Published on 2013/06/28
Commoditization versus Differentiation: How We Market our Universities
The commoditization of the higher education marketplace provides students with more choice and access to the further education, but intangible “quality” is not being properly assessed as institutions are increasingly judged on price.

Many American values have an underlying competitive nature, producing positive and negative outcomes for all. Some of the good that stems from competition may include the creation of alternatives as well as the development of opportunities. We have also seen competition force some entities to fold or, rather, eliminate their chance at growth and opportunity. Education, once thought to be an opportunity to develop and gain advantage in the world, has now evolved to compete against itself, becoming more of a commodity for the prospective college student.

There are more than 20 million students pursuing a higher education degree at two-year, four-year and graduate institutions  combined (Selingo 2013). Even other forms of higher education, such as for-profit organizations, are contributing to a growing collegiate population. This dramatic increase of students would lead many to believe competition to become admitted to these institutions is on the rise. Since the dawn of American higher education, a competitive nature has always existed in a collegiate setting through sporting events, grades and even research grants. We are now seeing a new type of competition, one that extends beyond the laboratory research and athletic fields and into the actual university marketing, advancement and recruitment offices. For students, the goal is to become as prepared and attractive for the global marketplace as possible, and colleges are leaping on this opportunity.

This new strategy has a downfall for students and their families. As universities adopt a “product-focused” strategy for marketing, the assessment conducted by families shifts to solely financing their education, while students are focused on the programs versus quality. Jeffrey Selingo, author of “College Unbound,” provides an example of how a student researching, applying and deciding which university to attend winds up selecting a small private school because of the financial aid package offered. He says the flaw in her assessment of this university was she failed to acknowledge that only 38 percent of their students graduated within six years, whereas the other universities she applied to graduated more than 70 percent of their students within six years (Selingo 2013). Today’s process of selecting a higher education is completely commodity-driven, focused on low-cost and similar types of programs over quality and uniqueness.

The Advantages

This new type of competition has advantages and disadvantages for students. With hundreds of universities attempting to establish themselves in the educational market, this provides prospective students with multiple options. This will suit today’s traditional-aged college population, which thrives on having alternatives to choose from.

For the non-traditional student, his or her schedule is more likely to be accommodated by the expanded university enrollment options. Another advantage to this commoditized educational hierarchy is the competition created amongst universities. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have forced many universities to rethink their online education and offer more choices (Daniel 2012). The competition is so great that university academic architects are considering collaborating with other universities in order to create an enterprise of online learning. One example of this is edX, a collaboration between MIT and Harvard University that has added more university partners since its launch. For adult learners and non-traditional students, their degree can now be achieved either online or on a college campus, without less of a disruption to their challenging schedules and life commitments.

The Disadvantages

Yet there are some disadvantages to this competitive nature. The options have forced families to examine their choices, even if they don’t have the education to make a choice. There is some speculation this new commodity-driven environment will lead to the downfall and closure of many non-elite private institutions because of steep price competition and academic quality issues. The advantage of shopping around for an education comes with a price.

In the aforementioned example, the student chose a non-elite private institution because of the additional money she was able to earn in scholarships and grants. What she did not take into consideration was the idea of paying more to receive a better quality education that would provide her with more career advantages and allow her to graduate in four to five years. Rather, she chose the non-elite private institution and wound up leaving early because of financial constraints — the main reason she had attended that school in the first place (Selingo 2013).

We are failing to examine and consider these institutions that cost more and provide quality experiences and outcomes. The other disadvantage is acknowledged as a lack of personal contact. Many non-traditional students simply want to attend classes, earn their degree and still hold a scheduled life outside of school. However, lack of extracurricular experience while they’re in school could indirectly hurt their ability to set themselves apart from those seeking similar positions in the workforce.

A Solution?

Is there a solution to commodity-driven higher education? Does it become more advantageous or disadvantageous for universities to offer cheaper tuition than quality tuition? The answer can be found in identifying the opposite of commoditization: differentiation (Cevallos 2012-2013). As a university administrator who supports recruitment and retention initiatives with intentional programmatic functions, a shift away from the corporate marketing strategy is in order. Recruitment, advancement and marketing officials need to complement the cost of education with uniqueness. Educational goals must be exploited for our traditional and non-traditional students. Additionally, it is important to remember colleges and universities of all types are institutions that educate on every level. When meeting with prospective students and their families, why not educate them on identifying quality, not only for your own institution, but others around?

The next 50 years will see a major shift in higher education. MOOCs will become more popular and in-classroom experience will be complemented by newer technologies. How can an institution market itself when other institutions are focused on the same initiatives? Differentiation, uniqueness, educational ability and outcomes will always be your methods of identifying difference among public universities (Cevallos 2012-2013). As much as education is becoming more business-centric, let’s not forget educational roots and the importance a quality education will be for our students.

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References

Daniel, Sir John. “Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education. no. 18 (2012). http://www.jime.open.ac.uk/jime/article/viewArticle/2012-18/html(accessed June 24, 2013).

Cevallos, Dr.F.Javier. “Against the Windmills: The Commoditization of Higher Education.”Presidential Perspectives: Responding to the Commoditization of Higher Education. 2012-2013): 1.1-1.3. http://www.presidentialperspectives.org/pdf/2013/2013-Chapter-0-and-1-Against-the-Windmills-HE-Commoditization-Cevallos.pdf (accessed June 24, 2013).

Selingo, Jeffrey J. College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students. New York: New Harvest, 2013.

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Readers Comments

Linda McAdams 2013/06/28 at 9:19 am

I agree with Cucchiara that many prospective students don’t have the necessary knowledge to properly assess and compare institutions.

This is particularly true for adult and non-traditional students, who tend not to have easy access to academic advisors or counselors (as compared to traditional-aged students, who likely have these service workers at their high schools). As a result, they make choices like the student in Selingo’s book. Institutions need to do a better job of identifying these ill-prepared students and offering supports as they make choices that will have huge impacts on their lives.

Anthony Day 2013/06/28 at 2:19 pm

The problem isn’t just that non-traditional students are unable to accurately assess institutions. A lot of the time, the issue is that disreputable institutions overpromise and then under-deliver. What we need is to have some type of body in place — sort of like an accreditor — that can act as an independent verifier of institutions’ claims.

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