Do we really know what our product (service) is in education?

I’ve been in education marketing for approximately eight years now. It’s a very interesting field and one that I’m very passionate about.  But, as I’ve looked at education marketing over my years working in it, one question has haunted me, “Do we really know what our product (service) is?” 

Caveat: When I ask this question, I’m focused specifically on the “traditional” college student, defined as a 17-22 year old who is wanting to attain at least a Bachelor’s degree. We have a lot of target audiences in higher education, but for this post, this is the target market I’m focusing on.

Most would look at me with a funny look when I would ask this question. “We provide education, that’s what our product/service is” they would say. But I think we need to get a lot more specific than that and think about what type of education we are providing, what type of education our traditional students are looking for, and whether we emphasize our definition of education throughout the entire student experience.

Students moving into a dorm room with limited space and four bunk beds
“Dorm Style” from Flickr Creative Commons: Katie@!

Rite of Passage/Life Education

What I think traditional students are looking for from their education is “rite of passage/life education.” This includes the incredibly valuable education they gain in the classroom, but it’s so much more than that. When you think about other rites of passage in cultures and compare it with the reasons many students choose to “go away” to college in the United States, you will find some big similarities. Students choose to leave their family and friends, move somewhere they don’t know, surround themselves with total strangers and have to figure out a new social structure, and have to learn to do everyday life tasks (such as laundry) completely on their own. And, they do this voluntarily and with a great level of anticipation and excitement. 

If we think about what we offer to traditional students in this way, some of their choices make a lot more sense. Why aren’t traditional students choosing to stay home and get their education down the road? Why aren’t they taking most of their classes online? Why do they become so entrenched in the culture/pride of the school they go to? The answer is, because they aren’t viewing their education as solely an education. they view it as a rite of passage that requires separation from their current life and identification with a new life.

Changing our Marketing and Processes

So knowing that, how should our marketing change? It depends on what type of school you are and how important the “traditional” student is to your school. For example, community colleges have taken a great step in creating dorms and other student housing options that allow students, even if it’s small, some separation from their previous lives. For all types of schools, we need to find creative ways to talk about the “rite of passage” aspects of coming to our institutions. We show things like student life, but do we really emphasize that growing independence, that chance to start over with a new social circle? Not that I’ve seen.

This change in thinking also needs to change how we interact with the students before and during their time with us.  One of my former colleagues and I disagreed on how often and when we needed to communicate things such as deadlines to students. Her philosophy was that they “needed to be beaten over the head with it” (posters everywhere, daily social media announcements, announcements in class, daily emails, etc.). Her philosophy came from a good place and I respect her for it, I just had a different philosophy based on my “rite of passage” understanding. I definitely agreed that we needed to communicate deadlines in a variety of ways, but not to the point where we were holding their hand as a parent would. My philosophy was that part of their life education was that they needed to learn that they were the ones responsible for keeping track of deadlines. In reality, probably somewhere in the middle is the right answer.

Do you agree with the rite of passage philosophy? Disagree? What do you think we should be doing differently?