College Brand X, Inc.

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

It seems everywhere one turns these days there is a college or school district advertising for a branding company to help them with marketing. I literally see 3-5 RFPs a week requesting these services, mostly at the postsecondary level.

I find this trend somewhat disturbing on a number of levels. On the whole, there is nothing wrong with branding for colleges and universities, as I will allude to. Everyone wants a nice logo and to establish their presence. What is disturbing, to me, is the hundreds of thousands of dollars that public colleges and spending on branding and marketing to compete with colleges just like them.

Some might say, “well, let the market take care of itself.” There is truth in that. But for public colleges, I do not believe that they should be in competition with each other beyond academic merit. Most public institutions have a regional foothold: most of their students attend from within a 60-mile radius. This marketing push—and you can see it at each and every university in the country—is aimed at trying to (a) pry moderately selective students away from one institution to attend their institution, and (b) to fill seats in their ever mounting effort to increase the size and scope of the institution.

Institutions are rarely satisfied with staying the same size and serving the same constituency as they do today. They want more. There is a lustful ambition in the eyes and minds of institution administrators. I’ve likened this to a Macbethian vaulting ambition in past Swail Letters. The quest for more never ceases.

I would be heartened if there was a quest for higher quality, higher graduation rates, and higher job placement/gainful employment rates. But that’s not what I see. I see a quest to market better than one’s brethren competition to entice students who normally would not apply to your institution.

Why is this a problem? First, it is remarkably costly. Competition in this sense actually drives prices up in public colleges, not lower due to competitive forces. Because these institutions are largely subsidized by local, state, and federal governments, it is not an open, market-based system, as much as administrators would like you to think. It is a fictitious market due to subsidies. Second, the marketing focuses largely on non-academic issues. The football team. The basketball team. The social efforts of the institution. Sure, they market their programs, but sometimes (not always) it seems like an after thought.

James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was once a small, quite “party school.” Decent quality. Twenty years ago total enrollment (HC) was about 10,000 students. Today? 21,500 students with 1-in-4 coming from out of state. Old Dominion University, one of my alma maters, grew from 19,000 to 25,000 between 2000 and 2014. Not as large an increase, but still impressive by any assessment. What is most interesting is the increase in residential students for what was almost exclusively a commuter institution back when I attended in the early 1990s. Today, 23 percent of ODU students live either on campus or in university-sponsored housing.

ODU provides an excellent case study because in 2009, they founded a new football team to play in the NCAA. ODU had not had a team since 1941, but they saw this as an effort to “brand” and market the university. And it worked. ODU has seen enrollments go up, they now reside in the C-USA, and one of their former players, Taylor Heinicke, is a quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. Like many pro teams, ODU is not getting a new football stadium and pouring millions into their program. Due in part to ODU’s football success, I have heard rumors that George Mason University, another university that massified over the past 20 years, is looking at the ODU model and is weighing its options to go for football.

I don’t want to make this a debate about college sports, so let’s bring this back to brand. Brand can be good, but brand can be detrimental with regard to college costs. There are certainly pros and cons to focusing on branding.

What do you think about college branding? I’m interested in your thoughts.

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