Branding Liberal Arts in the Age of a Pandemic

By idfive \ August 19, 2021

In Mark Twain’s 1897 travelogue Following the Equator, Mr. Clemens begins chapter twenty-five with a quote from Puddin’head Wilson’s fictional New Calendar defining the word “classic” as applied to books. 

”Classic,” defines Wilson, “A book that people praise and don’t read.”

This definition is one of Twain’s most enduring quotes and one of Wilson’s pithiest “quips,” mainly because it rings true with so many of us. Even if we consider ourselves to be “well educated” we probably might stumble a bit if asked about some of the finer points made by Heraclitus or tasked with dredging up and reciting choice bits from some of Cicero’s orations. Ahem.

But we’re not quoting Twain here to apologize for the less-than-perfect retention of our often less-than-perfect educations. 

No, we think the quote does an amazing job of describing the brand of the liberal arts in higher education today, especially when it comes to prospective students, their parents and influencers, and employers.

Not a new debate, but new circumstances.

While the debate over the value of liberal education has been raging for decades now, oddly enough there seems to be no lack of consensus about the value of a liberal arts education among employers, at least when they’re asked about what they value when hiring recent college graduates. 

From numerous studies published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers to a recently published survey of college and high school students published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, employers seem to consistently place skills developed by a liberal arts education — critical thinking, analysis, ethical reasoning, writing, public speaking, just to name a few — at the top of their lists of skills they look for in new hires. 

At least that’s what they say they want. The reality? Well, there’s a reason that higher education has become obsessed with STEM and “job readiness.” 

As schools seek to increase brand recognition, the discrepancy between the lofty ideals espoused by employers in surveys and the realities of what gets graduates hired isn’t — excuse the pun — academic. At one level it’s a matter of survival, although we recognize that institutions have weathered the pandemic. At another level, that of messaging, the constant drumbeat of vocationalism and the denigration of the liberal arts is a major hurdle to overcome as schools look to expand their brands into new markets. 

But this isn’t the only hurdle higher ed faces, especially in the post-COVID era. While it’s difficult to identify an industry that hasn’t been touched by the pandemic, education — especially, we’d argue, higher education — is one that probably has been changed the most. Test scores went “optional but preferred” in many places, leading to unprecedented applications to “stretch schools” and a decrease in applications just about everywhere else. Learning went virtual at all levels, leading to learning loss, especially among traditionally underserved populations. Facing massive uncertainty, unprecedented numbers of high school students looked towards gap years until more normal times arrived. Business closures due to the pandemic resulted in massive losses to businesses, reductions in incomes due to layoffs, and ratcheted up the uncertainty levels for everyone, especially those in rural areas. For many, the answer to “Where should I go to college?” became “Should I” or “Can I?”. 

One of the toughest challenges facing higher education today is the brand of higher education itself. 

The transition to virtual learning — even if only for a relatively short amount of time for some — left many students (and the parents footing the bill, in many cases) feeling cheated, even if concessions were made by their institutions around reducing fees for some campus services. And while many students adapted, many are asking, “What was I paying for anyway?  What is college for? Is it only about acquiring knowledge, or is it about a much more comprehensive experience?” The “will-we/won’t-we” vacillations of many campuses over opening back up again have led to uncertainty and negative feelings even in those who aren’t going to college. Overall — and fairly or not — the pandemic didn’t help the brand image of higher education, already dinged by arguments over academic freedom, worries about rising costs and mounting student debt, and soul-searching about the relevance of a four-year degree in a rapidly changing world.

A new survey from DC think tank New America and Third Way makes this change in attitude abundantly clear. The poll was fairly extensive, reaching out to 1,002 college students nationwide, including samples of 242 caregivers, 269 Black students, and 325 Latinx students. The survey also included 200 high school seniors. While they found that most students who were in college during the pandemic were likely to return to school in the fall, when they asked whether they agreed with the statement “Higher education is not worth the cost to students anymore,” most of the students they surveyed agreed. Even worse, the percentage of students who agreed with the statement increased during the course of the pandemic. 

While some analysts have chalked up this result to concerns over cost, we think this college ambivalence goes deeper than that. While “going to college” used to be an article of unshakable faith for many students, today their faith seems to have been shaken pretty severely. Of course, cost and debt are major issues, but what students and prospects seem to be saying is that they no longer believe that investing in a college education is no longer a sure thing. 

While we think it’s possible to chalk up some of their ambivalence to jitters about an economy damaged by the pandemic, we also think that their perception of the value of a college education has been damaged by the mixed messages they’ve been receiving about the purpose — and ultimate value — of college. 

If the purpose of college has become simply to acquire the technical skills and credentials that are going to get them a job (skills and credentials that employers ostensibly want), plenty of alternatives have arisen that don’t require a four-to-five year commitment, a price tag of six figures or more, and a future crippled by debt. After all, why suffer through the literature you don’t want to read, painful language requirements, or “irrelevant” subjects like history if you can just spend a year in a coding boot camp or a short certificate program to acquire the skills and credentials that are going to get you a job without being saddled with crippling debt?

That’s the key question that institutions need to be able to answer. Why should a prospective student choose an institution when there are so many alternatives? Why should they choose to commit to an education like your university offers when the world tells them in so many ways that a liberal education is, at best, a waste of time and their parents fret over their return on investment? Why should they choose a school over another?

“Why us?” is the question that every brand needs to answer, but the answer hasn’t needed to be as clearly defined as it is now and certainly will be in the world of higher ed. 

During more certain times with a large supply of prospective students, sometimes that answer may have been as simple as “because we’re close” or “because we’re cheaper” or “because you know us through your parent/relative/older friend who went here” to sometimes even “because you can get in.” Not that any of those aren’t valid reasons for someone to choose an institution, but those reasons don’t require an institution to define itself too distinctly or take many risks with its brand. Touting “small class sizes” or “world-class faculty” or the institution’s ability to “prepare you for your future” seemed to work fine for many — at least that’s how it seemed based on what schools were putting out in the market.

We’ve crossed a border. Poorly defined brands aren’t going to cut it anymore.

Why? It’s not just the inevitable increase in competition that’s driving the need for clear differentiation, it’s the way we consume media, discover information, and make buying decisions in post-covid times. While the world was headed in the “virtual” direction on most things before the pandemic, the change was gradual, though inevitable. However, once the pandemic forced us all to physically distance ourselves from the world and others, the physical became virtual out of necessity. Online spending rose 44% in 2020. So did online grocery sales. Home delivery of takeout food doubled. 

The results of this transition have far-reaching implications for all brands. Distinctions such as “local” and “national” (and even “global”) mean a lot less now than they did before. Distance disappears online. Word of mouth has been amplified in ways that couldn’t have been imagined 10 years ago. Search drives discovery, probably even more than advertising (if most of the server logs we’ve looked at are any indication). “Brand experience” is what we experience online, first, and “online” is now more likely to mean “on your phone” than it is “on your desktop,” especially for prospective undergraduates.

There’s no doubt the border has been crossed. But while crossing that border has brought change and with change uncertainty, we think that this is the perfect time to clarify the brand. Or perish. 

The world is different and, frankly, we believe that the experiences of the past 16 months — the pandemic, the politics, the changes in awareness around many social issues — have changed people, too.