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Colleges and Universities Must Increase Their Value Proposition

Long-time collegiate retailing professional gives advice on how college bookstores can succeed in challenging times.


Reconsider How College Works

If now isn’t the right time for higher education to improve its value proposition, when will it be the right time? There are many new normals to consider. First, huge budget shortfalls. Second, a giant change in the viability of college sports. And third, the looming, ever-increasing risk of having to send students home again in the fall. Given this situation, colleges and universities across the country should be trying to do something different. At the very least, they might want to change their optics, just a little.

Scott Galloway, professor of Marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business, has predicted a complete change in the landscape of higher education. Many third tier colleges and universities go out of business. Then big tech firms start partnering with schools to offer hybrid education programs that make college more widely available. It's just in a different format. Meanwhile, the elite schools continue to offer a traditional on campus education to the children of the one percent.

Value Proposition Poll

Rethink Regardless of the Pandemic

University administrations are taking large doses of criticism for pushing students back in the fall. Do they fully understand what it means? Of course, if you've ever worked with or for university administrators, it's hard to imagine them doing anything else. Creativity is not exactly their strong suit. Their environment doesn't reward it. Although they're clearly prioritizing revenue above safety, if schools don’t generate that revenue immediately, things will get worse. Most likely, people will lose their jobs and institutions will be permanently damaged. The consequences are serious whether students come back or not. Most administrators care deeply about their institutions and they’re fighting for those institutions and everyone associated with them. They're also fighting to keep their own jobs and hefty salaries. When there's a fire, you don't start working on the plans for the new building. You try to put out the fire.

The Model is Breaking

Unfortunately, whether it's right now or some number of months from now, administrators have little reason to rethink their model. It's worked for a long time. Why change it? Colleges charge obscene amounts of money for tuition. Students show up in droves, administrations balloon, state funding shrinks. Conveniently, it necessitates more students and higher tuition. There's a lot of momentum there and the money trough just seems to refill like magic.

If college is going to be a place for people other than the super-wealthy, universities need to do two things. First, provide students with more practical experience. Second, send them into the real world with a lot less debt. Schools can accomplish this by either cutting tuition or providing those students with more income. Since there's zero evidence that tuition will ever decrease, the only answer is to provide students more income. To do this, the traditional liberal arts college experience needs to transform itself by combining its best elements with the best elements of technical and vocational schools.

  • The Real Cost Equation
    To understand rising tuition rates, focus less on colleges and more on broad economic trends, write Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman.

Think Like a Technical College

Colleges and universities across the country have the perfect opportunity to start making this transition because they’re laying off staff and are likely to let go of even more in the coming year. If schools transitions students into those vacant positions and make that employment part of their education, they can maintain services at a much lower cost. Teach students how to interpret Shakespeare and mix chemicals in a lab and understand the history of our country and other countries while also requiring them to work a real job that pays them a real salary and develops real-world, practical, resume-building skills. Get rid of the worthless work-study job. Get students out of the local McDonald's. If, as Professor Galloway suggests, colleges begin partnering with tech companies, it’s the perfect environment to start training students in professional skills that might land them something other than an entry-level job.

This is a real alternative to simply relying on tuition and enrollment increases to generate more revenue. Due to work demands, it’s possible that a four-year degree turns into a five or six-year degree, but students will graduate with considerably less debt. Yes, students will earn a salary, but it won’t be as high as the previous permanent employees and the university will save millions in benefits since students will continue to pay for their own health insurance.

Believe in the Student

If you just heard a loud noise, it was probably the echo of doubt thundering through higher education’s collective consciousness: students aren’t reliable, they’re transient, and they can’t do the same jobs as permanent staff. It's all false. I had that same concern before I watched a highly skilled manager train an entire cadre of students to run our Order Fulfillment department at the CU Bookstore at the University of Colorado Boulder. And when those students got good at their jobs, they became managers, and those managers trained new hires. Those students weren’t just good at the job, they were better than the permanent staff. Furthermore, they were students helping other students both internally and externally. It's a meaningful relationship that elevates college service.

Fifty percent or more of a typical university’s labor, across all levels, could be made up of students. And just to be clear, let's create student Vice Chancellor positions too and reduce the size of administration where bureaucracy has expanded unabated. It’s not something that can be done all at once, but over time it can develop and blossom. There will be faculty who teach academic subjects and there will be staff members who train students to perform essential functions from finance to IT to landscaping to human resource management. Potentially, every university employee could also be a teacher. Mentoring fellow employees is highly rewarding and an important skill in most businesses. The process would help un-silo higher education (another problem that requires its own article). Universities are small cities with myriad jobs that can effectively train students to move into the professional world and such an offer dramatically increases the value proposition of any school that tries it.

Tuition Rates Quick Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

Scroll to Continue
  1. As of 2019, what's the yearly tuition at Columbia University?
    • $59,430
    • $35,647
    • $30,326
  2. In 2020, what was the total yearly cost of attendance at The University of Chicago?
    • $60,000
    • $78,555
    • $98,056

Answer Key

  1. $59,430
  2. $78,555

Some Students Don't Need a Job

And perhaps some degrees don't need the help. If you're studying to be a nuclear engineer (or almost any engineer) or getting a degree in Actuarial Mathematics, you're good. You probably already have your hands full. But what if a school could guarantee you an increase in your starting salary by twenty percent? That's what having resume-building skills will do. Another benefit to this concept is that students graduate with professional skills that mean they require considerably less training once hired. Businesses spend gobs of money training new hires. Knowing what it's like to function in a professional work environment means easier transitions for recent graduates and a lot less turn-over for the businesses that hire them. A college or university that has data showing their graduates have a significantly increased chance of landing a job, more longevity, and a higher starting salary, is a place that separates itself from the pack and dramatically increases its value proposition.

I'd like to think I'm not being delusional. I’m not pretending there aren’t downsides to this idea. Many a college town is built on the backs of permanent employees who drive the town's economy. There’s no doubt that this model could fundamentally change the character of those towns as well as the economic conditions and business needs. However, some of that impact could be ameliorated by changing the academic calendar to have students taking classes year-round to maintain consistent productivity at work and complete their degrees faster.

Working During College is a Good Thing

I worked all through school, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, so this concept is based on my own (see: old) experiences. I was an oddball in graduate school in the sense that I followed a non-traditional path to fund my education. I got my Master's degree without paying the University a dime because I was also an employee of the school and received three credit hours per semester as a benefit. It took me an extra year to graduate, but I received that degree at no financial cost. I had zero debt.

One of my faculty advisers hated what I was doing because the department wasn't able to exploit me as a graduate teacher, which paid a pittance compared to my salary. I simply couldn't live on what the university paid graduate teachers, which to this day is still terrible compensation. At the time, I had a couple of married friends who were also graduate students doing things the normal way, taking out loans and teaching classes. They had accumulated so much debt between them that it was going to take them years to pay it off. It was clear nobody ever taught them the math on educational loans. They weren't going to be able to afford to have children or buy a house anytime soon because of that debt. I had already purchased my first home while they had no clue just how dire their financial situation was going to be and, as far as I know, they're still paying off that debt, twenty-five years later.

Whether we recover from the pandemic in the fall or it takes longer, this crisis needs to be a change agent. Let's push the value proposition of higher education up, not down. Colleges and universities can transform the way they prepare their students for the world by giving them a meaningful job as well as a meaningful education. To paraphrase the old Chinese proverb about planting a tree, the best time to rethink the value proposition in higher education was twenty years ago. The second best time is right now.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Jason Katzman


R V Datmir on August 21, 2020:

You forget to recommend colleges liquidate their grievance studies programmes!

Jason Katzman (author) from Boulder, Co on July 12, 2020:

Thank you. I appreciate the comment.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on July 11, 2020:

Nice article. Well presented.

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