The State of the (Higher Ed) Union

Mark Monahan, Jan 27, 2012

If you didn’t watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night and you work in higher ed, hang on to your hat… and your wallet.  You’re in for a roller coaster ride.  Most politicians can straddle a fence rather deftly.  The President delivered a powerful speech, with higher education clearly falling on both sides of the fence.

“So let me put colleges and universities on notice:  If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury. It is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”

Sounds like a pretty clear message.  Run lean and mean, make education affordable, or get no funding.  Just prior to this, he pointed out the success that some institutions are having in reducing costs:

“…I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that [keeping costs down]. Some schools re-design courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it’s possible.

It’s not always easy, but to the President’s point, positive change is possible: any organization can improve.  Students who finish school more quickly, however, pay less tuition, and technology is rarely free. US government birth rate statistics project that the next six to seven years will bring flat and/or declining numbers of incoming freshmen.  Every school in the country faces unprecedented competition.  How can you not just survive, but thrive?  Maybe the message shouldn’t be just about reducing costs or using more technology.  Perhaps we need to continue to sell the value and benefits of higher education to our audience.  Can we capture their attention in today’s chaotic world?

Mark Putnam, the President of Central College in Pella, Iowa, seems to think so.  He offered his insight as a keynote speaker at the AMA Higher Ed Symposium in Chicago.  Delivering an impassioned speech to a group of college marketing professionals, he stressed both fiscal responsibility and not being shy about conveying the value of higher education.   “We cannot discount and borrow our way to success.   We cannot rely on consistent external funding sources…  Relevance is the key to effective communications. We must speak to the needs of our society and the world.  He challenged these leaders to bring not just their school’s message, but the industry’s message, to their audience.

The families of prospective students – that audience – face tough decisions in regards to higher education.  President Obama had some encouraging words for them Tuesday night:

“At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middle-class families thousands of dollars.”

His message was tempered a bit:

“Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.”

There’s that “keeping costs down” message again.  As an industry, what will we deliver?  Cut rate schooling?  Or a high quality, valuable education that impacts students’ lives?  The choice is up to each of us.  “Risk leads to success and complacency leads to failure,” the President shared.

What can we do?  Get better. Reduce costs. Spend wisely. Invest in technology.  Shout our message from the highest building on campus.  Market intelligently.  Find great students and teachers.  Develop great leaders.  And, work our tails off. 

In the words, of President Obama, “If we act together, there’s nothing the United States of America can’t achieve.”  Can we work together?   Let’s roll!



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