Of purple cows and sacred cows: Yet another response to Seth Godin

(Updated @ 9:35 a.m. CDT May 3, 2010, to include links to a third great post on this topic that I’d somehow overlooked. – AC)

Seth Godin stirred up some pretty good discussion among the higher ed marketing community with his post last week on what he labeled the coming melt-down in higher education.

In his post, Godin addresses several issues confronting higher education that many of us who work in higher ed are pretty familiar with. They include the narrowing gap between the cost of education and the economic payoff; our clumsy, non-differentiated marketing efforts; accreditation issues; efforts to game the U.S. News rankings; etc. From Godin’s perspective, those issues form a sort of perfect storm that could shipwreck the higher ed enterprise as we know it. These are important issues, worth discussing in the higher ed marketing circles, and I’m thankful that such a high-profile blogger as Godin raised them. When Seth blogs, people listen.

(For the record, last October I wrote a somewhat similar post, The fall of U.S. higher education and what to do about it, with a modest four-point prescription. But it didn’t generate quite the same level of buzz as Godin’s more recent blog.)

So there’s been plenty of give and take about Godin’s post among the higher ed marketing folks I follow on Twitter. (That give and take includes that recurring complaint — recurring whenever a Godin post strikes a nerve — about how Godin should allow comments on his blog. But his no-comment rule is a pretty clever strategy on his part, as it leads some of his readers to create our own posts in response, thereby creating links back to his original post, thereby driving even more traffic his way and possibly exposing potential new readers to his books.)

But beyond the twittersphere, two higher ed bloggers took the time to comment on Godin’s post via their own blogs, and if you’re interested in what a couple of the more thoughtful higher ed bloggers are thinking about the issues Godin raises, you’ll want to read both posts. (This just in: I overlooked a third very good post on this subject: Andrea Jarrell‘s response. So add it to your required reading on this topic, too. – AC)

First, check out the lengthy but thoughtful response from Dylan Wilbanks, a web developer and marketer at a major research university on the West Coast. Then read what Bob Sevier, a senior vice president at the higher ed marketing firm Stamats, has to say about Godin’s remarks.

Both Wilbanks and Sevier are quick to agree with the crux of Godin’s argument. Where they differ from Godin is in their understanding of just what a strange beast higher education is. And that’s something Godin doesn’t quite get.

From Godin’s perspective, marketing is marketing, and the rules and techniques of marketing can be transposed on to any business sector. But higher ed is unlike most other business sectors, for a number of reasons. As Wilbanks points out, higher education marketers who work in the student-recruitment side of things are pitching an experience as well as an outcome. (Higher ed marketers who work in fundraising are pitching a different kind of experience, but Godin doesn’t poke that dog, so we’ll let it sleep.)

But our biggest marketing problem in higher education in the United States is one Godin points to: that higher ed is largely a commodity. If you don’t agree, consider that there are more than 4,800 colleges and universities in the U.S. (thank you, Wikipedia). That works out to about 96 post-secondary institutions per state. Many of these schools offer largely the same degree programs, and many of them are indistinguishable from the others. No wonder Godin makes the point that “most schools aren’t really outliers. They are mass marketers.” It’s true.

In one of his most popular books, Purple Cow, Godin talks about the importance of the remarkable. The idea of a single purple cow that stands out amid a field of brown, black, white or spotted bovines is his point. It’s all about differentiation.

Here, Sevier makes a good point about the state of higher education in the U.S. today:

If colleges largely offer the same programs taught by the same great faculty, then differentiation will always be difficult. Finally, accreditation, under the banner of maintaining quality, actually instills an academic sameness that further clouds the picture.

Of course, we all know there’s no such thing as a purple cow. But in higher education, we do have our sacred cows.

Campuses are afraid to differentiate for fear of losing some tiny sliver of market share, We’re afraid to narrow our focus.

Godin does point out a few outliers. And some of us have the good fortune to work for a university that is fairly distinctive. But for the most part, the distinctive or outlier college or university is the rare exception.

But I’m not ready to write off the U.S. model of higher education yet. It is in need of major overhaul, yes. But here’s where the U.S. model is indeed distinctive. Taken as a whole, the United States’ higher education system, imperfect as it may be, is still the envy of the world. As Jonathan R. Cole points out in his book The Great American University, 17 of the world’s top 20 research universities are located in the United States. Writes Cole: “It is the quality of the research produced, and the system that invests in it and trains young people to be leading scientists and scholars, that distinguishes them and makes them the envy of the world.”

“Higher education is America’s best industry,” writes Fareed Zakaria in his 2008 book, The Post-American World. (Regular readers might recall that I quoted Zakaria in that October post about the fall of U.S. higher education and what to do about it.) Even if our system “is too lax on rigor and memorization — whether in math or poetry — it is much better [than other nations’ systems] at developing the critical faculties of the mind, which is what you need to succeed in life. Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think.”

So there’s your Purple Cow for higher ed, from a global perspective: Unlike the universities of other nations, the American system teaches you to think. If that ain’t differentiation, then I don’t know my bovine from a hole in the ground.

Before I end my ramble, let me re-emphasize that things aren’t rosy for U.S. higher education. The economic downturn dealt a devastating blow to campuses, both public and private, over the past couple of years, and technological changes have unleashed information and sources of knowledge so that many enterprising self-learners can get the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree at a fraction of the cost, even free. (More about that soon in a review of Anya Kamenetz’s book DIY U.) Many, many schools are going to have to rethink their business approach if they are to survive the next 5-10 years. Much of it boils down to what Sevier said in his post:

There is a notion among physicians that you never get someone’s attention until they have their first heart attack. Many colleges are having that heart attack right now. Revenue is falling far short of costs and there is no sense that the economic picture will turn around in the near future. As a result, they are forcing themselves to ask and answer tougher questions and to make decisions that should have been made long ago.

Let’s hope that it is not too late.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

12 thoughts on “Of purple cows and sacred cows: Yet another response to Seth Godin”

  1. Nice review of the topics and thanks for the links to others on the subject. I was curious about the higher ed response save for the one piece I did read from Wilbanks.

    I’ve got DIY. U. on my book list this week too.

  2. Ron – I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts about DIY U.

    Drew – Sometimes I find myself among the naysayers. I need to think more about the things that are going right — while not turning into a “homer.” ;)

    Kris – Thanks for your comment. If Godin was trying to incite discussion with his superficial piece, he succeeded. ;)

  3. Pardon me, but the American system does not always teach you to think. And when it does, there’s the question of how freely you will be able to think after four years (or more) inside the system. Research does not require a Dean of Research. Collegiality does not require colleges.

  4. Michael – All of your points are accurate. The quote from Zakaria was, I believe, addressing the U.S. higher ed system in general and as compared to others. Also, if the U.S. system is still the world’s best, as Zakaria contends, I don’t know if that will be the case for very long.

  5. That’s a pretty neat trick Seth Godin does. So anyway, the problem with getting higher education may be that education tends to be antiquated. Not all schools but they tend to be slow on the upgrades. Whereas getting educated from the internet where information is free and readily available.

  6. Hi sorry off post I know.I just spent 30 min at your music site trying to say your journalistic critique of music and your influences are great.
    Wish you had the time to contribute to glam rock music…
    Cheers from soggy London.

  7. Thanks for pointing me to Seth Godin’s article. The article makes a number of valid points and this maybe be true for some schools, but there is such a huge market for most American schools with Asian students, that there will be no shortage of Asian students for a long time. These students are more than willing to pay to get a degree from a name brand school. So as American students become disillusioned with the education they are receiving and drop out, there will be a dozen Asian students willing to take the seat. The financial incentive to get a degree from a good American school is well worth it for most East Asian students.

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