Communicating Worth in Higher Education: An example from Augustana
***This is the third essay in a short series on value in higher education.
Making the Case for the Value Gap
In the fall of 2008, during a community meeting in Centennial Hall (after we’d missed our first-year student enrollment target), President Bahls of Augustana College described a shortfall in the first-year cohort as a failure “to convince a sufficient number of students of the value of the Augustana experience.” What President Bahls implied at that meeting was a “value gap.”
Jeff Thull, a leading expert on the corporate “value gap,” has defined this concept in the following terms: “If your customers can’t perceive the value you provide, it simply doesn’t exist.”
In higher education, we generally think of a “gap” as the cost differential between colleges. This gap is usually defined in negative terms, as in there is a gap between our college and a less expensive one. Families assume this is bad, and we perpetuate it by thinking of ways to close the gap—rather than thinking about reasons the gap exists and how to convince them of the value we offer. This emphasis on the cost gap has led to increased competition based on bottom-line cost alone, and an implied belief that the only difference between colleges is cost.
I maintain there is a value gap among institutions of higher education, just as it exists in the corporate world. This gap, as it concerns Augustana College and other institutions both private and public, is more complex. While it does comprise issues of cost, the heart of the higher education value gap is the perception of value—by all college constituencies, but especially prospective students and families—and how that perception applies to the question of an education’s worth.
For those of you who doubt this value gap exists, just ask yourselves: why is it we all have our own ranked lists of colleges in our hearts and heads? Why do we nod our heads when we find students considering certain colleges—like the University of Chicago, Northwestern or Washington University—over Augustana? Who among us genuinely believes every college is alike? Who among us gleans no difference between Harvard and the University of Phoenix? The value gap, even if not described using the term itself, works in the favor of many colleges—particularly those which attract a large number of students who pay full tuition or who make huge financial sacrifices to attend the college of their dreams.
Crossing the Gap
Will we always be able to convince every single student that a value gap—not simply a cost gap—exists in favor of Augustana over another college? The plain answer is no. There will always be those who refuse to acknowledge the value gap or who live by the philosophy of “it’s good enough.”
That debilitating phrase, “it’s good enough,” thrives within a culture that too often associates value with cheap. An Augustana faculty member described our dilemma in the following way:
“Higher education is unlike other industries, such as housing and automobiles and insurance, in this crucial respect: customers do not really understand what they are buying. You can improve your situation in the insurance market by offering better insurance, because customers will recognize the superiority of your product. They can tell good insurance from bad insurance—at least a lot of them can. You cannot similarly depend on doing better in the higher education market by offering a better education. This is especially true for liberal arts education, but it also applies to other areas, even to technical education. Customers do not know what a good liberal arts education is. They know that it is an admirable thing, that it helps people to rise in the world, that it is prestigious. But a sizable majority of them don’t know what it is. So you can’t depend on impressing them by doing a better job with the product.”
This is indeed a dilemma, and we as an academic community should accept it as a challenge. Although cost will always be a factor, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to focus our efforts on the value gap. Further, we must do more than continue to improve our academic program, our physical plant, our excellent human resources—we must communicate our value to our primary audiences, at all levels where we can distinguish ourselves, and convince them.
While we cannot make a direct comparison to the corporate world, we might ask ourselves: What is it we sell—or in more appropriate terms, provide or offer—to prospective students? We offer all the experiences a student will have during his or her four years on campus, but that’s not all. We offer all the connections, relationships and new opportunities that continue to open doors for graduates throughout their lives as a result of their Augustana College education and degree. It’s an inherently valuable experience. And yet the Augustana experience is not often enough perceived as being sufficiently different or distinguished from other institutions.
Making the Comparisons
In the car industry, it’s the Lexus brand that enjoys the reputation of “best value.” Lexus is not the cheapest, or the best in terms of prestige, but it is the greatest value. How do they convince people of their value without competing on cost alone? To make the case, Lexus focuses on “attitude variables,” including reliability, quality, handling, durability, safety, style, comfort, security, performance, prestige, status, efficiency, technology and visual impact. Lexus’ attitude variables combine function (reliability, handling, durability, safety) with intangibles (style, comfort, prestige, status and visual impact), which make for a powerful formula. They actively define the value gap and work hard to convince buyers that Lexus delivers a greater value than X brand because of the combination of functional and intangible characteristics.
If we can make the comparison, we might ask ourselves: What are the attitude variables that can help us illustrate the value gap between Augustana and our competitors? I would suggest that higher education institutions like Augustana have spent too much time focusing on the functional comparisons (i.e. student-to-faculty ratio, class size, facilities, etc.) and have neglected to intentionally highlight the intangibles—such as high-impact learning experiences and the student success stories that result—which constitute the value gap between one college and the next.
We must define the value gap according to terms that make sense for our market. Unlike car buyers, our students will only consider “purchasing” what we offer once in a lifetime. This makes our job more difficult, and the need to develop a case for the value gap all the more important.
Our value gap discussions need to focus on how, and how well, an Augustana education empowers our students and graduates. We need to communicate, clearly and succinctly, this college’s distinctive combination of qualities and resources, and how those will land a graduate directly on his or her career path, with the confidence and ability to make an impact. Again, what we offer is not just the experiences of four years on campus (compared with five or six at public institutions), but all the experiences this college education continues to open up for Augustana graduates, throughout the world and throughout their lives. Unlike the product market, our “customers” only buy what we offer once; and yet, what they’re buying is a successful life spent well, and not just a four-year experience.
Finding and Using the Right Tools
To communicate our value at all levels across campus, and to make important comparisons that highlight the value gap between Augustana and another college, we need some basic tools. Such tools will serve to compile and condense the information comprising Augustana’s “distinctive combination of qualities and resources”—our attitude variables, so to speak—so that as communicators we will have this information top-of-mind. We might also think of ourselves as storytellers. It’s through the success stories of our students, colleagues and alumni that prospective students and their families will receive the clearest picture of Augustana’s character and the value of our outcomes.
We can begin with a series of questions to ask ourselves, and our prospects, concerning the value gap between Augustana and our competition. Consider the questions in the following areas:
• Does the college against which we are competing boast alumni success stories like Brenda Barnes (CEO of Sara Lee), Daniel Tsui (Nobel Prize Laureate and Princeton Professor), Tom Weigand (Co-Founder of Noodles and Company), Ken Anderson (MVP of the National Football League)? (What success stories do you know, from your department or Augustana experience in general, that would inspire this particular prospect?)
• Does the college against which we are competing have graduate school stories and outcomes like Augustana’s? What percentage of graduates can they report attaining employment or grad school positions within 6 months of graduating?
• Does the college against which we are competing have thought leaders and faculty success stories on campus, like…. (Focus on faculty in your own department as well as faculty with whom your department may work in collaboration; also bring in others whom you may admire.)
• Does the college against which we are competing enjoy a favorable reputation in the media? Tell of Christopher Whitt during the Obama campaign, Steve Warren and the “Tecumseh’s Vision” PBS documentary, Lendol Caldor’s frequent commentary on debt and its history, Bill Hammer’s dinosaur discoveries, and Joanna Short’s commentary on the economy in the local media, etc.
Why do these variables matter and contribute to the value gap?
Special programs and opportunities
• Does the college against which we are competing have a program like Augie Choice? (Emphasize Augie Choice as a high-impact or “peak” hands-on learning experience that can land students directly on their career path, even before graduating. Provide examples, which will fall along the lines of international study, research showcase, internships. Emphasize that the program is unique for its aspects of financial support and choice of experience.)
• Does the college against which we are competing offer international programs like Augustana’s? Provide example of the range of programs from across the globe, with examples of course work to give a sense of depth of study within the context of the place. Describe our international programs as being encapsulated versions of the kinds of faculty-student mentorship that takes place on campus, as faculty and students travel together in close-knit groups. Remember the long traditions of our programs, especially the Asia term, Europe term and Latin America term, as well as the history and expertise of our faculty on these programs. Point out our innovation with new terms, such as Ghana, Vietnam, Holden Village, and the athletic teams in China and elsewhere.
• Does the college against which we are competing offer field study, clinical and other off-campus experiences like Augustana’s? Point to examples such as the geography and geology field trips; our environmental field stations; the scholar-ship and steward-ship geography research boats; the exceptional clinical experiences in our Center for Speech, Language, and Hearing; service learning in the Quad Cities and beyond; the tremendous student teaching opportunities in our education department—especially the variety within the Quad Cities; the music ensemble and athletic team trips (including international); and the three major combined ensembles in the music department preparing for and performing at the Chicago Symphony Center. What are other examples?
• Is the college against which we are competing located in an area rich with opportunities like the Quad Cities? Our location in the diverse and sizeable Quad Cities provides a tremendous variety of options for recreation, field study, cultural events, internships, employment, course-related activity, community involvement, arts and entertainment, and environmental action.
Why do these variables matter and contribute to the value gap?
• Does the college against which we are competing offer comprehensive services that help student clarify their goals and path for their future, like the CVR, Career Center and the Office of Internship Services? (These resources work together to provide a supportive, well-rounded and multi-faceted approach.)
• Does the college against which we are competing boast a nationally recognized, award-winning library? (2006 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award from the Association of College and Research Libraries, in the college library category, for its creativity and innovation in meeting the needs of the Augustana academic community. Emphasize the important role of our library and librarians in our general education studies program for all students (AGES first-year liberal studies courses).
• Does the college against which we are competing offer the opportunities for spiritual growth and development of personal values and interests, like Campus Ministries, the Office of Diversity Services and the Office of Student Activities (not to mention more than 150 student groups, with new clubs started by students every year)?
Why do these variables matter and contribute to the value gap?
Performance and outcomes
• Does the college against which we are competing prove its claims by making survey information publically available? This good question can be supported with the simple introduction to Open Book. Point out the value of providing this real information and the benefits to the users in finding the facts so readily available, just in case they don’t actually go through the information themselves.
Why does it matter that a college makes survey data available and how does such information contribute to the value gap? (It proves what really occurs, demonstrating our respect for prospective families and their difficult decision process, and willingness to provide real information and not just slick marketing.)
Access to balance of living and learning
• Does the college against which we are competing ensure interaction with a diverse student body and surrounding multicultural community? (Provide examples of outreach into nearby Hispanic neighborhood, such as translation services and bi-lingual CSD services. List wide variety of on-campus multicultural programs, events and services.)
• Does the college against which we are competing deliver a genuine residential living experience? Describe the wide variety of residence options, which ensure a transition to independent living, and the residential life programming that complements the academic program. Focus on a campus that offers a wide variety of ways to gather in groups for fun, extra-curricular and course-related activity, and meaningful day-to-day encounters.
Access to faculty as teachers and mentors
• Is the faculty at the college against which we are competing committed to teaching? Point out the ways our faculty and administration demonstrate their teaching commitment at the public/administrative levels—such as the Center for Teaching and Learning; ongoing support for faculty starting with their first year on campus; development of contract majors with students; and commitments to Senior Inquiry, collaborative projects and the Celebration of Learning. Point out the ways our faculty demonstrate their teaching commitment at the personal level—such as one-on-one instruction, collaborative projects, advising and mentoring, energetic and innovative use of endowed chair positions, close focus on individual learning that develops in the classrooms and is demonstrated throughout the academic year—including during field study, local projects and international study.
Why does a commitment to learning matter? Why should it matter, and how does it prove a value gap?
• Are there hidden costs at the college against which we are competing?
Why do hidden costs matter and contribute to the value gap?
The value gap is real. The value gap is what defines our worth. Our worth is what will enable us to attract the best students and improve our reputation and market position.
What are your examples that reinforce the value gap between you and your less expensive competitors? How are you going about the process of defining your value gap? How do you systematically encourage all members of your community to seek to define the value gap?
Kent Barnds (a.ka. @bowtieadmission)