Blog: The Double Standard in Higher Education Marketing

By Kevin Kuzma

The most egregious offenses are often repeated in contentious relationships. In the higher education realm, there is a pervasive double standard in the way that career education schools and their competitors are perceived, and that disparity has been a marriage breaker between them and other institutions of higher learning. Nowhere is it more clearly evident than in the realm of advertising and marketing.

The double standard takes on a different face depending on the viewpoint. Administrators of four-year institutions have long propagated that career colleges aren’t real schools at all. The educational experience, they say, is something more akin to a fast-food, get-in-get-out-and-go approach and less like a real immersion in general knowledge on the pathway to discovering more about yourself on an esteemed college campus.

Recent years haven’t helped the naysayers change their perceptions. Career colleges have moved to embrace online education and flexibility. Students graduate faster, with perceived greater ease and graduate into positions for which they are trained, but might not be able to cover their expenses incurred in receiving that education. “There should be stauncher rules in place for these schools,” they say, and the Department of Education has bought into it, completely.

The notion is now firmly in place, as evidenced by the recent forwarding of the gainful employment initiative. The already heavy regulation isn’t enough, so a heavier foot has to be put down, from the standpoint of education delivery and accountability, to placement and marketing materials.

Have you ever sat down to read an advertisement for a career college in a newspaper’s classified section? Those are generally filled with line after line of small copy that reads like a legal contract – they are the words you hear a narrator spin through quickly at the end of car dealership radio commercials. The same cannot be said of ads for community colleges or traditional colleges and universities. Their ads are as clean as the stock sites from which they draw photos of students hugging day-planners and backpacks. The insinuation, then, whether or not you recognize it, is that one school is simply more legitimate than the other.

Remember, though, that this is the public perception, and it has nothing to do with reality. The mission of career colleges differs greatly from traditional schools. The objective is to offer career-specific training and the hope of a job. Community colleges and four-year schools offer education. They don’t extend their promise beyond that, and therefore they aren’t regulated to show what impact, if any, their education has on someone’s life. The education is simply thought to be enough, and that’s the product that’s bought in their classrooms.

Still – and I know this from my experience in writing advertising copy for career colleges – there are literally pages of disclaimers that must be reviewed for use in a career college advertisement. Depending on the ad type, a third of it could contain cited sources and statements that tone down any sort of possible misunderstanding a student might have about finding work, though employment is often a direct result to their hard work.

But traditional colleges, not subject to as much legalese, still make bold statements and overpromises in their advertising materials. Whether print, online, or on billboards lining highways, they promise a bright future, employment, a cheap education, and incentives – and Career College Central has begun its own efforts to collect the evidence nationwide (http://www.careercollegecentral.com/doublestandard). This is a double standard that would be hard for anyone in the higher education community to deny. And, despite what you think about the way career colleges operate, it’s an unfair practice.

The numbers of students who don’t graduate from traditional colleges and universities – or graduate and either go home to live with their parents or blow another two years in graduate school – are unobtainable. And, they’ll likely remain that way. But the promises need to stop, as do the overstatements. Higher education might work better if there were an improved relationship between all schools, but that is a long time coming, despite what we all know about relationships: when one person simply doesn’t care enough about the other to know their boundaries, the initial resentment can lead to bitterness and eventually, something worse.

From the career education viewpoint, there is often less complaint about the double standard. Most professionals in the industry consider it a fact with which it is best not to waste your time. It’s understood that traditional colleges hold themselves to different rules that allow them to behave how they like and cast an image about the work they do onto a billboard with successful, financially stable people.

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