College is Not a Commodity – But It Should Be Marketed as One

Photo Credit: David Salafia

Yes, the true value of a college education is exactly what you put into it. And yes, colleges and universities should still market the education they offer in the same way as a consumer product – like, say, a car.

Recently, Hunter Rawlings contributed an excellent piece to the Washington Post presenting his take on the commoditization of higher education. He describes the college experience as “a challenging engagement in which both parties have to take an active and risk-taking role if its potential value is to be realized.”

Essentially, the college or university must foster the right environment for learning – and professors have a responsibility to engage and challenge their students. But, ultimately, it’s the students who must dedicate themselves and expend the time and effort to truly learn. To think, grow and emerge as more well-rounded adults on the other side.

I could not agree more. This sense of responsibility is true of most endeavors in life. You only get out what you put in. A degree is not something as simple as a product you take off of the shelf.

However, I would challenge one of Rawlings’ points: that evaluating the college experience from a strictly economic point of view “reduces” it to a commodity like a car or a house. To me, investing in a college education is not unlike investing in a car.

After all, a car manufacturer expends significant resources to ensure that its vehicles offer a high-quality driving experience. And that’s what it markets and delivers to its customers. The manufacturer has no control over how well the customer can actually drive the car, or where the customer chooses to go.

So, both a college education and a car are big-ticket investments that ultimately provide the framework for an experience – it’s up to each individual to make the most of it.

And much like car companies competing for drivers’ attention, institutions of higher education need to create brands that communicate quality, user experience and long-term resale value.

It’s not about guaranteeing that all students will have the same outcome. It’s about using brand and marketing initiatives to differentiate a college or university and showcasing what it has to offer – particularly in the way of academic rigor, career preparation and student support. And, it’s about showcasing the success stories of students who put in the time and effort and saw tremendous value as a result.

In some ways, I actually think that it’s a perfect comparison. Two significant investments to get you where you want to go – far beyond where you could get on your own.

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