This past week the Pew Research Center released a report about their annual survey of American’s views of major institutions (July 10 Pew Research ). The public’s perception of the positive impact of higher education on society continues to decline. Because of the headline associated with the report’s release, a number of my colleagues in higher education took the opportunity to insult and refute the opinions of the respondents. To me they have really missed the point and it is a classic marketing insanity approach. So while I may rant a little in this post, bear with me. This is convergence of two of my passions, the value of higher education and appropriate application of marketing principles.
The headline announcing the survey results focused on the fact that respondents that identified as Republican or Republican leaning mostly had a negative view of impact of higher education on society. However, as we try to teach our students, I tried to look a little deeper. I did this not because I believe that proposition that higher education negatively affects society is accurate. I think you can read my previous posts to see I am a staunch advocate of the exact opposite. Rather, as a marketer, I am concerned when a significant portion of my target audience holds a negative view of my value proposition and product.
Oh and yes, I do suggest that people that are politically active to the extent they identify with a political party are actually the same group paying the bills for colleges. They are taxpayers, parents paying for tuition, and/or donors. As taxpayers, they have influence on state funding. They also have influence on the tax-exempt status especially property taxes of both private and public colleges and universities. These same people are also ultimately the source of funding for the ‘federally’ guaranteed loan system but more on that later.
These survey respondents are in many ways our target audience and I wanted to know what exactly did the survey results tell us about this significant constituency. As we try to teach our students, I wanted to investigate the report beyond the headlines and graphs. Here are a few of the facts I was able to glean. There are 2504 respondents of which 1050 identified as Republican and 1230 as Democrat leaving 224 not identifying with either political party. These percentages are a huge divergence from the Gallup results (Gallup 2016) of 29% Democrat and 26% Republican but for purposes of this blog, we will let that issue go.
As best I can extrapolate from the reporting, these are the actual results. Fifty eight percent, 58%, of those identifying as Republican or 609 people had a negative view of the impact of higher education on society. Nineteen percent, 19%, or 233 of those identifying as Democrat hold a negative view. Finally, it appears there are 174 of the combined Republican and Democrat that held neither a positive nor a negative view. In a marketing analysis, these results would not be good. Only 53.5% of our customers have a positive view of the value of higher education on society and this percentage is decreasing.
To coin the popular phrase, Houston we have a problem. Members of academia choosing to refute the perceptions of their target audience compound the problem. Attacking the target market is not a solution and I find it scary that colleagues are taking this approach. The focus should not be on why our customers or target audience is wrong. Perception is reality is a fundamental principle in marketing. The argument our customers just do not ‘get it’ also disallows an appropriate scrutiny of what might actually be the negative impacts of higher education on society.
Some might suggest there are many negative impacts. I will suggest three. When I first started on this particular blog, I intended to delve deeply into each of these three issues along with suggested solutions. That approach is too lengthy. Instead, I will mention my main three negative impacts and give some insights into their connections. Then in the next three blogs, I will look in depth at each of the three. I hope that upon some reflection, my colleagues in higher education will give some thought to these potential negative impacts as well as the suggest solutions. Then we in academia might begin to ‘see’ from our target audience’s perspective. Oh and I know, my views are not widely held in academia so a disclaimer that these are my suggestions and do not reflect the views of my employer J.
To me perhaps the most critical problem is the financial aid system that has built up around student loans. It is a broken system. And I am not commenting on the poor customer service issues (Money 2017) which include text messages during graduation ceremonies reminding students that their grace period is about to expire (true personal experience). Rather the issues are systemic. Colleges and Universities are looking for a growing number of students. They use financial aid packages to attract students with “free money”. The loan is often offered as a first financial aid option by the college or university’s own financial aid officer. Evidence shows that in some cases the post-graduation career cannot provide the funds to repay the loans. This is creating what some refer to as the college loan bubble (Motley Fool 2014).
Second is a culture of avoiding teaching that is beginning to permeate colleges and universities. By a culture, I mean that professors both tenured and untenured seek and receive a release from teaching. A release means that for a period of time the professor is required to teach one less course. This is a two-fold mistake. First, it sends a message that teaching is burdensome. By a release from teaching, a professor is ‘rewarded’. This seems to imply that teaching is not the corer purpose of being a professor. Secondly, the replacement instructor is often an adjunct or graduate student that is demonstrably less qualified to teach the subject.
Lastly, we have let the collegiate athletics has become disproportionate in funding in comparison to the teaching operations of most colleges or universities. The dollar amounts of donations and funding of college athletics is vastly disproportionate to the number of students involved. In addition, the money associated with the collegiate athletic programs has led to unprincipled actions by university personnel. Not the least is the collusion with preventing students to benefit from their efforts and achievements not because of principle but because doing so might infringe on the athletic revenue stream.
These three negative aspects of the current system are all connected by … drum roll please … money. Professors do not like to talk money or operations. However, the huge costs associated with college education, the financial burden from loans to afford these costs, and the ignoring of two major financial drains that could possible lead to reduced costs are all issues that need further discussion. I will do so in the next three blogs.