Stop Marketing Your College Like A Timeshare

Volume VI, #22

Don't believe the hype. Everybody complains about the food, but at the end of every semester, everybody’s 10 lbs. heavier and heading for the gym. Doesn't seem like the food was that bad after all, does it? - Yale promotional video c. 1990

Every time I read an article about campus dining, I think about this segment of the old Yale promo video. In fact, this quarter-century-old loopy video has proven to be a prism through which my former roommates and I view college life – ours and everyone's.

We must have watched it 100 times. Soon, snippets from the video entered our daily lexicon:

“Every time we sing, we win.” (Singing group member engaged in staged conversation about singing at hockey games.)

“It's a friendly place. Yale is nothing like my home.” (Comment from student who came from an abusive home?)

“It's a myth that Midwesterners get worse treatment, ‘cause I'm from Milwaukee, and I'm practically a celebrity here.” (Fake laughter ensues.)

‎Cheesy lines aside, the overall thrust of the video was a realistic depiction of energetic and busy students interacting with faculty and each other in a gritty urban environment. The video didn’t attempt to whitewash New Haven; “the best thing about New Haven” was the many community service opportunities. And at least half of the video focused on academic work. There were scenes from Chinese, physics, history, drama, English and biology courses. A physics professor didn’t sugarcoat what he’s there for: “The students are curious, they have high standards, you can tax them, you can work them, they respond in such positive ways that it makes it a genuine pleasure to teach here.”

The video felt realistic to us. (Everybody did complain about the food!) Watching it over and over, we began to joke that when we’re old and our memories have faded, at least we’ll have the promo video as our shared college experience. Every time we sing, we win!


Contrast this old promo video with the way many colleges market themselves today. Baylor highlights facilities, sports, concerts, theatrical performances, a really big bonfire, fire juggling and what appears to be a marriage proposal. Northwest University (Kirkland, WA) is a Christian rock concert interspersed with images of students at the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera House, sports, buildings and more sports. University of Alabama Birmingham shows buildings, sports, fireworks and puppets. University of Rochester’s promo video is a rap, which might not be so bad, except the students are rapping about sports, snow and how their busy schedules mean they can’t “keep up with Khloe, Kourtney and Kim.” Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI) features breakfast, bikes, skateboards, swings, hanging out, shopping, line dancing and a lot of scenes at the beach. This video won the 2013 Consortium of College and University Media Centers award for best promotional video.

Many of these videos make timeshare marketing look educational. Because much of what currently passes for higher education marketing is little more than lifestyle marketing. Many college marketing efforts are only slightly more serious than the widely lampooned sorority recruitment videos that reportedly cost hundreds of thousands to produce (I’m thinking of you, University of Miami Delta Gamma) and, in the case of ASU’s Alpha Phi, involved shooting from a helicopter. YouTube gets confused as well, because the end of the Alpha Phi video suggests two related videos: Miami Delta Gamma, and “Land of the Sea: Epic Exumas & Barbados Sailing Adventure.”

Some at least pay lip service to learning. In its promotional video, “Choose to be Extraordinary,” High Point University cites Aristotle, DaVinci, Beethoven, Einstein and Mother Teresa before cutting to its President Nido Qubein, who says: “High Point University is first and foremost an institution of higher learning. But students and families are attracted here because we also invest in the idea of higher living. That’s why we say: choose to be extraordinary.” Any pretense of educational purpose is undermined by the fact that President Qubein comes across like he’s trying to sell you a timeshare.

Yale's most recent promo video “That’s Why I Chose Yale,” is an over-the-top musical that begins with a tour of lavishly renovated residential colleges. It’s nearly 10 minutes before there’s any presentation of academic opportunities. While the songs may be catchy, the realism of the old promo video (which we later learned was appropriately titled “A Time For Learning”) has been left behind – a relic of a bygone era.


It seems unlikely that this kind of fantasy will continue to sell higher education as effectively going forward. New America Foundation’s College Decisions Survey revealed that the top reasons students cite for going to college are: to improve employment opportunities (91%); to make more money (90%); to get a good job (89%). Telling students your school is all about fun, friends and football will convince fewer and fewer students and their families to risk a potentially debilitating financial decision by investing in your institution; families increasingly recognize that college is a much more consequential financial decision than buying a timeshare. College marketers who continue to pump out timeshare-like drivel will find themselves out of position, and perhaps out of work. The sooner they can take their talents back to timeshare or other infomercials, the better.

I’m certainly not arguing for a reality TV approach to college marketing – definitely not of the Khloe, Kourtney and Kim variety. But if your institution is not ready for cinema vérité, at least focus on the fantasies that matter to today’s students: academic programs that are relevant to employers, internships, placement outcomes and career paths.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

1. School of Hard Knocks CNBC feature on Citizen’s Bank survey showing 6 in 10 millennials have no idea when their student loans will be paid off and more than a third don’t know what interest rate they’re paying. Many graduates expressed buyer's remorse… Fifty-seven percent said they regret taking out as many loans as they did, and 36 percent said they would not have gone to college if they fully understood the associated costs. Read more 2. The New “Anti-Colonialism” The Guardian (UK) report on Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development research showing university graduates are “colonizing” jobs in banking, education, policing and property management that previously did not require degrees. Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive, said: “Governments of all colours have long had a ‘conveyor belt’ approach to university education… we need a much stronger focus on creating more high-quality alternative pathways into the workplace, such as higher level apprenticeships, so we really do achieve parity of esteem between the two routes.” Read more 3. Be More Like Airlines PIE News article on Grant Thornton report suggesting that universities utilize “yield management” strategies developed by airlines to maximize tuition dollars from international students. Yield modelling techniques can be applied to international student recruitment to help HEIs understand the ‘tipping point’ where higher fees outweigh reduced international student numbers. Read more