Expressing Value: Transformation in a Transactional World

In circles where the marketing of higher education is discussed, you’ll often hear frustration about communicating the value of an investment in a degree. “We simply haven’t told our story well enough.” “We need to talk about value, not cost.” “We’ve got to do a better job of connecting benefits and value.” You may have even said a few of those things yourself.

We’re talking about value because the public is demanding we do so. At a time when student debt woes are a constant topic of news, when public figures are discounting the need for a college degree and when political agendas include offering free public higher education, it’s important to be clear not only about what you offer, but why it’s a better choice.

Too often, however, we talk about value in terms of what is important to those inside the ivied walls rather than what our customers deem valuable. We read case studies, viewbooks and websites full of expressions that speak to what institutions believe is valuable. How much better it would be if colleges and universities spoke to students, parents, donors and other constituents in terms that they understand and appreciate.

Part of the disconnect in communicating value is a difference in point of view. For most prospective customers (and the general public, for that matter), obtaining a college degree is a transactional experience. Students and parents view the exchange in terms of goods and services. They will pay tuition, room and board fees, and in return they will get a degree. Most of these customers see the degree as a golden ticket to a great job after graduation. And while they may nod along with you that it’s “so much more,” most people believe a college degree leads to a better life—a part of the American dream.

In the most common dialog about the value of a degree, for example, the ratio of cost to value is predicated on the potential for lifetime earnings. In other words, college graduates are paid more for their work. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2014 concluded “the return [on an associate’s or bachelor’s degree] has remained high in spite of rising tuition and falling earnings because the wages of those without a college degree have also been falling, keeping the college wage premium near an all-time high while reducing the opportunity cost of going to school.”

That last paragraph may make you bristle a bit if you are a college administrator, faculty member or recruiter. Truth be told, as much as we’d like to think otherwise, most people view higher education as a commodity. They see little difference between offerings between one institution or another. Cost is one of the key considerations in attendance. Debt as a result of borrowing for tuition is avoided as much as possible. Those are signals that higher ed has the makings of commoditization. (Gulp here.)

In light of that perspective, it’s easy to see why so many students, parents and donors view their exchanges with institutions as transactional. Of course there are plenty of emotional and relational connections to the transaction, but for most, it’s still an exchange of payment for goods and services.

Your customers pay money in exchange for something and the “value” they hope to achieve sounds a bit like this:

  1. Tell me what you know and I’ll be smart.
  2. Give me space to reinvent myself.
  3. Give me knowledge so I can have a better life.
  4. Give me wherewithal to have a career and be independent.
  5. Hand me a diploma in exchange for my tuition.
  6. Give me a good time.

Customers come with that transactional mindset. Most don’t say things quite like that aloud, but that’s what they’re generally thinking. You, on the other hand, have a transformational mindset. Your sense of value in the exchange comes from the opportunity for growth and change that you deliver. You are more likely to say things like:

  1. Give us four years and we’ll transform your life.
  2. We’ll help change your outlook.
  3. We’ll broaden your horizons.
  4. We’ll provide you with capacity for many careers.
  5. We’ll equip you for lifetime learning.
  6. Here, you’ll form some of your life’s most formative relationships and memories.

Do you see the difference? Your customers come believing that they will achieve their goal of securing a better future namely through a great career. You come to the exchange believing that value is best measured by the amount of change or transformation you can deliver. Transactional thinking is bumping into transformational thinking. Those two are not the same. In fact, they’re almost at odds. Both parties see little value in the other’s mindset.

This is the point when coherence must enter the picture.

One of the principles undergirding coherence is speaking authentically in language that everyone understands. For those of us in the higher ed space, we’ve learned a common vocabulary, some jargon and some pet phrases that we readily unpack, and we can automatically understand the meaning hidden in the words. But generally, the values that are expressed from a transformational perspective do not resonate with a person listening from a transactional perspective. When those mindsets collide, it may mean that some families bypass excellent—and valuable—options.

In order to build your case for value, be certain you understand your audience’s perspective. Speak to their transactional needs first. What, in fact, will they receive in return for their check? That’s a fair question. You might prefer it be asked about lawnmowers, smartphones and sweaters, but it’s a fair question for anyone who’s going to write a big check to anyone else, institutions of higher learning included. Start with the transactional answer; they want and need to hear your response. Give them your placement stats. Illustrate how you equip graduates for amazing lives professionally and personally. Show them exceptional facilities. Let them experience college life on your campus. Then, explain what you mean by value. Describe–in ways they’ll understand–the remarkable processes, strategies and experiences that will be about so much more than a satisfying and lucrative career—or a climbing wall.

When you can reconcile your transformational perspective with your audience’s transactional perspective, and when you can clearly communicate answers to their most pressing needs while still extolling your most dearly held values, you’ll have found a coherent—and effective—approach to marketing your institution.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.