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The Worth Claim: Beyond Brand

July  31, 2013

By W. Kent Barnds

(Editor's note: Liberal arts colleges must focus on making a case for themselves as an essential option for a well-educated society, says W. Kent Barnds, executive vice president and vice president of enrollment communication and planning at Augustana. Barnds' essay on this subject was published in Strategic Enrollment Management Quarterly in July and is used here by permission.)

"To develop an effective and genuine worth claim, colleges must be the place their graduates credit with helping them get their first job, and also for laying the foundation for a lifetime of sequenced, transformative successes."

  Kent Barnds

A force of many factors has steadily pushed higher education into the spotlight, where it now stands in full glare. Post-high school education is described as critical to our economic future, and there are sustained calls to increase higher education access and completion rates to prepare tomorrow's workforce. At the same time, higher education is criticized for high costs and poor results. Complicating all of this is a continued softness in the economy, new modes for delivering content, and changing demographics and accompanying values of students considering higher education. It is difficult to think of a time when higher education faced so many difficult questions about its purpose and its worth.

Perhaps the sector that is most vulnerable during these uncertain times is the private residential liberal arts college. These colleges frequently are among the most expensive, and maintain a high cost structure that is not widely understood. Furthermore, appreciation for the nuanced explanations of why the residential liberal arts college experience is superior seems to be on the decline within a public that increasingly has been led to focus on the bottom line.

The sentiment that liberal arts colleges have been “losing the message war” is pervasive (Kiley 2012). While the most selective, generously endowed colleges with strong national reputations may be just fine, countless tuition-dependent liberal arts colleges with small endowments, regional enrollments, and moderate selectivity face a constricting future, and must begin to focus new attention to making a case for themselves as an essential option for a well-educated society.

For those of us who uphold, represent, and market the small residential liberal arts experience, our challenge ahead is to draft and promote a stronger, more relevant worth claim that demonstrates and connects superior results to higher cost.

A Compromised Future

The setting for making a stronger worth claim for residential liberal arts education will not be easy because of changing behaviors and attitudes, commodification of higher education, and declining net revenues.

Changing behaviors and attitudes

The 2012 Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) reveals several changes in behaviors and attitudes that should be of concern for the vast majority of residential liberal arts colleges. Several key trends from the 2012 CIRP report highlight the challenge ahead:

  • An all-time high of 88% of entering students identifying “getting a better job” as the most prevalent reason for going to college
  • The economy's impact on college choice
  • An increased emphasis on being able “to make more money”
  • Fewer students living on campus and more staying home to maintain a part-time job while in college

In total, these trends signal declining appreciation for many of the qualities and messages residential liberal arts colleges have relied on to make the case for a greater value and higher cost (e.g., residential experience, lifelong learning, critical and cross-disciplinary thinking, leadership development). The 2012 CIRP clearly demonstrates an emphasis on the transactional nature of a college education as students cite economic reasons for attendance and minimize experiences held in high regard in the past.

Reduced ability and willingness to pay

In addition to the changes revealed in the 2012 CIRP, residential liberal arts colleges face declining revenue and pricing power leading to tuition freezes and in some instances decreases in price (Corkery 2013). Since the great recession, all but a handful of colleges nationwide have seen declining net revenue per student; this is particularly true among residential liberal arts colleges. This decline in revenue has occurred despite steady increases in tuition and fees even during the recession.

Moody's Ratings Agency has indicated the entire sector has a negative outlook. While it seems sensible to relate these decreases in revenue to a struggling economy and the negative impact on family finances, that is just part of the story. Residential liberal arts colleges are struggling more than many other types of colleges to enroll students because of a diminished willingness, as well as ability, to pay. They are struggling to convince students, even those who are able to pay, of their worth.

Commodification

Finally, the commodification or commodization of higher education is more pronounced than ever before. With their emphases on net price, debt, and salary, newly emerged tools like the federally mandated Net Price Calculator and the College Scorecard initiated by the White House — both developed with students and families in mind — have introduced the idea of purchasing a college degree as central. Tools like these treat all colleges equally in the minds of many, and as a result those colleges that cost more are forced to justify their cost.

Yet, instead of feeling cornered by circumstances, we should see this as an opportunity to take control of the conversation even as we take a hard look at what we do and how we do it. Colleges like ours will need to describe why and how the experiences and services we offer are superior to those with lower price tags, or those that enjoy greater prestige without necessarily any greater outcome. It is time to review our verbal brand tools (i.e., brand promise and positioning, distinction marketing, and value proposition), which have guided our strategies in the past and positioned us in the market. And then we must consider a new element that will help us stand out in the leveling field of the bottom line: the worth claim.

Beyond Brand

Given their delivery methods and true cost structure, colleges will need to develop an evidence-based worth claim — a strong claim represented by symbols and services that align with contemporary students’ goals for their college education, and will not be overlooked by students and parents during the selection process.

Simply put, residential liberal arts colleges must make a stronger case that the experiences and services they offer yield superior results — learning, social development, and a more durable career trajectory — and therefore cannot be viewed equally when comparing bottom-line costs for a bachelor's degree. In fact, the experience and education they offer justifiably costs more and results in more than just a job after college and a paycheck.

It will be insufficient to rely on stating who they are (brand), what they have (distinctions) and what they do (value proposition). While each of these areas when well defined strengthens a college's position in the marketplace, price and cost resistance requires that colleges move beyond these traditional marketing concepts.

The new task is to clearly describe why it is worth paying more for the brand, distinctions, and value proposition offered (worth claim). The task ahead is to develop, define, and describe what this college education will be for our students and graduates in the long term. This will be a difficult and important challenge.

The worth claim will not only promise students a great college experience and a job or graduate school right out of college, but will also promise results guaranteed to build and expand throughout the future — a value compounded, and therefore worth the cost.

Brand is not enough

In recent years, colleges and universities have embarked on branding exercises, often resulting in bold campaigns similar to branding campaigns found in for-profit marketing. Colleges have spent millions on these efforts. Many have been successful, but there also are many who share the view that:

... far too many college, university and school branding initiatives today are about superficialities — meaningless taglines, expensive investments in graphic identities, glitzy publications, and advertising campaigns — all undertaken in the futile hope that they will somehow transform an institution's standing.(Hesel and Strauss 2008, para. 1)

Notwithstanding the criticisms of these efforts, more colleges than ever before are becoming comfortable with the language of marketing and the idea and importance of the brand.

The University of South Carolina, within its Marketing Toolbox, calls its brand “an essence, a personality and core values” (2013, para 1). Dr. Jim Black, president and CEO of SEM Works, finds something similar as he writes “a college or university brand [is] synonymous with the institution's personality — congruent with its mission, defined by its values” (2008, para. 2). Whatever one calls it, a brand is essentially the college's reputation, or how well known it is and what it is known for.

An alternative view of brand, though, is that an organization's brand is what they (customers or students) say it is. This is the view of Susan Evans (2012), senior strategist for the education communication professionals at mStoner, who suggests that colleges have far less control over perception than they might think. As a college's sense of self, brand is important; but it may not be sufficient on its own, especially if it is defined largely by what prospective students and families think it is. If the latter is true, or in cases where it is true, the perception must be anchored in reality, or there is a danger the perception will change or lapse over time.

Distinctions are not enough

Many branding efforts on college and university campuses have focused on their distinguishing traits as a method of standing out from competitors. There is great value in looking to an institution's “sharp edges” or “tall poles” in an effort to stand out. However, it is rare for a distinction or set of distinctions to be so uncommon that a competitor, within or outside the sector, cannot say something similar.

There are some exceptions. Colorado College with its one-course-at-a-time curriculum is unique. Berea College and its full-tuition scholarships, and Cooper Union with its prestigious small colleges of art, architecture, and engineering are both truly one-of-a-kind institutions. It's more likely that colleges exhibit an extraordinary amount of overlap in describing their so-called distinctions. Even with a strong set of distinctions, if a case cannot be made that the distinctions lead to some special, more worthy outcome, they will have little perceived value.

Again, Susan Evans (2012), in describing her son's college search, illustrated the challenges of relying on marketing distinctions. She noted some “startling repetition” as colleges recruiting her son focused on:

  • Exceptional faculty who would devote a lot of time and attention to students
  • Opportunities to do undergraduate research
  • Study abroad programs
  • An interdisciplinary and global curriculum

Another professional higher education communicator, Jane Seaberg of George Dehne & Associates, echoed this when she recently wrote the following describing her son's recent college search:

The dozens of brochures received all make the same generic claims. Academic excellence is so overused and ill-explained. Letters from presidents all sound the same. Most campus tours are focused on spouting campus facts and figures rather than selling the heart and authentic experience for an 18-year-old. (2013, personal communication)

These assessments reveal the challenges of focusing on distinctions; there are not very many. Moreover, some colleges that do focus on distinctions narrow their pool because their distinctions are not universal or take too much time to explain. This also complicates making a strong worth claim. One genuinely outstanding distinction for a college may be its location, which can allow easier access to specialty internships and field studies that add obvious value to an education and degree.

Understanding and developing distinctions is important, but it's not enough. Meaningful distinctions must have broad appeal and their illustrative worth must be so clear that there's little need to go into a lengthy explanation.

A value proposition is not enough

David Anderson, president of St. Olaf College, suggests that the “most compelling value proposition will argue that a liberal arts education leads to financial independence, professional accomplishment, and personal fulfillment” (2012, para. 3). His is an eloquent defense of a residential liberal arts college education and is among the stronger statements defending what is possible. He continues, though, by saying it is incumbent upon colleges to “demonstrate that these outcomes were not the result of serendipity but rather of [their] intentional institutional efforts” (2012, para. 4).

Anderson has the right formula, and St. Olaf is in the forefront of developing a pretty compelling value proposition. But too often value propositions are not backed up by evidence, are too short on detail, or worse, come across as a suggestion that the college knows what a student needs out of the experience — that the college knows best.

This is not what today's students and families want to hear when they are considering a personal and financial commitment of this magnitude.

Value propositions too often assume students can intuit worth, recognize the full range of meaningful differences, trust what they're told without question, and as a result will make decisions that are in the student's best interest. This is why value propositions as they are understood today are not enough.

The Worth Claim

The worth claim at its core should be centered on something, or some things, for which students and families will be inclined to pay more. The worth claim has to be market-smart first and mission-centered second.

This is not exactly what Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy (2005) meant when they described the need for colleges to be “market-smart and mission-centered.” Instead, it suggests the need to pay more attention to the trends in college-decision-making behavior. This does not suggest colleges abandon a focus on mission altogether. However, they should place primary importance on communication with deciding students first — using facts and terms that mean more to them — and internal stakeholders (board, alumni, faculty, etc.) second.

Some will say the worth claim simply is the latest thing in the ongoing conversation making a case for a college, or another name for brand promise or value proposition.However, I see some key differences:

  • Where a brand reflects personality, a worth claim suggests attitude and an orientation. Where a brands says, “This is who we are,” a worth claim says “This is what you will be, and why.”
  • If a set of distinctions reflects a combination of factors that make a college or university unique, a worth claim suggests a singular focus shared by the distinctions, and therefore of greater worth than the distinctions alone. Where distinctions say, “This is what we have, what makes us unique,” a worth claim says, “This is why we have these distinctions, and why they will be valuable to you in unique ways.” For example, the distinction of a great tradition of Academic All-Americans is an obvious win for athletes. But how does it apply to musicians? It can do so if the Academic All-American distinction arose out of a culture and environment of special devotion to balanced work and play, and excellence in both. If the culture has a curriculum and strong resources in place to foster students’ intentions to apply their intellects and skills to other areas outside classwork, this can be of tremendous worth to their experience on campus and throughout their professional lives.
  • If a value proposition reflects a reasonable return on investment, a worth claim suggests a reason for paying more for the results offered. You will not only get a return, you will get results that go beyond. The example above could be used as rationale for paying more for these results.
  • If a brand, distinctions, and a value proposition reflect what a college wants a student to get out of the experience, a successful worth claim will align what a student expects out of an education (a “better job”) with those experiences they want and for which they will pay more (what makes that particular residential liberal arts education and experience shine and stand out from others, and how this will benefit students and graduates).

What is it that today's student wants out of an education? The 2012 CIRP reveals part of the equation with the overwhelming importance assigned to getting a job and making money, and that simply cannot be denied. The other part is a little less certain, but we know there is a fairly common list of things for which people will pay more, which frequently includes: a special feature, a new feature, superior service, and perception of outstanding quality or simplicity.

A worth claim should have the following qualities:

  • bold symbols and language
  • a base built on advantages and reinforced by evidence
  • anticipatory thinking, because worth is fully comprehended through future success
  • emotion and attendance to the primary needs of a deciding student, because worth is appreciated with the commitment at hand

One framework for thinking about a worth claim is to consider these three questions that might asked of graduating seniors:

  • Would you choose to attend again if you could make the choice again?
  • Are you confident you are on the right path to achieve your goals?
  • Have you already secured a job or graduate school placement?

The answers to these questions likely reveal the strength of a college's worth claim and may provide direction as to whether a worth claim is genuine. Ideally, these questions would be asked of alumni to determine if the worth of the college experience and degree increases or decreases over time.

I suspect there are a number of colleges that are effectively using a worth claim throughout recruitment, and especially during conversion from accept to enrolled, but I did not find great examples that fit neatly into what makes for an effective worth claim.

The following hypothetical examples may help bring the concept to life:

Worth claim: You will have access to a premier alumni career network, creating professional and social connections to reinforce your knowledge base and help you find your first job, your next job, and your best job.

Symbols and language: Highly visible alumni network on campus and throughout recruitment (e.g., address from president of alumni network during open houses; tour stops in Career Services with a special emphasis on the alumni network; sustained use of alumni network testimonials in recruitment and alumni publications; faculty who stay in contact with alumni and use them as examples); high placement rates with consistent attribution to the alumni network.

Anticipatory action: Focus on getting a job, which aligns with what deciding students want from the college experience, as well as subsequent careers of increasing value, which underlines the value of the liberal arts experience.

Emotion: Conveys an uncommon level of support for graduates and gives deciding students confidence. Advantage-based argument.

Worth claim: You will have greater access to experiences and services that will equip you to stand out to employers and graduate schools.

Symbols and language: High proportion of students involved in high-impact learning experiences like study abroad, research and internships — with adducible proof of benefit to their education, such as a project or portfolio to illustrate the outcome. High proportion of graduates expressing high satisfaction with advising and mentoring. High placement rates. Recruitment and alumni messaging emphasizing the positive impact of experiences and services on graduate and career preparation.

Anticipatory action: Focus on building a foundation of evidence, experience, support and confidence that will ensure students rise above their peers to employers or graduate school.

Emotion: Conveys an uncommon level of support for graduates and gives deciding students confidence. Advantage-based argument.

Worth claim: You will develop and gain the skills employers want most.

Symbols and language: Alignment between student learning outcomes and surveys of what employers want in new employees. Catalog clearly and consistently, listing skills associated with each course offered. Evidence that skills are clearly developed more effectively.

Anticipatory action: Advantage-based. College can clearly map what skills are developed, how, when and in which classes. Possession of these skills prepares graduates more effectively for a job. Recruitment messages emphasize that curriculum and learning outcomes focus on what matters most.

Emotion: Skills developed during college are directly tied to what employers want — graduates and their education are valued by others.

Worth claim: You will work side-by-side with faculty who specialize in one-on-one and small group teaching, to the benefit your undergraduate education and your future success.

Symbols and language: Low student-to-faculty ratio. Low advisor-to-advisee ratios. Small classes taught by full-time, tenure-track faculty. Faculty who teach skills to enhance career success and the future, as well as a deep and fulfilling knowledge base. Recruitment messaging focused on relationship development, outstanding advising, deep conversations, development of a deeper sense of self, and caring and committed faculty. High levels of satisfaction with advising and high placement rates for graduate school in particular.

Anticipatory action: Students and graduates will need someone who can be there for them to guide, advise, and support.

Emotion: Students and graduates have deeply personal advocates to help them navigate the world after college.

The genuine worth claim must have at its center an uncommon investment of institutional resources — financial and otherwise — that is obvious to deciding students and emphasized throughout the campus community.

When a strong brand emerges, genuine distinctions have surfaced, and everyone on campus appreciates the value proposition, a college should be proud. But it's not enough. Convincing today's families to recognize the difference between a good value and an education that is worth more — for the experiences, services, and outcomes throughout their future — is a great challenge ahead for residential liberal arts colleges. This challenge cannot be met without presenting a compelling worth claim to students trying to make the best decision when choosing a college.

To develop an effective and genuine worth claim, colleges must be the place their graduates credit with helping them get their first job, and also for laying the foundation for a lifetime of sequenced, transformative successes. And any worth claim must be a clear and direct appeal to deciding students. Such a foundation is built on both passion and practicality. That is the essence of the worth claim.

References

Biography

W. Kent Barnds is Executive Vice President and Vice President of Enrollment Communication and Planning at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

Article first published online: 1 JUL 2013
DOI: 10.1002/sem3.20011
Copyright © 2013 American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers
SEMQ Strategic Enrollment Management Quarterly