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Got College?
Universities are being marketed just like "Brand X"

By David L. Kirp


 
Question: What do colleges and universities have in common with the city of Atlanta? Answer: Both are busily promoting themselves with new slogans of dubious value.

Atlanta, which once called itself "the city too busy to hate," is spending $8 million to publicize its makeover motto: "Every Day Is an Opening Day." The aim is to boost tourism, but to judge from the ensuing confusion—"What does it mean?" is the common response—it will be about as successful as New Coke.

"Solutions for Our Future" is the tag line that the ad agency hired by the American Council on Education has devised to boost popular support for higher education. While that's a clearer message than Atlanta's pitch, the cockiness rings hollow. As anyone who has attended a higher education conference during the past few years can attest, solutions are in short supply. Angst is everywhere in the air, and the cliché words are "crisis" and "challenge."

Higher education's leaders don't seem to have much confidence in their "product" or clarity about how to reach their target market. Amid mismanagement scandals, anger over rising tuition and limited access, they haven't developed a convincing response to the old taunt, "Where's the beef?"

While colleges and universities do have an image problem, the troubles go far deeper. The core issues are entirely familiar: the lack of access to a quality education for the children of poor and working class families (ironically, the very families whose support the campaign is soliciting in its TV ads); the waste that is attributable to universities' hyper-competitiveness, whether in installing sushi bars or recruiting faculty superstars; the institutions' failure to demonstrate that they are spending their money wisely, and their reluctance to attempt an assessment of the intellectual worth of a college education.

The emphasis on marketing is, in part, a triumph of style over substance. Perhaps the best example is the priority placed on athletic scholarships, regardless of how that might adversely affect the academic mission (as the old saw goes: a college that the football team can be proud of).

College mottoes used to be obscure scraps of Latin, like Fresno State's "Lucem Accipe Ut Reddas"—that's "accept the light in order that you might return it," for the non-cognoscenti. But apparently "true erudition"—"Eruditio Vera," the old motto of Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey—has disappeared. In this market-driven age, advertising agencies and management consultants are the gurus. They have brought branding, marketing, logo-ing and sloganeering to the campus: Centenary College is now "Dedicated to Your Success."

Generally bromidic and undistinguished, university mottoes are also indistinguishable. Take your pick: "Dedicated to Your Success," "An Education for Success," "Experience Southeast, Experience Success," "Think Success," or "We Teach Success." A decade ago, in his much-discussed book, "The University in Ruins," Bill Reading railed against the vacuity of "excellence." Imagine what he'd make of "success."

It is small wonder, then, that almost no students know the slogan of their alma mater. A survey of Texas undergraduates revealed that more students can identify the products associated with "Just Do It," "Snap, Crackle and Pop" and "Yo Quiero" (Nike, Rice Krispies and Taco Bell) than know what happened on July 4, 1776, let alone the official motto of North Texas State ("Discover the Power of Ideas").

Turn an ad-man loose on the problem and the results can be disconcerting. On the AdSlogans.com website, George Felton, an English professor and the author of an eponymously titled book on advertising, dispenses free advice to selected institutions of higher learning. Felton is sympathetic to the plight of Quinnipiac University, whose underwhelming motto is "Challenging Students to Meet the Challenges of the Future." The real problem, he opined, is "pronouncing the place. Try this: 'Quinnipiac rhymes with Win A Free Mac.' And that's just what you'll do when you apply for early decision. Upon acceptance, we'll give you your choice of an iMac or iBook for school. Cool! See how naturally the slogan leads to strong selling copy?"

To St. John's College, with its intense Great Books curriculum, Felton urges a bit of ad copy theft. The school should take the slogan of Altoids mints, "Curiously Strong," and "turn it into 'The Curiously Curious College' or 'The School with Seriously Strong Strictures.'" If St. John's doesn't bite, he added, West Point can use the same motto.

"Take your position in the marketplace, peruse the great slogans of our time, then just plug and play," Felton wrote. That's the ad-industry version of "know thyself," and it's pretty good advice. Once university presidents get beyond the platitudes about acquiring a liberal education that is both practical and challenging, doing research that is both immediately productive and path-breaking, few of them can persuasively explain what their institution stands for even if they have ten minutes, let alone ten words.

Mottoes will only work for institutions that know themselves. "Tread lightly on learning for learning's sake," Felton cautioned, but that's only true at party schools. Johns Hopkins University is a palace of medical science, and its message, "One Brilliant Thought Can Change the World," gets that across. Brown University's laissez faire academic philosophy is famously summed in the motto "Freedom with Responsibility." Sarasota University is a very different kind of place, a virtual institution with students from across the country pursuing their degrees, including psychology Ph.D.s, online. "Sarasota University. Now in California" captures the sense that the school isn't tethered to one place.

Challenge-plagued administrators can learn a lot from Dickinson College. A few years back, the new president, Bill Durden—who, not coincidentally, had been working for Sylvan Learning Systems, a for-profit education company, before coming to Dickinson—hired a marketing consultant to devise an emblematic phrase. "Freedom + Guidance = Growth" describes the school, the consultant reported, but it didn't separate Dickinson from the pack. "Reflecting America, Engaging the World" was a stronger "positioning statement" because it "sets Dickinson apart," the consultant said. But because Dickinson had so few minority students, he added, that motto didn't "reflect current reality, and would therefore require substantial institutional change to implement."

Dickinson went with the sexier slogan, even as it made the needed changes. In the span of just two years the college doubled its percentage of minority students.

In doing so, Dickinson has not adopted the "give them what they want" mentality. Bill Durden is well aware that colleges are a very special kind of market, one in which consumers are not always right. "We're different from business," Durden said. "We'll listen [to students, alumni and donors], but don't confuse our good will with our agreeing with you. Sometimes we'll change our mind, but we won't break. It's important to know your product...to know your brand."

When the issue of branding came up at a TIAA-CREF conference last fall, a university administrator noted that all of my examples came from schools with a relatively narrow focus. "We want to do it all. How do you get that message out?" I pointed to the example of Arizona State University. With 60,000 students (and aiming for 90,000 by 2020), it is the fourth largest university in the country. ASU calls itself the prototype for "the new American university," an institution "responsible for the economic, social and cultural vitality of our region." The ambition is clear, the goal focused-and with Michael Crow steering the ship of this new multiversity, the aspiration is within the outer reaches of the doable.

The ad campaign being developed by the American Council on Education's consultants stresses that higher education is important not just to those who go to college but also to the entire society-that universities promote innovation, boost the economy and create a more informed citizenry. This theme will be pitched to the elite, via ads in the Wall Street Journal, as well as to the hoi polloi, in commercials aired during the NCAA basketball championships.

This is a very expensive way to get the word out. What's more, the message isn't new. The hope that those ads will generate a "groundswell of public support" is about as plausible as Atlanta's belief that "Every Day Is an Opening Day" will draw hordes of tourists.

Addressing some of the many important issues facing higher education effectively will require universities to act in tandem—not by underwriting wishy-washy advertisements, but by taking positions on important and controversial matters. It means reaching an agreement on the primacy of need-based scholarships, instead of aid awards whose sole purpose is to boost a college's rankings. It entails setting some shared teaching expectations for hotly recruited faculty luminaries, rather than competing over how few courses they will teach. It involves promoting a "value added" or "student engagement" metric in teaching, rather than slavishly adhering to whatever criteria U.S. News & World Report deems important in devising its rankings.

"But what about the antitrust laws?" I was asked at the TIAA-CREF conference when I suggested this level of cooperation. Administrators cringe at the memory of the Justice Department's lawsuit challenging the agreement among the Ivy League colleges and MIT not to compete in calculating financial aid—or at least they use that litigation as a convenient excuse not to do anything. What they forget is that, alone among these schools, MIT stood up to the government, and in 1991 it won the case. The aftermath is telling: The Ivies didn't restore what was known as the "overlap" agreement, and the financial aid wars were revived.

Any collaboration among rivals potentially brings antitrust problems. But as wealthy individuals and corporations understand, lawyers' role isn't to say no, but to figure out how, if at all possible, to satisfy their client's wishes. "Getting to 'yes'" is their creed. It would be a cheap, smart move to convene the smartest antitrust law professors in the land and see what strategies they can devise.

It is far from clear, however, that colleges and universities would ever surrender even a bit of their competitive advantage in order to advance the common cause of good higher education. Better branding, they imagine, will help to do the trick, enabling their school to lead the pack: Tellingly, although the ACE image-makers wanted to use the motto "Solutions for America," the University of Richmond held tight to the copyright.

The go-it-alone strategy might work—for the short run and for a few places, since competition produces many more losers than winners. But unless academic leaders stop wringing their hands and start tackling some of the basic problems of higher education together, not even the ad-man who dreamed up "Got Milk?" can save them.


David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of "Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education," and is a frequent contributor to National CrossTalk.

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National CrossTalk Winter 2006

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