Value vs. Cost: Seven Tips for Effectively Talking About the Price of Higher Education in America

It happens every year: News stories about the “skyrocketing cost of a college education” force higher education leaders to defend the price of education at their institutions. But doing so is to accept a premise that doesn’t allow for messaging about the many values of higher education.  Here are seven tips for leading this conversation rather than falling behind.

  1. 1.  Start with value for the student — The simple truth is that most people want their children and grandchildren to go to college; there is an implied and accepted value in pursuing advanced education. That implied value is bruised, but not broken, by questions and concerns about cost.  While not dismissing the concerns about cost, leaders should move the conversation toward these values:
    Maturity of mind
    • Critical thinking in a complex world
    • Subject matter expert
    • Communications skills
    • Increased earnings (commonly estimated to be at least $1 million more in lifetime earnings than someone with only a high school diploma)
  1. 2.  You can’t lead from behind — Anticipate and prepare for the conversation. There is a cycle to reporting on the cost of higher education. The US News releases its rankings in late summer. The College Board releases its annual, detailed “Trends in College Pricing” report in the fall. College and university leaders should be prepared for questions from the media, students and parents. (It would be good to be prepared at other predictable times as well – the start of the academic year, exams, commencement – any time a reporter might link cost to a campus milestone.)
  1. 3.  Incorporate third-party sources
     Forbes magazine reported on a survey conducted annually by the National Association of Colleges and Employers which found that employers assume the technical competence of graduates; what they are looking for are the soft skills that make students employable. “Can you work well on a team, make decisions and solve problems? Those are the skills employers most want when they are deciding which new college graduates to hire. The next-most-important skill: ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization. Employers also want new hires to have technical knowledge related to the job, but that’s not nearly as important as good teamwork, decision-making and communication skills, and the ability to plan and prioritize work.”
  1. 4.  Cite the value to society — State governments and private donors have long supported higher education because society benefits from an educated citizenry. The charter which created the University of Georgia in 1785, in fact, said that government’s “public prosperity and even existence very much depends upon suitably forming the minds and morals of their Citizens.” Highlight higher education’s positive effect on:
    • Earnings (taxable income and property)
    • Volunteerism
    • Civic participation and leadership
    • Innovation/entrepreneurship
  1. 5.  Drive the conversation through owned channels — Use social media, your website, op-eds from President of the institution, messages posted to alumni and supporter e-mail lists and your alumni magazine to get your message of value out to important audiences before the media asks about cost.
  1. 6.  Prepare a fact sheet or infographic — Break down tuition by category and show how it benefits students through faculty hiring, educational opportunities, study abroad, scholarships and enhanced services.
  1. 7.  Arm student spokespersons — Engage student government, student organization leaders, tour guides and other influential students. Bring them in for a presentation on cost versus value, answer their questions truthfully and ask if they will speak out on your behalf – through social media, traditional media, in organizational meetings and other venues.

Messaging is best developed in advance of questions. Use your passion about higher education to prepare a response to the questions you know you will be asked – and which have been asked before. Don’t follow the conversation and don’t avoid it – lead it!