How Much For That Higher Education in the Window?

Part of the Jossey-Bass Wiley Series, Selling Higher Education: Marketing and Advertising America’s College and Universities by Eric J. Anctil is an unusual publication. A monograph with a valuable perspective on a key part of higher education, the book is neither as critical nor as prescriptive as one might expect. Lisa Wolf-Wendel, the series editor, says that it “guides in learning how to think more positively about marketing and advertising and how to do it more effectively.” Anctil’s aim is a bit broader. He want to present relevant research and literature, use marketing and advertising theory to explain why the business side of education does what it does, and to make make recommendations to a wide array of stakeholders.

It is not the book to help a college president shape a branding message or evaluate a website, and it does not spell out a process by which these changes might take place. It is not pitched to faculty, either, though it might be helpful for a faculty member who is confused about being summoned to a meeting about the college’s brand. Further, it does not provide evidence to the skeptic who is concerned about the commodification of higher education. In fact, while reading a voice in my head kept asking “Who is Anctil writing for?” And I asked it even as acknowledging that what I was reading was interesting.

The latter three-quarters of the book are grounded in practical questions of advertising and marketing. Often drawing connections between theory and practice, Anctil examines how institutions brand themselves, advertise their brand, and seek market differentiation, giving attention, too, to the changes in the market over the past few decades. Different kinds of media and products are sketched out and the high value of college athletics is discussed at some length. Ignored, however, is that the number of higher education institutions that pursue Division I sports is significantly less than the overall total of institutions. For example, currently only 120 institutions field Division I football teams. The book concludes with recommendations.

The really interesting part of Selling Higher Education takes place in the early stages as Anctil tries to map some very tricky terrain. The big picture challenge, Anctil argues, is “in positioning colleges and universities as social institutions, with missions dedicated to the public good, while at the same time remaining viable institutions both financially and in the open marketplace. That is no easy task. It is a sophisticated rephrasing of the old adage “no margin, no mission.”

Anctil also takes time to ponder what, exactly, higher education is. Product? Service provider? Product vendor? And students, too – are they products, customers, or both? Binding market to mission, Anctil borrows from R.M. Canterbury and asks that we think of higher education’s product as “opportunity.” One could do much worse’

As for how we think about institutions of higher education, particularly as prospective students, Anctil stakes a claim for the effectiveness of the Elaboration Likelihood Model. This model characterizes information flow in two separate paths: a direct route, which is clear and focused, and the peripheral route, which is includes the wide range of messages and values. Personal involvement helps determine which route receives attention and priority.

Higher education, by necessity, has to focus its efforts on the peripheral route for much of its messaging. The product is intangible, abilities to differentiate in the market are very difficult (who does, after all, provide a better education?), and connections between individuals and the institution are often emotional.

All of these interactions take place in what G.W. Winston calls the “awkward economy of higher education.” It is a trust economy, one in which trust and value have more weight than dollars.

A trust economy has its own rules and currency. The ethics is one of deontological, not consequentialist, in a trust economy. A student might learn just as well from an online for-profit college, but we will tend to value the not-for-profit traditional degree more. The very idea makes me want to reach for Pierre Bourdeau and extend this piece, but that will wait for another day.

David Potash

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