The demise of university brands

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

28 December 2010

What do they even stand for?

The news is awash with stories about the dwindling funds for higher education. As a matter of fact, there is a battle raging for all public funding in just about every sector you an imagine. So, it is not surprising that colleges and universities, especially public institutions, are engaged in plans to help the institution garner a greater share of available funds. How important then are university brands?

This morning, NPR had an interesting story about just this subject. The summary of the article from the NPR website follows: ”More and more states are looking to link college budgets to schools’ performance — such as number of degrees produced and the ability to graduate challenging students. The idea has been tried before, but now many states say tough finances make it more important than ever to get something for their investment.”

Now, university brands have a serious brand problem and I worry that this new move will just make matters worse.

“So tell me, if a college or university stands to lose funding if a student fails out of that university, what do you think the chances are of that university actually flunking that student?”

Most everyone in business today recognizes that the students that knock on their doors seeking a job are completely unprepared to do almost anything. They lack the ability to communicate clearly, they have supped on pop culture and are not well read, they write poorly, can’t seem to problem solve, believe they can multi-task and, on top of it all, are convinced of their own self-importance and worth.

For those of us who hire, university brands mean very little. A degree in just about anything simply means the applicant has great debt and few skills. They have been coddled and spoon-fed by educators and intellectuals that have as much experience and understanding as…well, those of you who recognize this scenario know exactly what I mean.

My dad used to say that a college degree today was the equivalent to a high school degree in his day. I think he was correct. College was not for everyone and those lucky enough to attend had to work their butts off.

Today, it seems everyone goes to college (even if they don’t graduate). Rather than a university representing a major step along the intellectual search, it has become a four (or five, in many cases) years of respite from responsibility, punctuated by binge drinking, non-stop partying, and video games. (My apologies to those to of which this does not apply, but this just proves the power of a brand and how all brands are judged by its common denominator.) Has this contributed to the demise of the brand?

University brandsMany believe this erosion of the brand of higher education has been due to more open enrollment, remedial class work and a hunger by the university and college administration for bigger enrollment and a larger student body (and I’m not talking about the Freshman 15). They may be right. College as not meant for everyone, but it has become just that.

So does a focus on rewarding colleges for a higher graduation rate promise to fix the problem? Considering “no child left behind” and the propensity of education to make everything a process, I doubt it.

So tell me, if a college or university stands to lose funding if a student fails out of that university, what do you think the chances are of that university actually flunking that student? If we have learned anything in our lives it is that you cannot legislate hard work and achievement. You can’t incentivize it either from external sources. You either have the drive or you don’t. If you don’t, then maybe college isn’t for you.

If the higher education community cares at all about its university brands, those responsible should remember that the basis of all value is scarcity. The more common anything is the less it is desired, rewarded and valued.


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