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A rough road ahead for higher leaning

As a parent I attest to the fact that we can learn a lot from our kids. But, as a marketer, I can tell you we allhavea lot to learn about higher education. Certainly the international list of the top schools is very US heavy, and with that comes a price that can knock the breath out of you.

The other day Ilistened, as the father of an 18-year-old, as Joe Biden said that the transfer of wealth from the middle class to institutions of higher learning had to stop. There is no logical way to understand why four years at college should cost more than a half dozen Mercedes or a house.

Let’s be honest: Colleges and universities have learned how to sell their brand. Basically, they all offer a similar product, but they package it like an exclusive club. If you are lucky enough to get in, then you are privileged to join an exclusive group — with its own culture, history and traditions. All for just $80,000 a year. Keep in mind that the that US median household income was $59,039 in 2016. And, that students at public four-year schools paid on average $3,190 for the 1987-1988 academic year, (2017 dollars). Thirty years later, that average is$9,970 for 2017-2018 year — a 213% increase.

Google why it is SO expensive, and the answers are many. American higher ed can be expensive because of demand, cheap federal loans, a lack of state funding, a need for good faculty members and offering them competitive pay, and ballooning student services.

Like a luxury car dealer, they have the process, down — smart marketing makes you want to be a part of something. They talk about their tradition and values. You see the allure of joining — and then discover a Byzantine formula to offer a lower than sticker price to make it seem more affordable. But fact is, more than 70% of students need loans, and they graduate with an average of $30,000 of dept— not counting what they already paid, and what their families paid. That’s a tough way to start life.

A number they often don’t share is looking at how much the average graduate earns after graduation, it is fascinating to see that high tuition does into always translate into a high salary.

We should all agree that an education is important. But, COVID-19 is a real game changer for higher ed. Is an on-line course load worth as much as the in-person product? Is the debt worth the risk with so much insecurity?

It is a fascinating marketing case study where colleges have seen their prices rise so fast, making education so much less accessible to the working family — and launching young people with so much debt. The transfer of wealth is just as surprising as the tuition costs.

But, look around. The cost of a good education outside the US is a lot less. A lot. In Europe, there are amazing schools offering degrees in English. Some of them in 3 years, and many cost less than $5,000 tuition.

So now back to my story. My oldest son is quite gifted, yes aren't they all, but in his case, it is very true. He graduated top of his class, and got lots of nice offers. He got into some great US schools, and won lots of merit scholarships. But, when we did the math, even with scholarships, even will all the money we saved to pay for college, we were looking at him ending up with a debt of $80,000. That was unacceptable.

Enter Canada. I am surprised by Canada each time I go there. The diversity of landscapes, people, and the kindness of its people. The border is just 2.5 hours from our home, closer than New York.

My son applied to two Canadian schools, got into both. He ended up picking Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, just 30 minutes across the border, a small and welcoming school-with a strong science program. The school has a warm feel, great staff, and a great reputation (in Canada). And, my son will graduate with no debt, with his credit transfer and AP classes, can graduate early, and still have funds for grad school. All this for less than going to UNH.

As with the numbing cost of healthcare, we often accept the unreasonable because we don’t know any better. And yes, there are some outstanding and hallowed schools in the US.

Somehow, we tend to see colleges on the other coast with more attention than ones that might be in our own backyard. I have to admit, that other than McGill, I had little or no knowledge of Canadian schools. But with some research it turns out that Canada has great colleges, and many with costs that run a fraction of what they charge in the US. And, Canadian cities have a much lower crime rate, better access to health care, and a more open and welcoming environment. Students need to apply for a visa, and once they get that visa, life is easy.

So, what of US schools that have struggled mightily in this crisis? Many have worked hard to offer students the on-campus experience that so many crave. Well, without good supports and testing from the Federal or State governments, it was a recipe for disaster. With each school trying to figure it out on their own, not only is it not surprising that so many have been forced to step back, but that students were not invested with a conviction that this needs to be taken seriously.

It all adds up to a turbulent time of ongoing crisis for higher ed in our nation. At a time when that seemed to work for a generation it is no longer viable — and old marketing and framing just won’t work. To move forward, the institutions that survive the coming years will need to rethink, reimagine, and reinvent what they do, how they do it, and how they charge for it — or see themselves as a disrupted industry that has been bypassed by a changing world.

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