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What’s the Value of a University Education?

Giselle Herrera

April 4, 2017
Giselle Herrera

Over the past several months, my son, Parker, my husband and I have debated, agreed, argued, walked away from, and then come back together on the discussion about Parker’s academic future. This is a daunting task that, without the proper planning, can really go awry. Both my husband and I had very limited support when it was our time to choose a college and so we did not have the skill set required to plan accordingly. This is our journey…

We all know that a university education is not required to be a happy and productive member of society. However, no one wants to tell their friends that their son or daughter is skipping college and going right into the workforce. Nor does anyone want to say that their high achieving kid is going to a community college, although this is likely the most cost effective and realistic choice.

We all want to say that Miss Perfect and Mr. Awesome got into a very exclusive and ivy encrusted building where you can walk down the same halls that Einstein once did. Education and society have done such an incredible job of brainwashing us into believing that anything short of a four-year college degree is somehow lacking. When you look at this from a marketing perspective, they have won! They did everything right and we have all drank the Kool aide.

Now, having closed that chapter on marketing 101, the story must shift from why one needs a degree to why one needs it from a specific institution. In talking to friends and family, I have heard stories of high school students who applied to many colleges across the country, while my son only applied to four.  They took a shotgun approach and while we were more focused. Neither model is necessarily better than the other. While we saved some money on application fees, they will likely increase their chances of receiving an acceptance as well as their number of choices. Luckily, Parker was accepted into three of the schools and waitlisted for the last. Once this process was complete, the real work became trying to figure out which was the best fit for him and our family.

The schools ranked similarly to one another and all had slight advantages. When we looked past the hype, it came down to the value. My son and I built out a list of the pros and cons of each institution and this is where their relevant value can be seen. The average starting salary for the majors Parker is interested in do not vary too much from school to school. Neither did the opportunities afforded by each institution. The schools Parker applied to spanned from $30K to $70K per year, all in. For institutions that have the exact same or slightly higher rankings, this was a very wide price range.

What makes one education worth $30K and another one worth $70K? This is a question colleges and universities need to consider, and more importantly, provide a definitive answer to. They will tout their locations, heritage, and resources but unless they can justify a $40k premium for their institution, everything else is relatively equal. This is where their marketing fails.

Institutions of Higher Learning need to sharpen their focus on the value of the degree they provide. If someone has the potential to earn $65,000 out of school and they have a choice between similarly ranked institutions, paying a $40K premium becomes a very hard story to tell. If quality state schools target their messages to the value of the education you will get there and the potential earnings after graduation, they will force higher priced institutions into a corner.

Either way, it provides opportunities for advertising wizards to sharpen their pencils and get creative!