Are more students playing “The Price is Right?”

According to a story released this week by the Associated Press, a new survey by the groups Public Agenda and the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education, underscores the uptick in public anxiety about college affordability during the current recession.

The survey indicates that consumers recognize the value of a college education more than ever with up to 55% of respondents saying the best way to get ahead in America is with a college degree.  However, combined with this awareness is growing concern over the cost of education.  The AP story notes, “College prices rose 6.4 percent last fall, and a recent, separate report by the National Center flunked 49 of the 50 states on college affordability.”

What options do institutions have when faced with these realities? 

1) Prove they are worth it: In today’s economy, students really have become much more discerning consumers when it comes to selecting a college or university.   These consumer-minded students require constant communication on the value your institution can bring to them as students and as graduates of your programs.  And, it means your institution has to deliver on that promise.  Do you have studies on the average salary of your graduates?  How does it compare to other schools in your region or other programs with a similar focus as yours?

This may not be a deciding factor for every student considering your institution, but it may be for some.   As a result, it may be time for institutions to start thinking more about the ROI their students will experience after attending their school.  That ROI may not necessarily mean bigger paychecks, it could be something else that only your school can deliver (like a leg up in a particular field, or access to a broad alumni network, etc.). 

Whatever value your institution can deliver after graduation, make sure your prospects know about it.

2) Be frugal/Conserve Energy: This article from the Boston Globe introduced me to an interesting model that seems to be gaining some momentum and is making education accessible and affordable. Southern New Hampshire University offers a satellite campus in an office building with no frills whatsoever, but where students can learn anything from greek to business statistics…cheap. In addition to offering cheaper classes, by having a location in an office park, the university is extending its presence and brand outside the area of its main campus, which is 20 miles away.

With the economy in its current state, more students are probably considering these options than ever before.  If you’re looking to attract these budget-minded students, how does your institution compare?

Now, I’m not necessarily advocating a store-front approach to higher education, but this option reminds me of a post I wrote last month on operational efficiency and another post from Todd Gibby where he looked at the amenities arms race that many institutions are involved in. 

The point is that every dollar spent outside of the classroom matters more and more.  The key differentiator for some consumer-minded students may no longer be what frills you offer on campus, but the value you deliver in the classroom and how you can affect their bottom line once their time at your institution has ended.

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