(The State Journal, March 2012 - by Scott D. Miller)
Recently released U.S. Census Bureau figures revealing that just 17.5 percent of West Virginians have at least a bachelor’s degree—the lowest rate of college completion in the country—is another wake-up call for the Mountain State.
That kind of statistic is also a call to action for educators who find it increasingly challenging to market what we do better than anyone: prepare young adults for lives of enrichment in a world of astonishing social, technological, economic and political change. I suspect a lot of us in higher education have been spending our spring breaks this year wondering, nevertheless, how to convince student and parent consumers of the value of such an education.
Investing in a four-year college education is among the most personal and financially sensitive decisions a family can make. To be sure, cost is a critical factor in choosing a college. That’s why when I meet prospective students and their families, I encourage them to think value, not just advertised cost. Bethany College’s tuition is competitive, and over $9 million in institutionally funded student financial aid awarded each year helps to close the deal for our incoming freshmen. The fact that we graduate the majority of our students in four years, as opposed to the nearly five-year national average for baccalaureate completion, is also a positive factor.
Still, we hear the wake-up calls:
Fifty-seven percent of Americans perceive insufficient value for the cost of higher education, according to the Pew Research Center, with three-fourths believing that a college education is unaffordable to most individuals. Students today also often assume that a baccalaureate degree entitles them to a job—and a well-paying one, at that. After all, they ask, aren’t lucrative careers the purpose of having achieved their degrees?
Adding to the pressure on college admissions offices is the fact that students are making their enrollment decisions much earlier than in the past, many by the end of their junior years. Some begin the search process as early as their freshman year in high school, which means that colleges have to tailor their marketing to multiple ages (including the growing ranks of over-21, non-traditional learners). Blend in the lingering effects of a still-uncertain economy and budgetary challenges to federal Pell Grants, and the pressure is on educators at institutions large and small, public and private, to recruit, retain and reward their students.
Faced with familiar realities about declining numbers of available high school graduates to enroll in college, but armed with technological tools like social media and branding techniques unknown just a decade ago, colleges and universities have to be at the top of their marketing game. The good news is that today, almost every qualified student of any adult age who wishes to enter college can gain instant information about academic, co-curricular, financial-aid and career-preparation opportunities. First-generation students, among others, receive specialized orientation and advising, and colleges are working harder than ever to make experiential learning, such as internships and international travel, a central component of their curricula. Donors to college scholarships, building funds, endowments, labs, libraries and other purposes still step up in record numbers at institutions throughout the nation, contributing to the affordability and desirability of a four-year educational commitment.
Higher education also benefits from the endorsements of an army of thousands—committed alumni and friends. Time after time, our graduates and current students say they chose Bethany because of the personal recommendation of a neighbor, teacher, relative or family friend who attended our college. No website, flash video or e-blast can trump the referral of alumni who speak from the heart about their alma mater.
Finally, reflecting the fascinating diversity of students’ ages, interests, cultural, social and economic backgrounds, American higher education offers more opportunities and options than ever—from the small, classical liberal arts colleges like Bethany and West Virginia Wesleyan to the virtual classroom of distance learning.
That spells more competition than ever for America’s colleges and universities. Most, however, are up to the marketing challenge, and have a sound, affordable and user-friendly product to offer. Regardless of why a student chooses a certain college or whether he or she decides to enroll in the first place, a college diploma will always represent a highly prized achievement.
Confronted as we are with the reality of low college graduation in West Virginia and some other states, we need to do all we can as leaders in education to encourage college attendance and degree completion. Statistics illustrating rates of higher education achievement represent more than the sum of their numbers; they speak clearly and unmistakably about what we value as an informed and influential nation in a turbulent world.
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Dr. Scott D. Miller is President and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College. A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he has served as president of three private liberal arts colleges during the past 21 years.