kantrowitz-photo-8659755adf50409ed46a347da41cdcc2351eda38-s6-c30You’ve probably seen that bumper sticker. There’s a high price, but apparently a modicum of pride, that goes with having your offspring attend college, any college. Just look at the beautiful University decals you see lovingly centered in the rear window of so many a parent’s 12-year old jalopy driving around anytown USA. Oh, and that’s the parent’s car. Junior is probably driving something newer. And nicer. But that’s another story for a different blog.

Fact: Over the past ten years, tuition and fees at public four-year colleges rose at an average rate of 5.2% per year, beyond inflation.

Fact: For graduates of public four-year colleges, average debt per graduate increased by 12% (from $10,600 to $11,900 in 2012 dollars) between 2001-02 and 2006-07, and by 20% (from $11,900 to $14,300) over the next five years. (Source: CollegeBoard.org)

As a parent of two college students, these are frightening stats. But as a business person, I respect the laws of supply and demand and salute the college industry for providing a product that has earned, for the moment anyway, more than enough demand (18- to 23-year-old learners) to meet the supply of learning (and parking, and rooming and boarding) slots.

It’s when wearing my marketing communicator hat (aka PR guy, sometimes called “Steve Riger”) that I think colleges and universities can do much better at communicating their value propositions. Definition of value proposition: (in marketing) an innovation, service, or feature intended to make a company or product attractive to customers.

So, is it really about the postcard with the kid reading the book under the willow tree on the perpetually sunny autumn day, again? The obligatory diversity shot that includes every possible permutation of ethnicity and disability? Don’t forget the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) lab shot with googly-eyed girl and Ned the nerd in their lab coats and goggles. What are we saying here folks? Is college simply an extension of junior high or high school? A special club for grades 13+? Or did I misunderstand what a college education always was and still is supposed to be about—namely exploration, self-discovery, real thinking and learning, and, ok, the pragmatist in me thinks maybe there’s room for some training for life and career possibilities?

If we (and our kids) are going to drive junkers for a good, long while, by gosh I’d like to know it’s a worthy sacrifice and investment for something we used to call “bettering oneself” or “pursuing new opportunities.” Don’t get me wrong; I don’t just mean “show me the money,” as in the job offers and pot of gold that await at the end of the 4- to 6-year (or longer) college rainbow. Sure, that’s important, and we were quite taken with the poster touting the names of legitimate hiring companies when we toured our kids’ colleges. But, please dear college marketer show us your actual placement rates and show us the … graduates. Isn’t that your real product? More importantly, show us the benefit of your product. Rather than showing us the same old idyllic scenes of happy 13th graders, let us see and hear testimonials from the real people who have graduated, adjusted to “real life” (as if there’s any other kind), got a job, paid off their loans, and maybe just maybe are able to begin to do something to give back to their community and world. They don’t have to be superstars, just successful in whatever way they define success. Granted it’s harder to show in a viewbook. Difficult to winnow into a titillating tweet. Tougher still to boil down to a 7-word billboard message. But winnow we will, and boil we must. It’s the marketer’s charge. And it’s the least we can offer our 18-year olds, gazing up at a tall mountain of classes, homework, papers, and debt. Before they begin that climb, show them a picture of success. Show them a face that looks back at them from cyberspace and says, “I did it. You got this, dude.”

Happy Graduation!

Written by:

Steven Johnson

Co-owner/Managing Partner, Riger Marketing Communications