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Show Your Worth
Show Your Worth

From highlighting graduate outcomes to cutting tuition, more institutions are focused on demonstrating their value

By Caroline E. Mayer

Pete McArthur

Where's the proof? With growing concerns over student debt, rising tuition, and the perceived high costs of higher education, prospective students and their families are clamoring for evidence. It's a reality that's forcing institutions, long accustomed to touting their academic strengths, to emphasize career preparation, job placement, value, and return on investment.

"Parents and students increasingly want to know what happens after students graduate and whether the cost of the college they have chosen is worth it," says Steve Blodgett, director of marketing and communications at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

The shift began before the Great Recession struck in 2007, as institutions were raising tuition faster than the inflation rate, notes Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of SimpsonScarborough, a higher education marketing firm based in Alexandria, Virginia. But it intensified once the economic crisis began, particularly as many states further slashed funding for public colleges and universities.

"The recession changed everything," Scarborough says. "Everybody—even families who weren't directly affected—tightened their belts and started to question the value of higher education. When I went to college, no one asked, ‘What's the average salary in this field versus that field?' There was an inherent understanding that higher education was worth every penny. Today it's ‘Show me the proof.'"

Career preparation now surpasses both academic quality and affordability as the most important factor for incoming students choosing a college, according to recent surveys by Eduventures, a higher education research firm in Boston. "It's no longer ‘Do you have my major?' but ‘How well are you going to prepare me for a job?'" says Heather O'Leary, Eduventures' principal analyst for enrollment management.

Yet admitted students rarely enroll at the institution with the lowest cost of attendance for this simple reason: "Families have become better shoppers," O'Leary says. "They're willing to invest more in tuition if a school is perceived as having a stronger direct return on investment—both in the short and long term."

An increasing emphasis on career preparation and return on investment represents a sea change for many liberal arts colleges, according to Blodgett. "For a long time, there was a belief that a strong liberal arts education, in and of itself, would result in a good career; that a rigorous education focused on developing the skills and habits of critical thinking would automatically produce a good outcome." Yet frequently, he adds, a disconnect exists between what happens in the classroom and career success.

To help students think about their vocations long before their senior year, St. Olaf College gives incoming freshmen the Myers-Briggs personality test. "The test may not be perfect," Blodgett says, "but it can start students on the path to discovering what they are meant to do in life."

Making the sale

Before institutions can concern themselves with students' career paths and graduate outcomes, they need to persuade prospects to apply and applicants to enroll. Some institutions start by decoding the price tag.

Colorado State University addressed the expense issue in 2013 with the six-minute video Where Do My Tuition Dollars Go? Borrowing from the TED Talk model, the video features President Tony Frank explaining the costs that tuition and fees cover, the state's financial contribution, and the return on investment for a typical in-state student. CSU alumna Karina Mullen Branson uses her animation skills to show viewers how funds are distributed. "We wanted to present fairly complicated information in a short, fast-paced way that was easily digestible and compelling," says Tom Milligan, CSU's vice president for external relations. "One more brochure just wasn't going to do it." More than 600,000 people have viewed the video, which prompted a follow-up project. In February 2015, Frank and Branson reunited to break down where tuition dollars and state funds go, illustrating the percentages distributed to campus instruction and academic support as well as to student services and financial aid, administrative costs, and maintenance. The new video also discusses how differential tuition is assessed and the support it gives to students' individual academic programs.

In 2013, Ithaca College put the value issue on the front of its magazine, ICView, with a feature story that explored the price tag and quality of an education at the private New York institution as well as its efforts to contain tuition increases and curb and reduce costs. To highlight the impact of rising tuition and post-graduation debt, students and recent alumni shared how they paid for their education, the amount of money they owe, their hopes and fears about paying the bill, and how their degree paths prepared them for the working world.

To demystify costs, institutions must also promote the availability of financial aid, says John Lawlor, principal and founder of The Lawlor Group, a Minnesota-based education marketing consultancy that specializes in private institutions. "Too many people are not considering colleges because of published price," Lawlor says. "Few people know that most people do NOT pay the published price."

Enter the University of Findlay's Total Degree Cost Calculator. The Ohio institution's online tool goes beyond traditional net price calculators to compute four years of scholarships, loans, and total out-of-pocket expenses. The calculator gives prospective students and families a complete picture of the price tag for four years at Findlay.

"We're a $40,000-a-year school, but our average student ends up paying about half of that," thanks to a combination of scholarships and grants, says Rebecca Jenkins, director of marketing and communication. "We wanted a way to show the net price, not the sticker price—and not just for freshman year [which is required by the federal government] but for the entire degree." Knowing the total cost of a degree will enable students and families to make an informed decision based on overall value, not just the estimated sticker price.

Initially, there was "some internal angst around whether the total out-of-pocket cost of a degree would scare off potential students," Jenkins says. But it's had the opposite result: Enrollment has risen more than 8 percent a semester since the calculator launched in March 2014.

Know where alumni go

The price tag is only one piece of the value puzzle. On top of explaining costs, Lawlor says, "measuring and communicating successful outcomes are a must. Higher education must demonstrate that students are learning what's intended, graduating on time, and on the path to achieving their postgraduation goals."

Now, the data on graduates' outcomes needs to be more sophisticated and robust. Claiming a 90 percent postgraduation employment rate won't work if it's based on a 10 to 20 percent survey response rate.

Detailed tracking fuels American University's "We Know Success" website, which launched in fall 2014. The project shows where the Washington, D.C., institution's most recent graduates have landed six months after commencement, including company names, graduate schools, and salary ranges—broken down by major—for more than 75 percent of its newest alumni.

"For years, institutions relied on a few stories and testimonials from some of the most successful grads to prove value," says Terry Flannery, AU's vice president for communication. "That doesn't cut it anymore. We need to mine and share data to understand where we are succeeding as an institution—and enable our constituents to explore outcomes of particular interest to them."

Now, science majors can see which graduate schools alumni are attending, while students pursuing a master's degree in international studies can see where others have interned and how many work for the federal government.

"People want this information," Flannery says of the website, which was an 11-month collaboration among AU's Career Center, Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, Office of Information Technology, and University Communications and Marketing. "They want evidence, down to the names of the companies [that alumni are] working for, not just a generic Fortune 500 firm. The names make the information authentic and help show there is real value at AU."

As it typically has, the university begins gathering information each March about seniors' experiences at AU and their post-commencement plans through its annual graduation census. The difference now, however, is the more rigorous follow-up, which continues well beyond commencement, often into December. Staff members use social media channels such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook to obtain information about nonrespondents. Faculty advisers pitch in to encourage replies and confirm details found on social media. Such work has pushed AU's graduation census completion rate over 75 percent, making the "We Know Success" site a powerful tool for student recruitment and storytelling. "Having such an unusually high knowledge rate is huge for us," Flannery says.

In its first week online, "We Know Success" had more than 5,500 visitors, and the site has produced unanticipated benefits: People are more willing to quickly provide data, which faculty members are using to compare their graduates' successes to the outcomes of alumni from other departments, leading to competition among some professors to improve the employment numbers in their degree areas.

"The Denison Difference," a website by Denison University, takes a similar approach, listing graduate schools, fellowships within every major, employers, and even specific job titles for 90 percent of the Ohio institution's most recent graduates. "It was important to convey that students can major in any academic discipline and be successful in the field they choose," says Julie Tucker, director of research.Now, Denison is seeking information for graduates five years after commencement. "An early snapshot doesn't paint the whole picture of alumni success," Tucker says.

St. Olaf has tracked down about 90 percent of its past three graduating classes to produce its First Destination online database. The resource is searchable by class year, major, employment category, location, type of business, graduate institution where alumni are enrolled, graduate degree alumni are pursuing, and public service program in which they are participating.

"Everyone wants to do an outcomes survey," says consultant Scarborough. "But it is time-consuming and costly to track the path of every single graduate. Many colleges and universities can't afford such a massive undertaking. It's like asking an old aunt to lift a car." And some institutions may encounter resistance from faculty, Scarborough says, "because most professors hate this data. They think it oversimplifies and cheapens the value of higher education by overemphasizing employment and salary data." But, she adds, students, parents, and other stakeholders are demanding data that illustrate the value of a college education.

Focus on the future

Institutions are also thinking more holistically about the life cycle from prospective student to alumni. Last year, Ithaca's Office of Career Services moved from the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life to the Division of Enrollment and Communication. "The idea was to create synergy between the front door and the back door," says Eric Maguire, vice president for enrollment and communication. The union "will give our prospective students and admissions staff a better sense of what graduates are doing and encourage students to begin their relationship with career services during their first year here."

Franklin & Marshall College revamped its center, based on interviews with more than 300 students. Instead of simply providing career services, the Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development offers resources and professional development to students from their freshman year into their alumni years. This helps students think more broadly about life after college, catering "to the millennial mindset, which is more concerned with finding what matters most in life than committing to a lifelong career in college," says Beth Throne, associate vice president for student and post-graduate development.

When Throne, an F&M alumna, returned to the Pennsylvania institution in 2011, the career center was underused, understaffed, and lacked connections. Only 20 percent of students visited—primarily juniors and seniors—usually seeking help with resumes, cover letters, or interview techniques. Thanks to gifts from parents and alumni, the OSPGD opened in July 2012 with 11 employees, including full-time counselors who specialize in advising students about law- or health-related professions. Incoming students are assigned an individual adviser, whom they retain throughout their time on campus. The workshops and classes offered range from professional topics (public speaking, dealing with difficult people, understanding and negotiating a salary) to life skills (financial literacy, etiquette, and healthy cooking).

More than 50 percent of F&M students engaged with the relaunched office during its first year; in the second year, the number increased to 73 percent. OSPGD is now featured prominently on campus tours and during prospective week for admitted students, Throne says.

From billboards to cutting bills

In the Show-Me State, the University of Missouri-St. Louis combines data-driven digital marketing efforts crafted to people's individual interests with an old-school approach—highway billboards. The latest iteration of the three-year-old "I Chose UMSL" campaign involved pairs of billboards showcasing current students and successful alumni. More than 1 million people a day viewed the billboards in March and April.

The tactic is "ironically old-fashioned" but effective, says Ron Gossen, UMSL's chief marketing officer and senior associate vice chancellor. "It's hard to reach high school kids with the widespread diffusion of media." But billboards are hard to miss. Despite representing only 18 percent of UMSL's marketing budget, the billboard campaign has paid dividends.

"More people than ever are attending our semi­annual open house, the critical first stop in getting people to enroll," says Gossen, citing an increase from about 400 attendees a few years ago to 1,200. The key: Content is still king, he says. No matter the channel, an effective, research-based unique selling proposition, strong creative elements, and attention-getting, persuasive messages are vital.

"Schools need to use all the data they can gather to demonstrate value, making the point repeatedly and frequently," Scarborough says. "There's no single tactic that's effective."

An even more dramatic way to signal value is to respond to the marketplace by cutting tuition. Con­cordia University, St. Paul, took such a step after a price-sensitivity study revealed that the Minnesota institution's tuition model was unsustainable, according to Kristin Vogel, associate vice president for traditional enrollment management.

So in 2012, the liberal arts university lowered its tuition from $29,700 to $19,700. The response? A 30 percent increase in applications and a 40 percent surge in enrollment. "We were raising tuition and then increasing financial aid every year," Vogel says. "We realized that high prices are no longer associated with high value. So many students were just looking at the sticker price and not pursuing a school because of the cost."

The tuition reduction did not require cuts to budget or staff, Vogel says. With enrollment at 4,000 students compared with 3,000 students in 2011, tuition revenue has risen and student retention is higher. The institution had to hire a few more faculty members, but extra capacity in classroom areas and residence halls accommodated the additional students. The number of scholarships Concordia awards has remained constant, but it disburses less money—its top scholarship now totals $10,000 instead of $15,000. (Read more about this tactic and other experiments in "4 Reforms That Could Remake Higher Education.")

In 2010, Michigan's Grand Valley State University introduced a more modest approach, offering an early graduation present—a $1,000 tuition grant for full-time students on track to complete their degree within four years. About 900 students qualified for Focus on the Finish grants the first year; 2,500 students were eligible in 2013. That year, the four-year graduation rate reached 36.7 percent, up from 31.3 percent in 2012.

Maine's Thomas College approaches value and outcomes from a few directions. In fall 2014, it launched a three-year undergraduate business degree program to reduce education expenses for highly motivated students. The college also offers a tuition guarantee, which ensures that students who maintain a 3.5 GPA won't see their tuition increase the next year. The assurance is a natural extension of the Guaranteed Job Program the institution launched in 1999 to promote the caliber of its educational offerings. Thomas pledges to either pay graduates' monthly federal student loan bills for up to a year or let them start a master's degree program for free if participants—who must fulfill certain eligibility requirements—don't find a job related to their major within six months of graduation. The institution has had to follow through on the guarantee just three times since the program's inception, according to Bob Moore, vice president for advancement, which also includes the career services office. Thomas recently began offering free golf lessons to all seniors and students in its accelerated MBA program. Why? "Lots of business happens on the golf course!" wrote President Laurie Lachance, an economist by training, in a letter to students. "I can't say you won't get a job because you don't know how to play golf, but learning the game may allow you some career-boosting benefits."

To survive the growing demand for value, institutions need to be creative and have an "edupreneurial" spirit, Lawlor says. "Future success will be shaped by institutions that consider new possibilities and ideas building off their brand strengths, not just doing something because it is a trend," he adds. "Public and private schools, small and big, all have challenges—and opportunities."

About the Author Caroline E. Mayer

Caroline E. Mayer, a former business reporter for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer in Arlington, Virginia.




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