Monday, June 03, 2019

Comparison Ads

I had a conversation on Monday with someone on campus about reaching out to some of the populations that for-profit schools tend to target.  I made the obligatory reference to Lower Ed, then noted how much lower our tuition is -- even for online courses -- than the major for-profits with whom we compete.

My interlocutor, who shares my concerns, didn’t know that.  As she put it, she assumed the for-profit must be fairly cheap because so many people from her church go there.  In fact, its tuition is more than double what ours is.

Which is when it hit me.  For all of the rhetoric about competition and following the marketplace, colleges don’t really act like competitors when it comes to advertising.  Readers of a certain age -- hi everybody! -- may remember the Pepsi Challenge, in which civilians were given “blind” samples of Coke and Pepsi, and asked which they preferred.  I sort of liked the Pepsi Challenge, because it made its point effectively without actually bashing the competitor. (The point was made so effectively that Coke introduced New Coke, one of those 80’s moments that’s hard to explain in retrospect.)  But I haven’t seen a version of the Pepsi Challenge for higher education, at least from the non-profit side.

There are admirable reasons for that, of course, but it tends to leave the door open for for-profits to fill the information void.  And they do.

Obviously, it’s harder to judge the quality of a college from a ten-second taste test.  But relying on people to “just know” that nonprofits are better only works when they just know it.  The ones who just know it tend to be the ones who already come here. We can’t rely on tacit knowledge and expect to reach new populations.  That means, at some level, working on making that knowledge explicit.

I’m not looking to unleash a Hobbesian war of each against all.  Transfer is a core function of a community college, and transfer, by necessity, involves cooperation between institutions.  And the idea of the same taxpayers paying for public institutions to bash each other is just silly. But drawing accurate, valid, verifiable contrasts with for-profit competitors doesn’t strike me that way at all.  As McMillan Cottom’s book notes, for-profits specifically target African-American women and load them down with debt. We offer a more affordable and respected alternative. The trick is getting the word out. From a taxpayer’s perspective, a little bit of advertising upfront is a lot cheaper than subsequent loan bailouts.  

My background isn’t in marketing, so I’m not sure how a campaign like that would work.  Some of it probably has to be by word of mouth with trusted ambassadors, which is great when you can do it.  But some of it may need to be more systematic than that.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen cases in which community or state colleges have gone after for-profits directly?  If so, what worked? I’m thinking that we’ve hit the limits of the payoff from the “the difference speaks for itself” strategy.  What would our version of the Pepsi Challenge look like?