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Marketing College in Dystopia

This isn’t the title to a science fiction story I’m writing. It is the story playing out right now in the court of public opinion. In the wake of the New York Times story earlier this week about the crush of student loan debt load in the U.S., I was struck by a lot of the comments by people who’d gone to college in the 1980s who lamented the hightail lifestyle of students who “live in palatial suites, trying to maintain middle class lifestyles in college” and “major in useless subjects like ethnic studies and philosophy.” (Because business is apparently a lot better?)

This isn’t news to most folks who’ve been around higher education. With the news bubbling to the surface, it’s a conversation that’s going to end up in more offices and meeting rooms. The usual answers won’t be enough and often the people charged with putting a shine on the dullness of a particular scenario don’t get a lot of say in the mechanics of the actual changes. (Which themselves might be hampered by other issues…)

My big question is, amidst these doomsday conversations and the shift to develop more market-relevant programming at cash-poor colleges, are there broader implications for how folks in higher education marketing make the case for the true value of a college education to debt-riddled millennials and their future children?

College marketing has changed beyond just the superficial changes to the application process and the rise of the social web. Marketing to a generation that’s been weaned on products more than ever before, boast more disposal income than their youthful predecessors and are being born to the parents who increasingly boast their own debt loads in the tens of thousands.

There’s been a decent buzz in hacker circles (and others) about Paypal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel effectively calling out higher education.

Instead, for Thiel, the bubble that has taken the place of housing is the higher education bubble. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

Thiel started a program giving twenty people under 20 $100,000 to start a company if they drop out of college. He has plenty of supporters who think this is just what’s needed to disrupt the grip college has on future prospects for young people who they believe don’t need it. Others disagree.

It’s something we haven’t questioned much, because for a lot of us we’ve seen the demonstrable effects of what a college education can do in a competitive world. It’s not about the degree itself. It’s a combination of access to perspectives, relationships and opportunities that you simply don’t get sitting at your local coffee shop, at your house or without access to capital.

These are all good things and I’m sure folks are thinking of many more. But how do you make the compelling marketing case for absorbing (sometimes) massive debt? The global economy has changed the game for a lot of folks. Is it just an issue of motivation? Willing students to choose more “practical” programs? 

What ought to be more practical is the approach to marketing a world dominated by sound-bites and user-generated content. Outcomes are fine, but they’re not the only thing people need to see. In a fractured world, it seems the best way to combat misinformation is to provide real information. It takes work, it takes time and the sort of patience and creativity that doesn’t often get stimulated.

If we don’t look under some rocks to uncover it, the fallout is going to be something that surprises people and there won’t be anything left to do but pick up the pieces.