By Kevin Kuzma, Editor
For those of us who live in the Midwest, the Ozarks region in mid-Missouri is a sweeping landscape of densely wooded hills with a sprawling lake complete with party alcoves, country-themed parks and tourism destinations crowded onto two-lane blacktop. The luckiest among us own cabins there. The moderately lucky own a speedboat and the means for hauling it to the lake. And the least lucky – including me – know someone who knows someone who owns a cabin or some sort of boat or inner tube for a little water surface fun.
The area is a tourism haven – while in season, of course. What it is not known for, necessarily, is being a place of intense academic competition, a cut-throat community where colleges fight for students by any means necessary. This is inadvertently the message in the latest TV spots orchestrated by the Ozarks Technical Community College. You might have seen it. Earlier this week, Insider Higher Ed published an article on the community college’s latest ad campaign in which it compares its tuition to competing for-profit schools in the Springfield, Mo. area.
Thirty seconds is not much time to make an impression on a potential student. Marketers have to work magic in a standard-length TV spot to convince someone casually watching television to log on to the Internet or pick up a phone to make the move that will change their lives. In that respect, the Ozarks Technical Community College spot fails on a number of accounts.
The commercial itself plays like an animated PowerPoint slide, circa 2003, featuring a graph and a descending stair-step of colored bars that measure up the costs of attending local colleges. On the far left is the highest bar representing for-profit school Bryan College (quoted at $31,845) and at the right, Ozarks Technical Community College ($3,272.) The ad concludes with an end-screen and the marketing tagline, “The numbers speak for themselves.” And then a dramatic “swooooosh” sound as the ad sweeps away – presumably to emphasize how much your mind has been completely blown by the information presented in the graph.
But upon further inspection, the comparison is not what it appears to be. If you visit the school’s website, you see what this person commented, and it appears the ad is misleading at best:
"However, when I pulled its own website, prima facie it appears that the stated cost for independent in-district students is $14,772 and out of state independent is over $16,000. Then, pulling Bryan College's tuition costs, they are over $30,000 if you also include room and board — but the ad from Ozarks only seems to compare the un-aided or discounted costs of its competitors to its own discount rate, and post-financial aid."
And what do you imagine the graduation rate is at Ozarks Technical Community College? How about in the area of 18-19 percent? In other words, this appears to be a classic case of you get what you paid for.
What’s even more interesting is that it apparently doesn’t matter much if the spots connect with students or not. The article mentions “the college has struggled to meet heavy student demand, having seen its enrollment grow to 15,000 students from 9,000 several years ago. Ozarks has been forced to turn away students in allied health and technical programs.”
According to Hal L. Higdon, the chancellor at Ozarks, for-profits haven’t posed a major threat. “I don’t think they really hurt our enrollment,” he says.
So why take them on? Well, in the end, Higdon says the college wants its students to make wise financial choices.
That’s very commendable. But what about value? Comparing the costs of colleges say nothing about quality of education, personal attention, hands-on learning, flexible class scheduling, graduation rates, connections to local employers or gainful employment. The students who are focused only on cost are likely to choose this school anyway, but it makes you wonder how many of them are eventually going to have to be retrained at one of the other schools called out in these ads.
Is it responsible to focus on cost and only cost and not address these other issues?
Career colleges are filled with students who have tried and failed at community colleges, often through no fault of their own. The classroom lectures don’t connect with them. They prefer to learn through more kinesthetic approaches. Without becoming involved in the learning, these students end up in an expensive quagmire of subpar grades, no direction, and eventual failure or withdraw from school. The lucky ones are those who refuse to give up on the pursuit of an education and find a career college that can cater to their learning needs – or the needs of their personal schedule.
To call these schools out for cost and not continue the discussion is reckless. America is in a place right now where all of its institutions of higher learning should be working together to narrow the skills gap – a major source of why we continue to fall behind as a nation in manufacturing, production and the needs of the 21st century workforce. Ads like these damage the potential for partnership. Instead of making friends, these assertions make enemies.
The Obama administration is investing $8 billion in community colleges to give them a larger focus on job training. The Ozarks Technical Community College campaign shows that community colleges have as much to learn about marketing as they do preparing graduates for careers.
CAREER COLLEGE CENTRAL