Can a New Breed of Startup Solve the HigherEd Marketing Puzzle?

There must be a better way. Over the last fifteen years we’ve witnessed the rapid expansion of digital marketing in higher education, and this has implications for students. Universities compete to capture the attention of prospective students. However, there are signs of startups and innovations that might challenge or at least give an alternative to the current approach. Before I get to that, allow me to explain the current landscape.

Non-profit and for-profit higher education institutions spend billions annually on marketing. The “cost per acquisition” of a new student ranges from a few hundred to thousands depending upon the school, program and student demographic. For example, recruitment for online MBA students is extremely competitive, and it is not unheard of for an organization to spend anywhere from $2000 to $5000+ to recruit a single student.

This competition is further amplified by online degree programs. If you live in California and you use the Internet, there is little doubt that you’ve seen more than a few ads about Arizona State University’s online degrees. When it comes to online programs, there is little (expect for a large marketing budget) keeping Universities from marketing to students thousands of miles away. This means that a small or middle-sized school in a state is competing against millions of marketing dollars even when they are mainly focused on recruiting students within a few hundred square miles of their campus.

What does all this spending mean for prospective students? While I realize that I’m oversimplifying things, each dollar that goes toward marketing is a dollar that does not go toward reducing the cost of higher education for students or improving the academic experience. I spend my day job in such a world, and we consistently talk about spending as little as possible while finding and recruiting the students who can best benefit from what we have to offer; but that is an expensive endeavor in the digital space.

Prospective students are persistently confronted with online ads, marketing videos, and other efforts to gain their attention. When students use a search engine to explore potential higher education options, they witness a digital competition among University web sites, each hiring internal and external talent to optimize their sites for search, to increase their page rank, to be among the first to show up. The results of searches also show web sites that specialize in listing dozens or hundreds of higher education options. These are often companies that make money by charging Universities based on the “leads” (prospective students) that are provided through the site. Once prospective students show interest in a school, they are likely to find ads for that school following them around the web, showing up on the side of their favorite news and entertainment web sites.

This means that the success or viability of colleges and universities, especially those that rely on tuition dollars, is tied to their capacity to find some way to compete in this new landscape. How do you fill that freshman class or meet those enrollment targets? This is a critical issue for many schools. It becomes especially important when we expand our conversation from the small percentage of students who pursue a traditional residential four-year degree to the majority of college students today who are working adults, commuters, accelerated, and/or online students.

While far from certain, I see hints that much of this could change as people begin to experiment with data analytic tools that match people with products and services that best fit their needs and interests. Admittedly is a prime example of innovations that hint at such changes in the higher education space. Here is how they represent what they do:

Our goal is to help high school students find their dream schools and get accepted. We aim to build a platform to help students at all budgets, which is why our platform is completely free for all students. We’ve recently launched accounts for parents, mentors, counselors, and current college students, and will be building those out in the future.

The idea for Admittedly was originally hatched while Founder & CEO Jessica Brondo Davidoff was working as a private college admissions counselor and SAT/ACT prep instructor for her first company, The Edge in College Prep, which she founded in 2005 just a year after graduating from Princeton.

I don’t think they talk about it this way, but my first thought was, “Brilliant! This is a dating service concept applied to prospective students and colleges!” You answer a series of questions ranging from your academic record to interests and preferences. The Admittedly algorithm does the rest, providing you with a long list of recommended colleges, ranked by best fits. It tells you which colleges align well with your academic preparation, which are likely stretch goals for you, and which match goals and interests but are probably in the stratosphere for you based on their admission requirements. There are plenty of other web sits that offer you help finding a good college match, but I’ve not seen anything as detailed as Admittedly and their database of 300+ questions.

This is only part of what Admittedly does, but it is a brilliant concept, one that is worthy of gaining traction. Of course, there are risks of abuse. Companies providing services like this could become just as cost-prohibitive by charging Universities large fees for the leads generated from their service. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a business model, but that doesn’t help us address that massive marketing expenses that I already described. Also, much depends upon which colleges are represented in such company’s databases, whether the college’s features and requirements are accurately represented, whether all schools truly get an equal chance in the algorithm, or if this also just comes down to who is willing to pay the most to show up at the top of a student’s “best college fit” list.

Yet, what if companies like this are willing to be largely neutral (maybe even held externally accountable) and/or transparent about their matching methods? What if they are willing to help decrease the marketing expense problem by reducing the cost per new student paid by universities? Then they are not only helping prospective students through a great service. They may also be indirectly helping higher education institutions find ways to reallocate some of that marketing money toward student services or tuition discounts. Time will tell, but if such services truly help students find the best college fit and therefore increase retention and graduation rates, then this is a for-profit business model that is contributing massive good to higher education.

Admittedly’s focus seems to be on prospective traditional undergraduate students, and I’ve yet to see an equal for the larger number of non-traditional or post-traditional college prospects or graduate students. I have also not seen something like this that specializes in helping people sort through the growing number of online programs available to them. These are prime markets for services like Admittedly. It is only a matter of time before we see people filling these needs. What is uncertain is whether these new startups will simply join in driving up the cost of higher education marketing or if they can provide a truly positive change, decreasing marketing expenses while helping prospective students find schools that are a great fit.

5 Thought Experiments to Challenge Our Vision of Higher Education

How can we cut the cost of college and/or address the problem of debt from college loans? How can we increase access to and opportunity through college for more people? What is the value of a liberal arts higher education? To what extent should colleges and universities focus on workforce development? These are pressing questions today, but I suspect that asking a very different set of questions will better equip us to tackle such problems in a more substantive way. Depending upon how you look at it, these questions are driving us to new innovations or these questions are giving innovators new opportunity to amplify existing innovations. One such innovation is competency-based education. CBE is a model that focuses upon students reaching levels and types of competence that align with what is needed to thrive in a 21st century workplace and world. Amid our efforts to answer questions like affordability, debt, access and opportunity; it is wise to be mindful of what is gained and lost with various CBE models, not to mention the many other higher education experiments underway. As I’ve followed and participated in these conversation so far, I see dozens of important considerations that I’d like to point out by posing a series of five extreme thought experiments. Each of the following questions gives us opportunity to consider the “essence” of college. They are intentionally provocative, not to be off-putting, but because exploring such questions can be a powerful way to help us clarify our values, identify gaps and opportunities, and consider a blended of new and traditional steps forward.

What if we shut down federal financial aid for college students?

This question challenges us to consider whether the current model for funding student education is essential for a thriving higher education model in the United States. We are likely to find many perspectives and answers to such a question, each representing anything from horror to delight, but if we push through the extremes, such a question invites us to consider what is and is not working with the current system. Along the way, grappling with a question like this challenge us to consider new ways of addressing the college debt problem. Some have written essays suggesting that shutting down federal financial aid and reallocating those government resources to public colleges could be adequate to cover the tuition of most current students enrolled in community colleges and other public schools. Also, since many federal regulations on higher education institutions is tied to federal aid, shutting it off might just unleash higher educations to innovate more quickly, and in ways that are prevented by a complex and confusing hairball of policies. Others argue that doing this would be the demise of modern public (and many private) higher education institutions. Why not use this question as a thought experiment and see where it takes us?

What if college did not have professors?

Would it be college? Some competency-based models in higher education redefine the role of professor so much that it hardly resembles what we historically considered a professor, or it unbundles the role of a single professor into two or more distinct roles. Is that good, bad, or a mix of the two? What is gained and what is lost when we begin to envision professor-less higher education institutions? What possible models emerge? What valued aspects of higher education diminish?

What if college professors only taught students and there was no room or expectation for professors to conduct research? 

In other words, what if we just turned college into a higher and more specialized form of high school? Professors could potentially teach more students, but what would happen to the valued research that takes place by professors in many of our Universities? Right now, this research is used to make progress in everything from entrepreneurship to healthcare, public policy to poverty. If the University were not the place where that research took place, would other institutions emerge as havens for researchers and scholars to ask big questions and pursue important answers? To what extent do we value the role of the University as a place for important research and to nurture the next generation of researchers?

What if colleges did not issue credentials? Would they still have widespread public value? 

I’ve read articles claiming that having a college diploma has promise to increase salaries, increase happiness, reduce the likelihood of ending up in prison, and much more. Having a credential is easy to measure, leading to such studies, but is it really the diploma that makes the difference? Yes, man jobs require a diploma or specific University credential to apply, so not having one decreases opportunity. However, how much does it matter what you’ve actually learned in college? A question like this challenges us to think about the value of higher education beyond credentialing. It challenges us to think about the critical role of learning and the extent to which we truly value learning and progress toward excellence in one or more domains.

What if colleges were simply centers that verified knowledge/skill/competence and then issued a relevant credential, certifying readiness for life and/or work?

This is the flip side of the last question. It takes the modern movement in CBE to an extreme level to help clarify our goals and values for higher education. If we scan higher education on a global scale, we see examples of degrees by publication, which could be argued as a form of this. We also have a longstanding practice of giving credit for prior experience or testing out of requirements or specific courses. Such practices emphasize the role of colleges as places of verification or certifying agencies. If this is all that a college does, we see ample opportunity for cost-cutting and savings. It costs far less money to verify and certify than it does to provide the full gamut of educational services or to support a robust higher education learning community. At the same time, by playing with a question like this, it challenges us to consider the benefits and limitations of unbundling the many aspects of what historically resided with a single entity, the college or University. What would it look like for multiple tracks to a degree, including one that allows people to make progress however they wish, as long as they pass some battery of core assessments to earn the credential?

I don’t propose these questions because I think they are good or bad ideas. I ask them because they invite us into a series of thought experiments. Along the way, we are likely to surface new possibilities, clarify our values and priorities, and then return to questions like college debt or increased access with greater depth and new perspectives, especially if we explore such questions with a diverse group of other people.

A Bad Habit Worth Keeping: Debunking Our Own #Education Ideas

When it comes to new ideas, I have a bad habit that I intend to keep. I debunk my own ideas…at least I try. An idea that doesn’t hold up to a good debunking has questionable value. I might spend weeks or months unpacking a new educational idea. During this time, I’m likely to research it, experiment with it, and socialize it. When I share the idea with others and it is under scrutiny, that is when the most important work begins. Any idea that can’t hold up under critique isn’t an idea worth spreading. This doesn’t mean that we need widespread consensus to move ahead. Great ideas can be unpopular. That may speak to their lack of marketability, but it doesn’t speak to their truth and value. As Henry Ibsen is credited as saying, “The majority is always wrong; the minority is rarely right.

Even when we decide to devote significant time on an idea, I’m convinced that the more noble path is to persistently subject it to critique. I’d rather abandon a wrong idea after a decade than persist with it for a lifetime. Sometimes we conclude that an idea is downright wrong, deeply flawed, or even destructive. More often, the practice of persistent debunking gives us perspective. It leads back to a phrase that you’ll find throughout my blog, “affordances and limitations.” To the extent that an idea is a convention, technique or invention: it has benefits, things that it amplifies, or things that it makes possible. It also has limitations: downsides, things that it muffles, or things that it makes less likely or impossible. While we are tempted to turn a blind eye to the limitations of our favorite ideas, resisting that temptation is important. That is what allows us to refine the ideas. It is also what gives us the wisdom to discard others.

In 1949, Richard Weaver wrote what is now a classic text called, Ideas Have Consequences. In the 4th chapter, Weaver warns of the dangers of egotism, making the self the measure of that which is valuable. With egotism, people become increasingly bent toward what benefits oneself instead of what is true. People stop valuing the pursuit of truth and find themselves content fighting for and defending the preservation of self or one’s group. It is less about the affordances and limitations of an idea and more about the personal benefits and risks of the idea. How does it help me? How does it support my goals? How does it assist our group or organization in achieving its goals or meetings its benchmarks? Power becomes more important than truth or goodness.

When this happens around educational innovation and entrepreneurship, we find ourselves defending educational ideas because they are ours or because they benefit us, not because they represent what is best for learners. We embrace ideas because we enjoy them more than because they help us pursue truth, goodness, and beauty. K-12 teachers and University professors defend ideas that protect their preferred conditions or maintain the status que. Educational leaders defend ideas that grant them influence. Entrepreneurs or educational business owners protect ideas that grant adequate or substantial financial gain. Professional organizations and educational associations defend their agenda. We establish an educational system where power and personal or affiliate gain trump the pursuit of truth and goodness. This is not to suggest that we should completely disregard self-preservation and financial gain, but a field like education is one that demands a higher calling along these other realities.

As I consider how to think and act in such a context, I remain convinced that there is value in continued innovation; but innovation informed by a blend of humility, relentless analysis of affordances and limitations, and a willingness to sacrifice power and personal gain in the pursuit of truth and goodness in education, truth and goodness not only in terms of educational aims, but also means.

Counting the Cost of Entertainment Education

Most educators have strong opinions about what is sometimes called edutainment. Some praise it as a promising means of engaging and educating students whose interests are divided. Others mourn the development of edutainment as further evidence that our education system is being diminished by well-meaning educators who are doing more harm than good by catering to character flaws in students. The truth likely rests between two extremes

Entertainment education is often defined as a mix of content/experiences that have both educational and entertainment value. It might be entertainment first, education second, or the other way around. Depending upon your age, you might remember classic examples like Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact, or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. More contemporary examples include everything from Billy Nye the Science Guy to Handy Manny, Science Court to BrainPop. The number of television shows, films and online media now categorized edutainment extends into the thousands.

Today the concept of entertainment education goes well beyond more passive forms like radio dramas and television shows or films (although those still have a massive impact). They include edutainment toys, apps, serious games, interactive media, and video games that infuse educational content within their themes and narratives. Some also extend it to include perspectives like what you might read in Teach Like a Pirate, How Computer Games Help Children Learn, Hip Hop Genius, and Reality is Broken. I might even contend that the broader perspective of designing engaging learning experiences is partly informed by the entertainment education discourse, even if just indirectly.

The debate about the proper (and improper) use of edutainment exists, and there are plenty in formal learning organizations who firmly reject the concept. Yet, in public health, public television, and the breadth of popular culture; there is little debate. Edutainment works. It is hard to contest the breadth of research showing that intentional design of learning experiences rooted in sound principles of engagement have consistent and positive results when it comes to measuring student learning. It can be used to change beliefs and behaviors, and it doesn’t do a bad job making money either.

How can you argue with an approach that continues to have a demonstrable impact on important public health issues and that aids in providing children with valuable lessons about everything from early literacy tonumeracy, diversity, and public health? However, to debate whether it “works” is to miss the greatest concern. Do we want people to think something is true because it was presented well or in an interesting, interactive, engaging and entertaining way? Does it also bring with it the risk of cultivating people whose beliefs and values are shaped by the best designed entertainment education experiences? Or would we rather have people think something is true because they’ve studied it, investigated it, analyzed it, grappled with it, and understand different sides of the related issues? Can a true democracy survive without such critical citizenry? Behind the initial conversation about whether it works, I am asking whether it provides a truly liberal or liberating education. To what extent does it nurture greater measures of agency and self-direction? We might champion entertainment education when we are the ones determining what is taught and learned, but what about when the curriculum and outcomes are set by people with different values and convictions than our own?

Consider more controversial topics today. Do we really want to set up an ecosystem where the best and most influential entertainment education designers are always the winners? Or would we rather set up a model  where people are genuinely grappling with truth claims? Our public discourse about such matters is sadly underdeveloped to the point where I consistently witness and participate in conversations where people are largely unaware of differences between facts, opinions, and beliefs. They justify their beliefs by pointing to convincing narratives in films while being confused when one asks, “But is it true?” Conversations can easily turn into battles over rhetoric more than logic, with the best rhetorician most likely winning the day.

If we want to empower a generation of people with agency and self-regulation, we must care about more than what will be taught or learned (e.g. Common Core or any other set of standards that inform education on the K-12 or higher education level). How it is taught or learned also shapes the learner. McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is equally true when it comes to conversations about learning experience design and pedagogy.

Where do we go from here? We are not going to slow the growth and impact of learning experience design and pedagogical approaches informed by principles of engagement and entertainment education. They are too effective, and I suspect that those of us with the greatest power and influence on the content and standards that shape education are consistently too confident in our own good intentions to make things more democratic. As long as we are in charge, what is the harm in using deeply persuasive approaches that might happen to start with the heart and then filter up to the brains of young and old people alike? “After all, education is the business of changing people”, we might argue. All along, we are taking the risk of educating people into a dependence upon entertainment education, preparing a generation that is malleable but has minimal capacity to dissident, to take the road less traveled, to analyze and critique those in authority, to determine their own path, and direct their own learning. We risk sprinting toward Gatto’s greatest fears that we are educating a generation of complacent, compliant consumers.

I don’t argue that we should throw out the power of education entertainment and the wealth of modern equivalents. However, it seems to me that if we are going to nurture agency, then we must couple the use of entertainment education with opportunities for deep reflection and discussion, helping people learn to ask and see answer to questions, helping them learn to deconstruct and analyze the very designs that might help us learn something. In such an age, it is critical that we find ways to move beyond the entertainment metaphor of students as simple audience or customer. Or, if we are going to use the entertainment metaphor, then we want to think about how we can help students play the role of critic, producer or playwright as well.