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Business Officer Magazine

When the Price Is Right

Whether buying a car or a college education, students are demanding value.

By Margo Vanover Porter

Selecting a higher education institution is becoming more and more like shopping for a new car: Students may conduct online research, visit a variety of establishments, study the warranties, and then carefully compare the value offered versus the cost.

“College isn't fun and games,” says Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director, NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, Washington, D.C. “It is a business transaction.”

Martin Van Der Werf, former director, Chronicle Research Services, Washington, D.C., agrees. “Higher education needs to realize that people are beginning to see higher education as a consumer transaction,” he explains. “The days when families were willing to pay whatever without any assurance of what they were getting are coming to an end. More than ever before, people are really looking for a return on investment.”

Higher education recruiters and marketing materials must highlight the overall value of attending the institution, he adds, and answer questions such as “What have your graduates accomplished?” and “How are you going to help me get where I want to be?” They also need to emphasize job placement, the alumni network, and internship programs. “Case studies—and even promises, whether explicit or not, to help students achieve success by getting a degree at your college—are going to be much more common in marketing and promoting the value of the degree,“ Van Der Werf says.

The study The College of 2020: Students, published in June 2009 by Chronicle Research Services, points out that institutions must learn to adapt to this new breed of shoppers. “The students of 2020 will demand an education on their terms and will be seeking a technology-based customized approach,” the study concludes. “The bottom line is they will want it all: a plethora of learning options that they can mix and match to play to their strengths. They will be looking for educational opportunities that take into consideration the fact that they may want remedial education in some areas, college credit for work and life experiences, and practical courses that will clearly delineate the skills and practices that will enhance a student's chance at entering a chosen career.”

As well as value, students are insisting on convenience, according Van Der Werf. “Students are flooding colleges that they see as more convenient, such as community colleges and for-profit institutions,” he says. “These have had to adjust by offering more classes, and many of the classes are at untraditional times and places.”

Deborah M. DiCroce, president, Tidewater Community College, Norfolk, Virginia, has seen this trend firsthand. “We are fairly sophisticated in how we use research and data, but we didn't even come close to hitting our target last fall,” she says. “We thought we would see a growth rate of about 6.5 percent. Instead, it was close to 20 percent.”

She concedes that part of this growth can be traced directly to the lackluster economy. “We are seeing individuals coming to us from all walks from life—students immediately out of high school who have been accepted to places like the University of Virginia and other highly selective institutions but because of the economy, their parents are electing for them to start with us and then transfer. At the same time, a growing number of individuals are turning to us as a place to begin again after they've been dislocated or laid off. Or if they haven't been laid off, they are looking to us for an insurance policy for the future—just in case.”

To meet the needs of this burgeoning population, Tidewater is currently completing the first of four student centers, one for each of its campuses. The Norfolk Center, with five levels and 57,000 square feet of space, will feature a cafe, study rooms, lounges, a fitness facility, a game room, and an area for child care when it opens next summer.

“In my world of community colleges, student centers are unheard of,” she says. “So why are we planning four? Because our students want the full experience. Students today are far more consumer savvy than when I was a young undergraduate. They have high expectations as to what constitutes the collegiate experience. People come to us for all kinds of reasons. Some want the total package. Others want bits and pieces of that package. We have to be sure that undergirding the package is a solid foundation rooted in the very best of the teaching and learning process.”

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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