Higher Education: We All Look Alike, Until You Look a Little Closer
The annual college student recruitment cycle is a spectacle. Colleges jockey for attention each spring by attempting to position themselves as the best: the most elite, the most recognized, with the best faculty, academic programs, and prolific intercollegiate athletic programs. The superlatives are effusive. Institutions spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on glossy marketing publications, pumping money and verbiage into social media, blogs, scheduling costly special events, passing out promotional items that showcase residence halls, dining commons, labs and clinics, and classrooms. And sometimes these glossy tomes mention the achievements of their faculty.
The magical date for higher education, May 1*, is approaching. That date is critical to many colleges because it represents the time in which all newly admitted students must submit a deposit or other form of intent to enroll at their new favorite institution. In essence, the date represents the cumulative impact on how well the marketing blitz worked on these prospective students and their families.
Yet all too often students and families are blindsided by the five-star dining commons, swimming pools and climbing walls, residence halls that resemble ultra-swank apartments and other life- style amenities. There is a natural tendency to draw a correlation: if the amenities are first rate, if the athletic programs have a stellar winning record, why, surely, the education offered there must be first-rate.
From my perspective, too many students and families are making the decision on which college to attend based upon student life style preferences rather than the criterion that truly matters: education and faculty.
Our nation’s top colleges are defined by the quality of the faculty. The credentials of the faculty include innovative instruction modalities, research portfolios, publications, articles and journals reviewed, national and regional committee assignments, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) as well as faculty awards in the arts, humanities, sciences, engineering and health.
Fact of the matter, it is the strength of the faculty that creates the prestige for the college. It is because of the expertise of the faculty that students enroll. Students want to learn from the best in their field of study.
Education is the other major criterion that defines the best. Although, higher education tends to reference the breadth and depth of the academic offerings, which is important, the truly great colleges are exceptional at describing the context of their education. At these institutions, students will become excellent critical thinkers, problem solvers, communication experts, and find their rightful place in society and validating that at graduation they are better critical and analytical thinkers, capable of solving complex problems, and are better writers and communicators.
It is easy to get dazzled by the fluff and deafened by the trumpeting that occurs during this annual rite of spring in higher education. Yet my many years of experience leads me to believe the student/college mismatch we often read about, coupled with high transfer out rates, is related to the fancy taglines and other hype many colleges are known for.
Instead, I call upon higher education leaders to recalibrate the message. By placing an increased emphasis on education and faculty, students and their families will benefit by making more informed decisions, and as a result they will experience more rewarding college careers. Collectively, higher education leadership have a responsibility to reduce the noise and focus more on the key higher education performance metrics for retention, persistence, graduation and employment.
Dr. Gargano is the CEO of The Education Think Tank and former President at St. Vincent’s College and former Provost and Senior Vice President for Academics and Student Affairs at the Connecticut State College and University System; Vice President for Academics, Faculty and Student Affairs and Dean ad interim at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio and Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services and Chief of Staff at the Louisiana State University System.
*Note: During the current global pandemic many schools have been re-evaluating their deposit deadline. Please visit the National Association of College Admission Counselors for more information.