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Seeing through the marketing of a college education

One of my favorite long-running skits on Saturday Night Live is the Five Timers Club for celebrities who have hosted SNL five times or more. It is a cozy club room set up like a library, complete with plush jackets and handshakes and well-padded armchairs. One of those elite exclusive places of membership and means that sets you apart. Exclusive, private and special: Not everything can be marketed in that way, especially something which benefits us and helps us grow and yet if you think about it, so many universities often market themselves like an exclusive club.

There are lofty logos, cultural symbols, and gift shops. Going to a specific college or university often equates to being part of a very elite group of people. And as a result, as with anything with branding, it allows the organization to charge more for something that we attribute value to.

Today, the average annual cost of a university in the United States is above $35,000 per student. That price tag has more-than doubled this century, with an annual growth rate of 7%, well ahead of inflation.

Why so much? Beyond inflation, there had been a drop in government funding with easy access to federal loans. As a result, the United States offers its youth the second most expensive college costs among developed nations.

At an astounding growth rate in terms of costs, education is either unaffordable for many families or leaves graduates with massive debts. With a bachelor's degree comes an average federal student loan debt of $34,800. Worse, the average US graduate student ends up owing $90,000 in student loan debt.

With numbers like that, and in the face of an employment shortage it is no surprise that many now opt to skip college altogether.

Yet, higher education spends a lot on marketing. A recent survey found that universities spend as much as $600 per student per year on marketing. Universities put a premium on marketing, from direct mail to fairs to tours. The industry spent $2.2 billion on marketing in 2019. With prices passing $90,000 per year, schools feel a need to share why the university experience is worth it.

Of course many students at most schools got some sort of aid. But at a pace higher than inflation a college education will continue to grow in cost beyond the reach of most American families.

Interestingly, it's not like this in other nations. Canadian schools are often half the price of south of the border, while European schools can be free or charge just a few thousand dollars a year in tuition.

So, yes — the image of exclusivity is the magic marketing in American higher education, most families with have to suffer or borrow to make that possible for their children. And all the bumper stickers and all the cool t-shirts can’t make it more affordable or less exclusive. Worse, recent scandals around systemic racism including the barriers created by standardized tests mean that a higher education is not as accessible to everyone as colleges would have us think.

At the end of the day, it us up to the consumer to see beyond the Five Times Club hype — and with so many more affordable options in state schools and overseas universities rationalize the value of an undergraduate education. American parents can choose to reject the posh marketing buzz - and thus reject the overpriced private club image of big sports teams. Let's see education for what it is — a commodity.


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