn University, and the price tag is significantly more for out-of-state students at both institutions. Tuition is much steeper at private universities in the state, and college costs nationwide are expected to continue rising. Student loan commitments are part of the picture for many.

According to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll, 62 percent of the respondents believe most people can’t afford the cost of a public college education. Yet the same poll says that a majority of Americans believe earning a college degree is necessary to “get ahead in life.”

Seconding that emotion, spokespersons at several Alabama colleges and universities say that if getting a college degree and looking for a job is tough, consider how hard things are without a degree. They cite an October 2013 Pew Research Center report titled “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College, ” that shows having a college degree provides basic advantages. Among other things, college-educated millennials (ages 25-32) are outperforming their less-educated peers in virtually every economic measure, and the gap between the two has actually grown over time — in other words, a college degree is worth more now than it used to be.

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Full-time workers aged 25 and over with at least a bachelor’s degree had median weekly earnings of $1, 219 in the last quarter of 2013, almost twice the $648 median earnings of high school graduates with no college, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With the escalation of college costs, various evaluations purporting to show the return on investment have surfaced. But such evaluations rely largely on simple assumptions and don’t take into account any number of factors needed to provide statistically relevant conclusions. “There are very significant data challenges in creating such tracking systems, ” says Drew Clark, director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Auburn University.

To overcome what amounts to price objections, colleges and universities have put on their selling shoes — big time. They’re selling more than a degree; they’re selling the value of the college experience, which includes intangible benefits, such as the chance to work with others in a team setting; networking and friendship opportunities; participation in campus organizations, and support and counseling from the institution for academic development and job search efforts.

“You can say we’re adding value, but I would say we’re delivering the highest-quality academic experience possible to equip our graduates to go out and be as competitive and impactful as possible when they leave us, ” says Betsy Holloway, chief marketing officer at Samford University in Homewood.

Holloway notes that Samford has created positions for a chief strategy officer and chief marketing officer and is in the process of hiring a new chief information officer. “These are positions typically associated with the corporate sector, but we’re seeing them now in higher education, because we’re running a business, and we’re running a business in a complex global market, ” Holloway says.

To sell the college experience, higher education uses every available communications channel, from paid print and broadcast advertising to non-paid media exposure, direct mail, community relations, special events and social media. All of Alabama’s colleges and universities appear to have designed their websites to be student- and parent-friendly, so that visitors can easily establish two-way communications with the institution.

A consistent, reinforced brand message — such as THIS IS AUBURN — helps inform students, says Camille Barkley, executive director of Auburn’s Office of Communications and Marketing.

Auburn’s branding campaign, THIS IS AUBURN, is used throughout a campus framework that articulates the university’s best qualities. “(Auburn’s) colleges and schools have program-specific information, but the messages all fall under the THIS IS AUBURN theme. We constantly inform and reinforce with consistent messages, ” says Camille Barkley, executive director of Auburn’s Office of Communications and Marketing.

Auburn’s Facebook following is approaching 300, 000, and it has almost 50, 000 followers on Twitter. The website homepage averages a head-turning 3.1 million unique visits each month, and the university also produces a 30-second commercial each year that airs during any of Auburn’s televised sporting events, courtesy of the NCAA.

Although Auburn reaches prospective students through the Web and social media, high school students still like to receive direct mail, and Auburn starts sending it as early as the sophomore year, Barkley says.

Samford has undertaken more extensive strategic planning and data collection efforts as part of a more institution-wide marketing approach. Last year, for the first time, the university tackled the task of contacting roughly 500 spring semester graduates to see how they’ve fared since graduation, finding that project easier said than done. But Samford saw the project through, learning that 97 percent of those students were employed, in graduate school, law school or in an internship arrangement.

“That kind of data is critical, absolutely critical, to communicate the value of a college education, ” Holloway says. “It’s not a matter of having a degree. It’s knowing how that degree shaped or benefited that individual student. We’re only planning to add to that kind of data collection effort in the future. (Samford) has collected data like that in the past, but we did it in silos. What we didn’t do well until now is integrate all that data systematically, across the entire university.”

Holloway, who obtained an MBA from Samford and taught there before assuming her current post, says there have never been so many changes on campus. But the changes are being made with an eye on the job market. Samford’s plans for a new college of health sciences, for example, “is arguably the biggest initiative the institution has ever taken, certainly the biggest in at least 50 years, ” she says. “But if you look at those schools (within the new college) and the jobs they’re creating, they’re right in line with market demand. We’re innovating the curriculum.”

Holloway acknowledges that the higher education environment “has never been more competitive.” The growth of for-profit institutions such as Virginia College, online courses and programs and two-year community colleges must be taken into account.

The idea of starting at a two-year college is getting more consideration — and is easier to sell — in light of increased costs at four-year institutions, says Janet Kincherlow-Martin, assistant to the president for public affairs, community relations and special events at Calhoun Community College in Decatur.

“Parents might have a goal or vision of their children going to Alabama or Auburn or UAH, and we support that goal, ” Kincherlow-Martin says. “But they also realize that, with the increasing tuition costs, they can do the first two years at Calhoun or maybe another community college, then their student can transfer to a four-year college and do very well.”

And there are situations where the offerings of a community college are right on. When Remington announced plans to employ as many as 2, 000 people at a new plant in Huntsville, Calhoun staffers were flooded with calls about Remington’s possible need for locally trained workers. “We try to mirror, as closely as possible, what the job market is doing, ” Kincherlow-Martin says. “Remington will have jobs in the advanced manufacturing area, and those are the kind of jobs we can fill.”

If there is a burden on colleges and universities to sell and deliver more than a degree these days, today’s students might consider doing more than just getting a degree if they want to maximize their opportunities. Price Mason, 26, of Birmingham, found it difficult getting work after graduating from Auburn with an English degree, and he believes that not getting involved with activities outside the classroom contributed to that.

Mason got a break through a connection that led to a full-time, unpaid internship at a major sports venue, which led, in turn, to a full-time job in public relations there.  Now that he sees recent graduates coming in to apply for work, “You can spot the ones that were involved with things outside the classroom, ” he says. “They seem to have experience in knowing how to talk with people and present themselves. They seem to know how to talk the talk and walk the walk, and I really didn’t have that experience coming out of school.

“I really enjoyed my studies when I was in college, ” Mason says. “But there are plenty of things you can take advantage of that are covered by the cost of tuition — on-campus organizations and extra-curricular activities, just being part of the group. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have participated in some of the campus organizations. I can see now how that gives you experience that’s of value in the work place.”

Charlie Ingram is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

Text by Charlie Ingram

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