Eradicate Digital Advertising in Higher Education to Better Serve Students

I”m concerned about higher education advertising. In fact, it might even be hurting students and prospective students. Perhaps you don’t know this, but marketing budgets have been on the rise in higher education institutions around the United States for quite some time. When you look at Universities offering online programs, we see this even more. To “complete” for adult learners, evening students, and online students, the cost is quite surprising to many. It is not unheard of for an institution to spend thousands to recruit one new online MBA student. MBA is an especially competitive and pricey search term for higher education advertisers who are bidding against one another to have their ad show up first.

In business, we sometimes talk about the cost per acquisition or cost per conversion. This is how much money a business needs to spend on marketing and sales to convert someone to become a paying customer. As long as the business gets an adequate return on that marketing and sales investment, it is often considered a wise financial investment. This is now the mindset of a growing number of people in higher education.

When online learning started to take off, we saw a large initial growth in for-profit companies that brought with them this business mindset. They were more than ready to invest greater amounts of money to draw the attention of prospective students away from other schools and to them. Being new to the market and not having a trusted brand, they had to buy the attention, and companies like Google and countless other digital advertising services were happy to assist in the effort…at a cost, of course. Now it is not just the for-profit companies. I’m simplifying it, but this is part of what sparked and all out “spending war” in higher education today. We are talking about a multi-billion dollar digital advertising industry, and higher education is contributing more than ever to that pool of money. This 2009 article reported the University of Phoenix spending over 100 million on advertising annual. While there are not many with that large of a budget, we’re witnessing some massive dollars invested in recruiting students. Schools with very large online programs might not be spending as much as the for-profits, but many of them are still investing significant amounts to online advertising and related recruitment efforts. It is a competition among schools that is driving the costs of recruiting students upward each year.

When many traditional Universities sought to grow their online programs, some did it in-house, but most needed to up their marketing investment significantly to do that. That is why Universities were willing to hire outside companies to do the recruiting for them. The companies bring the upfront capital and do the big advertising investment, but then they get to keep a big part of the tuition. I’ve spoken directly to many of these external groups, and they can get anywhere from 15% to over 60% of the tuition depending upon the services that they provide. As I’ve already stated, all of this is generating a true spending war for the attention of prospective students.

It does nothing to help students.

  • It doesn’t help them find the best fit school.
  • It doesn’t provide them better information to consider their options.
  • It doesn’t promote a more thoughtful deliberation process.
  • It potentially draws money away from Universities that could be used to improve the student experience, the academic programming, or even to reduce tuition or provide academic scholarships.

At the same time, this “war” is driving greater University expenditures on digital ads, even as there is still a debate about whether they really work. Having a well-known and recognized University brands is almost certainly a stronger asset. Yet, when a locally known or regionally known school wants to compete for attention, they start spending precious University money to do so, money that quite often comes from student tuition.

For these and other reasons, we need to disrupt this current higher education advertising system, and I believe that educational entrepreneurs and other social entrepreneurs can help. If we can create a robust ecosystem of student/college matchmaking technologies, then I believe that we can reduce the need for and impact of digital advertising. We can create “go to” sources to help students find the best schools for their needs, and they can do it without clicking on a single ad that chases them around the web. They can get good, detailed, substantive information and guidance from neutral sources.

In this end, this can be good for students and for colleges. It might hurt Google, Facebook, Instagram, or others who are looking for a chunk of the higher education marketing purse, but something tells me that they will be just fine.

So, here is my dream in this regard. I would love to see a convening of educational entrepreneurs, foundations, investors, policymakers, students, and University leaders, join in this common cause, a cause to eradicate obscene higher education advertising spends while creating better ways to connect students and higher education institutions. A coalition of organizations can make a difference here. Matchmaking companies like have the right idea. So do groups like QuestBridge that help make connections in a different way, but these are each too small and too niche to disrupt the entire system. If we can build a strong and diverse enough ecosystem of such providers that addresses diverse needs, I believe that we can do some real good.

The Rise (and Reign?) of Outsider Higher Education

You might know outsider art, but what about outsider higher education? This is not new, but it is growing quickly in the fertile soil of the connected age.We are now decades into a growing and increasingly accepted form of higher education that functions largely separate from established academia. I call it outsider higher education. Those who create and lead it do not necessarily consider what they are doing to be higher education (although some do). At the same time, the many affordances of life in a connected age are extending the influence and expanding the impact of these forms of higher education.

Outsider art, as people explain it to me, is a term used to represents art created by those who are outside of the broader art community. While some use the term in reference to any self-taught artist, others argue that such a broad use is simply self-taught art, and that outsider art is something distinct. It is art created separate from the standard influences in art. One example might be a person in a mental health facility with no formal training in art who begins to express ideas and experiment through painting, drawing, or sculpting. Some outsider artists see their work as art and even seek to make a living on the basis of this work. Others are so separate from the art community and the cultural discourse about art that they do not even identify what they are doing as art.

While the first references to outsider art emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, something began to emerge over time. Outsider art started to be talked about within it the art community. Events like New York’s Outsider Art Fair started in the early 1990s and continues today. Academic journals began that focus upon the study of outsider art (See Elsewhere: The International Journal of Self-Taught and Outsider Art and RawVision). Outsider art started appearing in studios, even with dedicated exhibits. A market for purchasing and collecting outsider art also developed. As such, outsider art became part of the larger art community.

While far from a perfect comparison, something similar is happening in higher education, hence my calling it outsider higher education. I am referring to a variety of expressions. Consider the following four.


Seth Godin is a marketing expert, entrepreneur, and author. He is also the founder the the altMBA, a learning experience that does not confer a degree, but offers knowledge and skill development that one might often seek from a formal MBA.


Howard Rheingold is an author, writer, and thought-leader about the implications of the modern connected world. While he has lectured at Stanford and UC Berkeley, he is also the founder and sold teacher at RheingoldU, a set of online courses that he leads/facilitates. In fact, I took his Literacy of Cooperation course several years ago.

Draper University

Draper University, founded by the Silicon Valley Tim Draper, does not offer formal degrees. What it offers is a real-world, substantive higher education learning experience that equips people to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors.

Singularity University

Singularity University’s “mission is to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” It does not offer formal degrees or credentials either, but like Draper, it draws from world class talent to create a robust learning community.

None of these are recognized higher education institution by the US Department of Education. None of them are regionally accredited. None of them have many trappings of the traditional University experience. Yet, all of them offer higher education learning experiences. They are not bound by many regulations.

At the same time, many go to one of these after experiences after a more traditional college degree. Most people see these as supplements and not replacements for what you might get from an traditional University. Others see them as viable alternatives to gaining knowledge and skill that they might have otherwise sought through a University course or degree.

I expect that, just as outsider art eventually became a part of the larger art community, the same think is already happening with outsider higher education, and this will expand. Look at the list of “faculty” at Draper University and you will see an impressive list, one that includes entrepreneurs and scholars from places like Stanford University. Also consider that Draper has partnerships with both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. This is one example of where the outsiders and insiders are mixing, just as the founders of these others have plenty of connections to the insider world of higher education.

These are only four examples. There are countless others. The business of creating learning communities, mentoring and coaching, seminars and workshops, and the like is not new, but it is growing, with new ones appearing all the time. In fact, if you look back on my blog, as others talked about how they expect to seek many higher education institutions close, I disagreed, contending that we will indeed see a significant growth in the number of higher education providers. What people might not have understood is that I extended my definition of higher education far beyond accredited and degree-granting institutions. While I did not call it that at the time, my response represented an emerging way of looking at what is happening, what I am now giving the game of outsider higher education.

What is a Professor Versus an Educator?

What is a professor versus an educator? In a recent conversation with colleagues at my University, we had a wonderful (at least from my perspective) conversation about a single statement in a text, “A professor is an educator.” While several in the group had thoughts about this statement, I simply posed the question. “To what extent do you think this statement is true?” One colleague noted that, in some Universities, professors strive to teach as little as possible. From that perspective, the role of a professor is certainly not synonymous with that of an educator.

When discussing a single statement like this, there are many ways to frame our thoughts and perspectives. For better or worse, my formal training often draws me first to the etymology, second to the modern day usage of the terms, and third to the dominant discourses associated with each word. Let’s briefly consider these two words from at least two of those three categories.


It doesn’t take much to see the root of “profess” in the word, and while I’m not a Latin scholar, that certainly appears to be a fundamental aspect of its meaning. A professor is indeed a person who professes, namely one who either professes to be an expert in a given domain or professes a given body of knowledge. The word is one that draws our attention to the action of that professor. At least etymologically, it includes a limited allusion to a student or learner, although a study of the usage in context throughout history certainly assumes that the professor is, at least in many contexts, professing to students. Yet, the action is on that which is spoken or written by the professor. What happens after the fact is not included in the word’s origin.

And it is this very concept that allows us to find the humor in the words of W.H. Auden when he writes, “A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep.” Being a professor is independent of what happens as a result of the professing. A class of sleeping students? You are still a professor. As such, for some today, the word professor still conjures images of one who lectures. Even among faculty, I’ve heard their work sometimes described as “delivering content” to the students, a postal worker for ideas.

Of course, there is more to the word. The discourse around professor entails one who works as a faculty member in a University setting. They might teach classes (or students in classes). They might engage in service on committees and sometimes service beyond the University. They assess student work. They mentor. They advise. They curate content and guide students toward growing levels of mastery. Yet, not all of these have equal weight among those who hold the title “professor.” Depending upon the University where you are a professor, the community has different values and priorities among the items in the list.

Educator (and educate)

This has an altogether different etymology and discourse associated with it. Consider the following from

educator (n.) 1560s, “one who nourishes or rears;” 1670s, “one who trains or instructs,” from Latin educator (in classical Latin, “a foster father,” then also “a tutor”), agent noun from past participle stem of educare (see educate). Latin educatrix meant “a nurse.”

educate (v.) mid-15c., “bring up (children), to train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate” (source also of Italian educare, Spanisheducar, French éduquer), which is a frequentative of or otherwise related to educere “bring out, lead forth,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + ducere “to lead” (seeduke (n.)). Meaning “provide schooling” is first attested 1580s. Related: Educated; educating.

Notice the metaphors associated with child-rearing, nurturing, as well as the concept of “leading out.” In other words, where the etymology of the word “professor” has no strong connection with the learner or student, there is a relationship that is inherent in the etymology of the word “educator.” I suppose that, technically, one could be a professor without students (and that is indeed the case for some professors who are focused exclusively on research), but the etymology of the word “educator” leaves little space for such a possibility. It is a word that draws our attention to what one does with, for or to another.

This might seem like esoteric musings to some people, but I share it because these distinctions point to modern debates and confusion. From the perspective of some, the role of a professor has lost value while that of educator tends to be spoken of with greater admiration. They parallel debates about professors who focus mostly on the content versus those who give greater attention what students do or do not learn. They parallel debates about teaching versus learning. They parallel complaints by some professors about the modern focus upon “spoon-feeding” students or even on the heavy focus on student learning outcomes. They parallel disagreements about how the quality and contribution of a professor should be assessed.

In short, the distinction between these two words illustrates the modern conflict in the public about the role and value of the modern University. As such (and I know that I persistently return to this theme in my writing), we will not make significant gains in the public discourse unless we acknowledge these differences; collectively develop a much deeper knowledge of their roles, distinctions, affordances, and limitations; and then have a broad and candid debate about our priorities…although I tend to think that this is mostly important to address on the University level, not mandated by some accrediting body or government agency.

Can Badges Help Education (and Society) Recover from Credentialism?

I continue to wonder if open badges can help education and society recover from credentialism. When I first started writing about badges, it was because I saw possible futures where open badges could de-monopolize current credential issuing organizations. I saw the potential to increase access and opportunity for self-directed learners, those who took alternative learning pathways, and those who sought to design a personal learning pathway that mixed learning experiences across contexts and organizations. I saw it as a way to force the hand of more formal learning organizations to invest in the quality of their communities, learning experiences and their benefit to learners (not just employers). I looked at the education landscape and lamented instances where education institutions expected to keep their doors open by trusting that people would come to them with the promise of a quick-to-degree route or the hope of some sacred piece of paper that only these institutions had authorization to dispense.

With the growth of open badges as I saw it, these organizations could no longer depend upon people enduring archaic, subpar, and disempowering practices simply because the institution held the keys to the credential that the learner must have for her/his desired future. This was and is not prompted by a personal desire to hurt formal education. I wanted to help it find its way back to what has always been best about higher education; being a rich, immersive, intellectual, curious, transformational learning community and not a diploma-issuing factory. The best institutions today get that, but many do not believe it enough to have a financial model built around such a vision.

I saw badges as a means of helping to create a future where the increased percentage of college graduates was modest but the education “level” of communities was, nonetheless, greater than past eras. I looked to the example of open professions and intellectual communities in society and saw that many of the thriving communities are among the least enamored with credentialism (with the major exception of the health care industry that I will address momentarily). I saw this in entrepreneurial endeavors, many tech industries, sales and marketing, service industries, as well the tech-meets-social sector that continues to grow. In open professions, the high school diploma or college degree is still a common and respected pathway, but not at the exclusion of other, admittedly less traveled routes. I saw badges as a way to validate and expand these alternatives.

The same is true for those seeing the benefit in a broad and liberal arts education. As long as academia touts its pathway to the liberal arts as the only or superior one, we are hurting the expansion of the liberal arts in society. I’ve long contended that advocates of the liberal arts should be the first to promote informal learning, continuing education, and liberal arts learning beyond the classroom. The liberal arts is in full bloom when people value their books and music, they use their library cards, congregate for book clubs, participate in public lectures and gatherings to explore topics of personal and social import. It happens when museums and galleries are well-funded (due to the desire of the people and not just the lobbying of a small élite); these museums and galleries are valued and frequented places in communities; coffee shops, diners and pubs are robust places of idea exchange; when individuals self-organize groups for growth and learning; and when people value the intellectual life as an important part of their home and communities.

I worry that pushing the liberal arts credential as the only way to becoming a cultured and informed citizen limits the potential of the liberal arts. Yet, in a world of more open learning, the liberal arts college or curriculum doesn’t diminish. It plays a more valued role as one of many important institutions contributing to the humanities and the liberal arts in society. If the only noble place to study or experience Shakespeare is in the college classroom, Shakespeare is on life support and his prognosis does not look good.

As I’ve mused about the role of badges in shaping the future of learning and education (not just schooling), I’ve long recognized that training for healthcare is a major exception in that future. The regulation and oversight of training and credentials associated with these careers likely means that the monopoly on credentials leading to these healthcare jobs is secure well into the future. It is also possible that the model set forth in these programs is part of what is spreading to entire Universities and accrediting bodies, but I still see the open badge movement as a way to help prevent such a future.

My hope for these more open futures is fueled by the connected learning revolution. The digital age opened access to content, communities, open courses, human networks, personal learning tools and resources, and educational software. More people are using these elements to build learning communities, enhance their lives, and achieve personal learning goals. As connected learning expands, I have no doubt that value for this broader world of learning with expand with it. As that happens, open badges have a role in amplifying the effect of the connected learning revolution and de-monopolizing the issuing of valued credentials.

We are not there yet, and there is no certainty that such a possibly future will become reality. There are corporate influences at work that could either help or hijack the potential of open badges. Government and regulatory agencies have the power to create policies that limit or expand the influence of open badges. Lobbyists (many of whom would never see themselves as such) within formal education continue to have a strong voice in these matters (as I think they should), and an unwillingness to objectively assess the affordances and limitations of such a future is also a potential barrier. In addition, decisions about which direction to take with the future of the open badge infrastructure has the potential to speed or halt progress toward this future. As much as any of these, there is also the momentum of the existing system and framework in society that continues to be in favor of giving up power (even if unknowingly) to existing academic monopolies.

This does not need to be adversarial, but I am enough of a realist to know that it will be so. Such a broad change is painful. It creates new winners and losers. It challenges the agenda of desired future of influential people in government, business, and the education sector. It risks devaluing some existing credentials. It challenges people to a higher standard and level of learning. As it empowers more people, that means others will potentially lose some of their existing influence, and they are unlikely to do that without resistance. With such considerations involved, the future that first captured my interest in badges is less than certain, but I continue to see it as an interesting, if not promising possibility and path to recover from credentialism in society.