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“I knew where I was going” #augustanacollege #liberalarts #highered

“I knew where I was going”

Yesterday I attended a reception for admitted students and their parents in Arlington Heights, Illinois. These events include a panel discussion with young alumni, which is always informative and interesting. The alumni who volunteer their time and stories always do an amazing job and leave me (and the prospective students and their parents) very impressed. Their experience since college often leave me awestruck.


But, yesterday I was struck by an answer to a question a parent posed. The question was, “What was your favorite memory of Augustana College?”

There were many of the predictable answers from the panelists about friendships developed, study away from campus, involvement in extra-curricular activities, etc. Their answers were excellent and “on brand.”

But a 2008 graduate caught my attention when she started her answer with “that Sunday in May when I walked across stage, got my diploma and shook President Bahls’ hand….” I thought to myself, “Oh no, where does this go from here?” I wondered if this was going to be a moment when the speaker would say, “I couldn’t wait to be done” or “thank God it’s over.” What was next???

The alumna continued with words I have been thinking about ever since: “When I walked across that stage, I knew where I was going.” The speaker went on to talk about the job market in 2008 and how difficult it was at the time, but how well prepared she was and how clear she was about her path forward because of her Augustana experience. 

She secured a position working on pharmaceutical patents because of her scientific background and her ability to communicate, and has been involved in pharmaceutical patents since she graduated from Augustana.

This alumna’s comment, “I knew where I was going,” confirms what we know about an Augustana education. It is reinforced by data from our annual Senior Survey, which consistently shows 8 out of 10 graduating students answer that they “strongly agree” or “agree” with the statement, “I am certain that my post-graduate plans are a good fit for who I am right now and where I want my life to go.”

In a world and job market filled with uncertainty and the unfamiliar, I am not sure there is any better confirmation for what we do at Augustana than to have graduates march across the stage at Commencement with the confidence that they know where they are going.

Is that “your best and final offer?” Yes, it is. #admissions #emcat #highered

For the first time in my enrollment career just days ago I had a father of a prospective student ask me “is this your best and final?” He was asking about his daughter’s financial aid package of course. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard countless contortions of this question over the past 20 years, but never as straightforward and never in the same language I hear used on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing. (Yes, I’ve watched Million Dollar Listing).

I mean really, best and final offer!!!

Most frequently this question or similar questions are not from families with demonstrated financial need, but instead are from families that view this “negotiation” as part of the process. In fact, last year I even saw eerily similar letters/emails from families requesting additional financial assistance. (The requests were so similar, in fact, I thought I might need to consult our Honors Council to determine if academic integrity had been breached and plagiarism was at hand).

While I am at it, this conversation almost always includes a reference to “we know another student at XXXX college who got a better award.” The comment is so forced it feels a little like Anthony Michael Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club describing his Canadian girlfriend. This line about knowing another student is about as believable. If you’ve never seen the clip before you can watch it here. You might picture this clip the next time you hear a similar comment from a parent.

What I’ve concluded (and should come as no surprise) is that there are consultants and services that are making a business of coaching and advising parents and students about how to go about the process of asking for more aid. (I suspect it’s all pitched at the level of “How to negotiate the best possible financial aid package”).

I understand it and have become increasingly comfortable with all of this.

But, I know it’s not good for higher education.

Over the years, I’ve responded to a number of the requests “for more aid” or for “a best and final offer.” I put a few of the responses together into one and offer it below. I’ve done everything I can to protect the innocent, but have used various “no” responses is the model below and tried to keep the tone. (My file folder on this one is titled “Mean no more money responses).


Your recent e-mail regarding your daughter was sent to me as a member of the scholarship committee at XXXX College. Your daughter is a very qualified candidate and we are very pleased that she is still considering XXXX College.  I am writing to address your e-mail concerning our offer of financial aid.  

First, there is nothing further that can be done in the area of merit scholarship–XXXX has earned a very fair award and in comparison to the rest of our admitted pool we cannot and will not make any further adjustment.  If my memory serves me correctly we discussed your daughter’s award previously and I explained the context for the financial assistance package that we offered. That context has not changed.

I know that this letter will come as a disappointment to you and to your daughter; however, there is nothing more that we can do unless there has been a dramatic change in your family’s financial circumstance. We do not “negotiate” a financial aid offer or package and it is my understanding that our merit scholarship offer has exceeded any demonstrated financial need.

As mentioned in your e-mail, I am aware that two of our coaches have expressed interest in your daughter, and I have no doubt that she can contribute much to our athletic program. However, her athletic ability is not factored into any equation since we abide by all guidelines governing Division III athletics. Our awards are based on need and merit and that is all.

As you and your daughter weigh final choice, I would urge you both to very carefully consider the opportunity that she has been presented with by being offered admission to XXXXXX College.  There are many things to consider when choosing a college–and cost is one. But, we sincerely hope that you will consider the qualities of and QUALITY of each of the colleges your daughter has as potential options. 

Not all colleges are equal–in cost or in quality–and it is my belief that your daughter’s financial aid offer is more than fair for the value of the educational and co-curricular options she will have if she chooses XXXXX College.  

In closing, I want to note that I don’t think the comparisons you and your daughter are making are particularly comparative when it comes down to results and outcomes, which are the aspect that are most meaningful in the end when it comes time to make a wise college choice.  Each of the colleges that your daughter has as options are very different places and offer decidedly different experiences. Please keep this in mind in the coming weeks. College is like with any other product or service; it is typical to pay more for a better product, experience or service.

If you have further questions please feel free to contact me directly. I sincerely do hope that your daughter will be a part of our student body–she has much to offer.

Yours very sincerely,

W. Kent Barnds

It’s probably not all that mean really, but I am interested in your impressions and whether or not you have or have seen similar response. I’ve become more courageous over the years in sending letters like this, but I am sure I still don’t send it enough.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Thanks for reading.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

New blog post: Tough questions about #tuition cuts and freezes. #highered #college #admissions

In the last few weeks there have been several reports of colleges that are cutting or freezing tuition. Here’s a pretty neat announcement from Belmont Abbey College and here and here are announcements from Wittenberg and Mount Holyoke about tuition freezes. Given the growth in tuition (and the media attention surrounding the high cost of higher education) these reports have been met with a great deal of praise (as they should be).

However, I have to admit to being very curious about what these colleges are doing (or stopping) in order to freeze or cut their tuition?


So far, I’ve not read much “inside higher education” commentary about these practices. I think the silence is because so many higher ed. administrators are hesitant to heap on too much praise or criticism.

In this case, too much praise could elicit calls to do the same; and, too much criticism is pretty dangerous because we all may need to follow.

I am hesitant to write about it myself because my “crystal ball” is so cloudy about the vexing problem surrounding the perception of high cost in higher education.

However, I offer a couple of questions I’d like to have answers to so I can be more thoughtful in responding to those who are asking when we will follow the lead of the freezers and the cutters.

If I were a journalist covering all of this (which I am not), I’d ask the following questions?

  • Will the net-cost to attend change or remain the same for students?
  • Will you be reducing institutional financial aid? If so, by how much?
  • Do you expect to net more revenue per student (or overall)? If so, how and why?
  • Is this a short- or long-term plan?
  • Will this reduce a student’s need to borrow for college?
  • Can you project future increases?

If I were a student or parent of a student considering one of these college (which I am not), I’d ask the following questions?

  • Are you making cuts to any programs or services in order to do this? If so, which programs?
  • How will my experience be different from the experience of a student five years ago who was paying more to attend?
  • Are you cutting financial aid in order to do this?
  • What will future increases be?

As a college administrator, I want to ask.

  • Does your plan entail growing enrollment and therefore making up for lost revenue by attracting more students? (Do you have the resources and facilities to accommodate growth without adding to your expenses?)
  • How will you continue to offer financial aid to increasingly financially needy students?
  • How will you continue to offer pay raises to faculty, staff and administrators?
  • How will you meet inflationary demands on operating budgets and operating expenses—particularly benefits, health care and energy?
  • How will you maintain your physical plant without increasing revenues to address plant depreciation?

I know higher ed. is competitive, but it would serve us all to know how the cutters and freezers are doing what they are doing. They probably know something the rest of us don’t. I want in on it.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a @bowtieadmission

What makes a college experience and experiences in college valuable? #admission #highered #.edu

What makes a college experience and experiences in college valuable?

The idea of communicating value is often elusive, especially in higher education. I’ve done my best to discuss value and valuable experiences in a previous blog post, which you can read here and here. And, I’ve heard myself say, “We need to sell value” to various stakeholders here at Augustana College. Typically, blank faces stare back with no idea how to take the next step. I understand this and quite frankly have never been absolutely certain what tools to provide to those who need to deliver the message.

Thanks to some very fine work in Augustana’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, I believe we are closer than ever to being equipped with the answers to two important questions:

What makes a college experience valuable?

What experiences in college are most valuable?

While I am not sure we’ve captured lightning in a bottle, I think we may be close. Recently, I was thrilled to be able to sit down with my colleague Dr. Mark Salisbury (who also writes this great blog, which you should check out) and go over the recent results of our Senior Survey, which was redesigned to ask more relevant questions that help us understand what works and what doesn’t.

In future blog posts, I will unpack this information more fully, but for now I want to provide an overview of what we discovered may be the foundation for a valuable college experience, and the experiences that contribute to that value.

A valuable college experience

The Senior Survey as Augustana identified three outcomes (listed below) that seem to suggest what constitutes a valuable college experience.

Those items are:

  1. The likelihood of choosing Augustana College again. (8 of 10 graduates agreed or strongly agreed with this statement)
  2. The certainty that one’s immediate post-graduate plan is a good fit. (8 of 10 graduates agreed with this statement)
  3. A full-time job or graduate school before graduation. (4 out of 10 answered yes, which is not too bad given that this survey was done prior to graduation)

I think these three items could represent the most concrete and succinct statements I’ve seen on what makes college valuable.

These three things represent both value and valuable.

The idea that one would choose this college experience all over again is a very strong statement of value and represents an internal satisfaction worth noting. The idea of certainty about immediate post-graduate plans represents an intrinsic value that proves we’ve reinforced value. And, finally, the idea of having a full-time job or graduate school acceptance in place creates security about a new graduate’s future and reinforces the value of the Augustana experience to external stakeholders. (It is also worth noting that we also conduct a survey of graduates nine months after graduation that reveals our many more of graduates secure employment or enter graduate school by that time marker).

How do these things items measure up in your view of what makes for a valuable college experience?

Experiences that make a college valuable

What is really nifty, though, about Augustana’s Senior Survey is that we also know which experiences are most likely to influence overall college value in the areas listed above. Not only is this really powerful information, it’s reinforcement about what we do and what we do well.

Below is a list of experiences that heavily influence each of the value measures described above:

For the 8 out of 10 Augustana graduates who indicated the likelihood of choosing Augustana again, it was the experiences in the areas listed below that positively impacted their experience:

Residential life:

  • Helped first-year transition to college
  • Helped develop useful ways to handle and resolve conflict
  • Transitional Living Areas (apartments) helped develop the skills to live independently

Co-curricular Experiences:

  • Helped connect classroom learning with real world events
  • Helped build a network of healthy, lasting friendships

Curricular Experiences outside the major:

  • Helped appreciate the way that different disciplines make sense of the world
  • Courses were available in the order one needed to take them

Overall Curricular Experiences:

  • One-on-one interaction with faculty influenced intellectual growth and interest in ideas

Experiences in the major:

  • Faculty knew how to help one prepare to achieve post-graduate plans
  • Major offered courses that match with specific interests

Library Interactions:

  • Helped build confidence in one’s ability to research a future topic

Campus Environment:

  • Strong sense of belonging
  • Concerned about the individual

For the 8 out of 10 Augustana graduates who were certain that immediate post-graduate plans were a good fit, it was the experiences in the areas below that positively impacted their experience:

Campus participation:

  • Internship
  • Service learning


  • Asked to connect curricular, co-curricular, and post-graduate plans

Co-curricular Experiences:

Helped develop an understanding of oneself

Curricular Experiences outside the major:

Asked to include different perspectives in discussions or writing assignments

Courses were available in the order one needed to take them

Overall Curricular Experiences:

One-on-one interaction with faculty influenced intellectual growth and interest in ideas

Experiences in the major:

  • Faculty knew how to help one prepare to achieve post-graduate plans

Campus Environment:

  • Strong sense of belonging

For the 4 out of 10 Augustana graduates who had already accepted a job or enjoyed a graduate school placement before graduating, it was the experiences in the areas listed below that positively impacted their experience:

Campus participation:

  • Honor society membership
  • Undergraduate research

Experiences in the major:

  • Faculty knew how to help one prepare to achieve post-graduate plans

Interactions with the Community Engagement Center:

  • Began actively creating a résumé or grad school profile during freshman or sophomore year

Really, this is amazing stuff. This is longer than most blog posts I do and I will be back with more, but for now I think I can say that a valuable college experience is one that a student would choose again, gives a student confidence about his or her choices and provides a graduate with a secure future.

If that’s what makes a valuable college experience, Augustana is of great value to, and a great value for, its students! I like what Augustana does for students.

What are you doing to prove the value of the experience your institution offers? What are the questions you are asking of your graduates?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

Liberal arts education is skills-based education. #highered #edu

Last week I had the chance to listen to four very thoughtful commentaries on the future of the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges.  Each speaker did an excellent job of making the case for the liberal arts and for colleges like my alma mater and my employer, Augustana College. I was impressed with the depth of analysis and thought each put into their comments.

I do think it’s worth nothing, though, that the speakers again affirmed that it’s very difficult to easily describe the liberal arts and the outcomes of a liberal arts education. This is not to say that it is impossible to describe the outcomes; in fact, I thought each speaker explained the outcomes and benefits quite well. My observation is that it’s not easy and it takes a lot of time to get the explanation right.

Following the speakers there was a brief Q & A during which the following question was asked: How do you market the liberal arts to prospective students?

I braced myself for the “killer answer”…and waited.

Each panelist did a fine job answering this tough question. But, I found myself thinking to myself that there has to be a better way to easily answer this question.

Should begin thinking about liberal arts education as a skills- and experience-based education?

Could describing what we do this will help us reframe the idea that liberal arts is education is about art and liberal political views? Or, that liberal arts = expensive and small (i.e. if you are expensive and small you are a liberal arts college)

Typically, it is thought that skills-based training is reserved for professional, technical, or vocational training. Virginia Postrel’s article in Bloomberg “How art history majors power the U.S. economy” helped begin to think a little clear about this. However, I feel like her reference to “Learning to learn” is the sort of thing that continue to confuse or confound people. So, I’ve taken my own stab at answering the question.

When I think about liberal arts education, I am compelled to think about skill acquisition and intentional experiences being at the center of what we do. Admittedly, the skills we develop and foster as more sophisticated (I’d argue more important) than traditional trade skill development, like teaching someone how to place widgets.

At the center of an effective general education program is skill development, right?

Perhaps it is time for us to seize the term skills-based as our own and do a more effective job describing why and how the skills a liberal arts education develops are so critical for employers and our nation.

Think about the skills we develop.

Do we not strive to develop the following skills: critical thinking, problem solving, creative thinking, communicating and analysis? Are these not critically important skills for employers? Isn’t this what we are trying to do? Isn’t this what we are great at doing? Don’t we do this more effectively than others? Should we be proud to say that we emphasize skill-development in these areas?

Furthermore, isn’t it though the types of experiences we offer that these skills are more fully developed? For example, an emphasis on writing, debate and dialog in class help to develop these skills, as does a commitment to strong advising, a residential environment and engaged co-curricular programming.

I don’t think we need to be fancy and long-winded about our explanation of what it is we do.

In my opinion…

  • Liberal arts education is a skills- and experience-based education.
  • Liberal arts education focuses on the right skills and the right experiences to make our graduates the leaders of tomorrow.
  • The skills and experiences provided by liberal arts college result in someone being better in their chosen career, rather than just being trained for their career.

Let’s enthusiastically embrace our brand of skills-based education. And, let’s tell the world that we provide our graduates with the skills they need and the world wants.

How do you react to the thought of describing to liberal arts education as skills-based?

How do you react to my contention that the skills we develop are more important over the long run than pre-professional skills?


W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission

What I would do if I were teaching in the humanities. #highered #admissions #.edu

As previously written, I believe in the value of the humanities and the liberal arts; they are at the core of preparing an individual for life-long learning. I hope my children study history, English, religion, foreign languages and maybe even the Classics, which might be one of the most valuable and sustaining liberal arts programs there is!

However, I do think it’s important for those who teach in these important programs to think in different ways about how they describe and relate their relevance and importance to an increasingly proof-driven audience.

This is not just the hope of a guy who is focused on recruiting student. On the contrary, I am simply pointing out the the reality of a public that needs more convincing than ever before about the value of higher education and the humanities/liberal arts.

With this in mind, I had an exchange with a faculty member in the humanities recently and offered the following suggestion about designing curriculum. Below is a portion of the exchange (with some minor editing so as not to disclose the major because I remain hopeful the advice might resonate and create something really cool).

I suggested the following:

More formally align each course offered within the major with the outcomes that employers/graduate schools seek. A department/major could successful specifically highlight the results from the 2012 Job Outlook survey of employers who cite the following as the top 5 skills they seek (see page 28) and demonstrate how the major is better preparation for these skills:

1. Ability to work in a team;
2. Verbal communication;
3. Ability to make decisions and solve problems;
4. Ability to obtain and process information; and
5. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work.

What if you promoted your department and the curriculum you offered as contributing more effectively than any other area/major in preparing your graduates for these things?

Explaining how you do this better than another major and connecting the outcome to your course work might be tricky, but not impossible. Be bold enough to show and tell that a XXXXXX major and the faculty in XXXXXXX (do) does all of these things better than anyone else.

Can you imagine the power of the major in the humanities that takes information about what employers want and connects it directly to what is accomplished in each class?

Please let me know your thoughts.

Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

Another reason why #highered should very be cautious about the proposed College Affordability and Transparency Center: The College Scorecard and its emphasis on earnings potential as a key indicator. #admissions #college

Last week a colleague (the ever-politically-aware Kai Swanson) sent me the link to the draft of the Obama Administration’s “College Scorecard,” which they propose be housed within the College Affordability and Transparency Center.

The purpose of the College Scorecard is described below:

“The Administration is planning to add a new tool to the College Affordability and Transparency Center that would assist prospective students and their families in comparing colleges before they choose using key measures of college affordability and value. The purpose of the tool is to make it easier for students and their families to identify and choose high-quality, affordable colleges that provide good value.”   (White House)

The five areas the administration seems to care about (since they are the only ones listed) are:

  1. What will it cost me to attend?
  2. Will I graduate in four years?
  3. Will I be able to repay my student loans?
  4. How much debt will I have when I finish?
  5. Will I be able to get a job when I finish?

I think these questions are good questions for a prospective student to ask and I think colleges should be sensitized to answering these questions, too.

However, I must admit to wondering if the administration cares about student learning? The questions they’ve chosen as a “scorecard” advance the narrative that “cheaper and faster” is the way to go and what should define “value” in higher education. Right?

I guess what disturbs me even more than the continued emphasis on “cheaper and faster” and the lack of attention to learning outcomes, is the emphasis on jobs and earnings.

It’s not that I object to the need to illustrate successful outcomes; I think that’s a good thing.  (In fact, we spend a lot of time thinking about this at Augustana and have developed an “outcome-oriented dashboard” of indicators that consider questions about student learning and learning outcomes).

I also understand from where this comes (most would suggest this is necessary to combat the predatory nature of some [very few] bad apple for-profit institutions).

But, this crazy one-size-fits-all solution in the College Scorecard is not the way to go.

I genuinely worry about governmental involvement in determining whether or not a college or university, or, for that matter, a student, has been successful based exclusively on jobs and potential earnings.

I certainly hope faculty, senior administrators and all others who believe that a college education is more than just job preparation will take notice, stand up and share their voices.

Seriously, is a job and high earning potential the only reason for college? Gee, I hope not. I hope we do more than that. I hope we are more than a factor looking for cheaper, faster and a higher profit margin.

I think my reservations about this are heightened by the recent kerfuffle about gaming the rankings (too many articles to offer hyperlinks, but think Claremont).

I fear that the next thing will be gaming the outcomes to make sure we look dandy on the College Scorecard.

If one were to play this out; in an effort to game the scorecard, it is conceivable that some colleges may begin to eliminate programs that lead to lower paying jobs. It is also conceivable that some of these jobs are exactly those jobs that are important to civic engagement.

There are some serious questions about this how it is being tied to “value.”

Here are some questions we should be asking.

When is the right time to track the job?

Who’s going to track and verify all of this? (The honor system doesn’t seem to work, so does that mean we are beholden to another bureaucracy?)

When does the earnings thing matter? (Right away? Five years out? Twenty years out?)

What credits will those colleges and universities which prepare graduates for service and civic engagement receive to “level the playing field” or tip it depending upon you perspective? (One might think about the Service Academies, which might demonstrate full employment, but not great earnings right out. And, how about the Peace Corps and Teach for America?)

Those of us who understand the real purpose of higher education and recognize that learning is more than just high earning potential have to stand up to this and speak our mind.

What are your thoughts about the College Scorecard and The College Affordability and Transparency Center? Does it capture the right things? Does it truly represent value?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

New blog post: I am not ready for D.C.’s call for “cheaper and faster” when it comes to #highered #admissions

In the past few days we’ve heard much from President Obama, his many surrogates and even Steve Forbes about the need to control the cost of higher education in order to make it more accessible students from all socio-economic backgrounds. The case is that higher education is a national imperative and essential to economic upward-mobility.

I certainly agree with the need to ensure access and I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that higher education is a national and economic imperative.  (You know, a BUT is coming, right?).

But, price controls and complex formulas developed by the federal government to determine who are the good and bad guys are in this enterprise are simply crazy ideas.

While there are certainly examples of egregious spending in higher education, the examples are fairly modest. However, when one listens to the rhetoric of today, one might conclude that all of higher educations is involved in predatory behavior and is spending tuition revenue like drunken sailors (or like the federal government if you are a real cynic) on unneeded extravagances.

The rhetoric is misplaced. At most colleges, particularly private colleges, tuition dollars are spent on the people who deliver the educational program (inside and outside the classroom) and to those. Higher education is, as my friend Randy Trostle said, a “high-touch” and “high-tech” endeavor.  Resources are spent on the faculty who teach and advise and administrators and staff who serve and support. Resources go to people.

High-touch, in particular, costs money!!!

When President Obama, his surrogates and Steve Forbes call for controlling college costs, what they are really asking colleges to do is cheapen the education and experience of college-bound students. They are calling for “cheaper and faster.” They are calling for larger classes, more online learning and a greater focus on content delivery.

They are also calling on higher education to cut it’s workforce because that’s where much of the high cost is (i.e. paying people, providing benefits, etc).

This is short-sighted and in my view higher education is nothing more than a convenient target in a world that wants a straw man to beat up on.  This push also seems to neglect much about what we know about effective and impactful education. The emphasis on content, delivered cheaper and faster…sort of like and ATM will not be sufficient to prepare our next generation of leaders.

It is exactly the practices that are expensive to deliver (i.e. internships, hands-on learning in laboratories, athletics, music, residential living, study abroad, small classes, writing intensive curriculum, advising done by faculty, and many others) that develop the skills graduates need to be successful in life and leadership. It is often through these experiences, rather than simply memorizing and consuming content, that graduates develop broad perspective, the critical and creative thinking, communication, problem-solving, analyzing, and life skills, as well as the ability to work with a team. It is these skills at attributes that are frequently cited by employers are being far more important that content memorization.

I agree that colleges and universities need to do their part and should continue to try to cut core costs.  Colleges must also continue to expand financial assistance, either through discounts or funded financial assistance, in order to be accessible to all students. But, the idea that “cheaper and faster” is better is nuts and it’s not an improvement.

If cheaper and faster was so great why is that so many politicians send their own children to expensive private high schools in Washington D.C. If cheaper and faster was the way to go, why don’t the Obama girls learn online from the comfort and safety of the White House?


Because we all know, even those politicians and others threatening colleges,  that cheaper and faster is not adequate to prepare one for a lifetime of success.

What do you think of the messages coming out of Washington D.C. Is cheaper and faster the way we need to go? I am not ready to make the leap to marketing cheaper and faster. Convince me otherwise, I am listening.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

P.S. You may also want to read “Value” in higher ed is not “cheap and fast…”

The Net Price Calculator (NPC) is live: Is it time to say, I told you so? #highered, #admissions

Augustana College, like every college nationwide that receives federal funds, launched its NPC prior to October 29, 2011 to comply with the federal mandate to do so. As many of you know, I have been a skeptic about this since the beginning.

Here are a couple of the pieces I’ve written and some of the interviews I’ve given on the topic:

Money Talk

Net Price v. Net Worth

New tool will give clearer picture on college costs

Net cost calculators help estimate college expenses

Now that our Net Price Calculator is live, we can begin to take a look at the results and maybe I can begin saying, “I told you so.”

Before I provide early analysis of our results, it is important to acknowledge how the “advocates” for the NPC will react.

First, they say that your calculator has to be easy. The fewer questions the better. (Easier said than done if you want to provide accurate results).

Next, they say that your calculator has to be readily accessible. The higher up in the website navigation, then better. (This is a matter of choice and we’ve chosen accessibility rather than hiding it).

Finally, they say that we need to be patient.  Pent up demand for this service and information is what drove this initiative and we need to wait until prospective students and parents find it. (I am impatient by my nature).

All of these arguments are good, but let’s take a good look at this.

Since going live with our NPC (a few days before the deadline) the following has happened:

  • 279 people have started our NPC
  • 156 people have completed our NPC and received the estimate (56%, which means 44% did not have the information or got fed up)
  • 12 people provided contact information and asked for communication with the college (a measly 7% want to engage in dialogue about this important part of choosing a college)
  • 7 of those who provided contact information were “stealth” (previously unknown students who were not in our recruitment database). I wonder how many of the other 272 who started or completed the NPC are also stealth shoppers? Pretty hard to recruit them if we don’t know who they are!

Let me respond to those the “advocates” first.

  1. Make it easy: We chose the questions we felt we critical to providing an accurate picture of out of pocket cost. I don’t know which ones we can eliminate without diminishing returns in accuracy.
  2. Make it accessible: We did a “soft launch” of our NPC by including a news story on our homepage to get some visibility and we list it on in a prime location on the admissions landing page. I don’t know we can do more…short of flashing, spinning globes.
  3. Be patient: It’s only been 10 days, so we probably do need to be patient. But, we have 30,000 prospects and fewer than 300 have completed it. Is there really demand for this?

So, are there any I told you sos here?

I don’t know, but I must say that I am discouraged by the large number of families who chose to navigate this part of the process in anonymity. I am also disheartened that 44% of those who begin the process chose not to complete.

I would love to know what’s happening out there with other colleges.

If you know what’s up at your institution and want to share I would be grateful.

W. Kent Barnds (a.k.a. bowtieadmission)

Communicating worth in Higher Education: An example from Augustana #highered, #admissions

Communicating Worth in Higher Education: An example from Augustana

***This is the third essay in a short series on value in higher education. 

Making the Case for the Value Gap

In the fall of 2008, during a community meeting in Centennial Hall (after we’d missed our first-year student enrollment target), President Bahls of Augustana College described a shortfall in the first-year cohort as a failure “to convince a sufficient number of students of the value of the Augustana experience.” What President Bahls implied at that meeting was a “value gap.”

Jeff Thull, a leading expert on the corporate “value gap,” has defined this concept in the following terms: “If your customers can’t perceive the value you provide, it simply doesn’t exist.”

In higher education, we generally think of a “gap” as the cost differential between colleges. This gap is usually defined in negative terms, as in there is a gap between our college and a less expensive one. Families assume this is bad, and we perpetuate it by thinking of ways to close the gap—rather than thinking about reasons the gap exists and how to convince them of the value we offer. This emphasis on the cost gap has led to increased competition based on bottom-line cost alone, and an implied belief that the only difference between colleges is cost.

I maintain there is a value gap among institutions of higher education, just as it exists in the corporate world. This gap, as it concerns Augustana College and other institutions both private and public, is more complex. While it does comprise issues of cost, the heart of the higher education value gap is the perception of value—by all college constituencies, but especially prospective students and families—and how that perception applies to the question of an education’s worth.

For those of you who doubt this value gap exists, just ask yourselves: why is it we all have our own ranked lists of colleges in our hearts and heads? Why do we nod our heads when we find students considering certain colleges—like the University of Chicago, Northwestern or Washington University—over Augustana? Who among us genuinely believes every college is alike? Who among us gleans no difference between Harvard and the University of Phoenix? The value gap, even if not described using the term itself, works in the favor of many colleges—particularly those which attract a large number of students who pay full tuition or who make huge financial sacrifices to attend the college of their dreams.

Crossing the Gap

Will we always be able to convince every single student that a value gap—not simply a cost gap—exists in favor of Augustana over another college? The plain answer is no. There will always be those who refuse to acknowledge the value gap or who live by the philosophy of “it’s good enough.”

That debilitating phrase, “it’s good enough,” thrives within a culture that too often associates value with cheap. An Augustana faculty member described our dilemma in the following way:

Higher education is unlike other industries, such as housing and automobiles and insurance, in this crucial respect: customers do not really understand what they are buying. You can improve your situation in the insurance market by offering better insurance, because customers will recognize the superiority of your product. They can tell good insurance from bad insurance—at least a lot of them can. You cannot similarly depend on doing better in the higher education market by offering a better education. This is especially true for liberal arts education, but it also applies to other areas, even to technical education. Customers do not know what a good liberal arts education is. They know that it is an admirable thing, that it helps people to rise in the world, that it is prestigious. But a sizable majority of them don’t know what it isSo you can’t depend on impressing them by doing a better job with the product.”

This is indeed a dilemma, and we as an academic community should accept it as a challenge. Although cost will always be a factor, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to focus our efforts on the value gap. Further, we must do more than continue to improve our academic program, our physical plant, our excellent human resources—we must communicate our value to our primary audiences, at all levels where we can distinguish ourselves, and convince them.

While we cannot make a direct comparison to the corporate world, we might ask ourselves: What is it we sell—or in more appropriate terms, provide or offer—to prospective students? We offer all the experiences a student will have during his or her four years on campus, but that’s not all. We offer all the connections, relationships and new opportunities that continue to open doors for graduates throughout their lives as a result of their Augustana College education and degree. It’s an inherently valuable experience. And yet the Augustana experience is not often enough perceived as being sufficiently different or distinguished from other institutions.

Making the Comparisons

In the car industry, it’s the Lexus brand that enjoys the reputation of “best value.” Lexus is not the cheapest, or the best in terms of prestige, but it is the greatest value. How do they convince people of their value without competing on cost alone? To make the case, Lexus focuses on “attitude variables,” including reliability, quality, handling, durability, safety, style, comfort, security, performance, prestige, status, efficiency, technology and visual impact. Lexus’ attitude variables combine function (reliability, handling, durability, safety) with intangibles (style, comfort, prestige, status and visual impact), which make for a powerful formula. They actively define the value gap and work hard to convince buyers that Lexus delivers a greater value than X brand because of the combination of functional and intangible characteristics.

If we can make the comparison, we might ask ourselves: What are the attitude variables that can help us illustrate the value gap between Augustana and our competitors? I would suggest that higher education institutions like Augustana have spent too much time focusing on the functional comparisons (i.e. student-to-faculty ratio, class size, facilities, etc.) and have neglected to intentionally highlight the intangibles—such as high-impact learning experiences and the student success stories that result—which constitute the value gap between one college and the next.

We must define the value gap according to terms that make sense for our market. Unlike car buyers, our students will only consider “purchasing” what we offer once in a lifetime. This makes our job more difficult, and the need to develop a case for the value gap all the more important.

Our value gap discussions need to focus on how, and how well, an Augustana education empowers our students and graduates. We need to communicate, clearly and succinctly, this college’s distinctive combination of qualities and resources, and how those will land a graduate directly on his or her career path, with the confidence and ability to make an impact. Again, what we offer is not just the experiences of four years on campus (compared with five or six at public institutions), but all the experiences this college education continues to open up for Augustana graduates, throughout the world and throughout their lives. Unlike the product market, our “customers” only buy what we offer once; and yet, what they’re buying is a successful life spent well, and not just a four-year experience.

Finding and Using the Right Tools

To communicate our value at all levels across campus, and to make important comparisons that highlight the value gap between Augustana and another college, we need some basic tools. Such tools will serve to compile and condense the information comprising Augustana’s “distinctive combination of qualities and resources”—our attitude variables, so to speak—so that as communicators we will have this information top-of-mind. We might also think of ourselves as storytellers. It’s through the success stories of our students, colleagues and alumni that prospective students and their families will receive the clearest picture of Augustana’s character and the value of our outcomes.

We can begin with a series of questions to ask ourselves, and our prospects, concerning the value gap between Augustana and our competition. Consider the questions in the following areas:


• Does the college against which we are competing boast alumni success stories like Brenda Barnes (CEO of Sara Lee), Daniel Tsui (Nobel Prize Laureate and Princeton Professor), Tom Weigand (Co-Founder of Noodles and Company), Ken Anderson (MVP of the National Football League)? (What success stories do you know, from your department or Augustana experience in general, that would inspire this particular prospect?)

Does the college against which we are competing have graduate school stories and outcomes like Augustana’s? What percentage of graduates can they report attaining employment or grad school positions within 6 months of graduating?

Does the college against which we are competing have thought leaders and faculty success stories on campus, like…. (Focus on faculty in your own department as well as faculty with whom your department may work in collaboration; also bring in others whom you may admire.)

Does the college against which we are competing enjoy a favorable reputation in the media? Tell of Christopher Whitt during the Obama campaign, Steve Warren and the “Tecumseh’s Vision” PBS documentary, Lendol Caldor’s frequent commentary on debt and its history, Bill Hammer’s dinosaur discoveries, and  Joanna Short’s commentary on the economy in the local media, etc.

Why do these variables matter and contribute to the value gap?

Special programs and opportunities

• Does the college against which we are competing have a program like Augie Choice? (Emphasize Augie Choice as a high-impact or “peak” hands-on learning experience that can land students directly on their career path, even before graduating. Provide examples, which will fall along the lines of international study, research showcase, internships. Emphasize that the program is unique for its aspects of financial support and choice of experience.)

Does the college against which we are competing offer international programs like Augustana’s? Provide example of the range of programs from across the globe, with examples of course work to give a sense of depth of study within the context of the place. Describe our international programs as being encapsulated versions of the kinds of faculty-student mentorship that takes place on campus, as faculty and students travel together in close-knit groups. Remember the long traditions of our programs, especially the Asia term, Europe term and Latin America term, as well as the history and expertise of our faculty on these programs. Point out our innovation with new terms, such as Ghana, Vietnam, Holden Village, and the athletic teams in China and elsewhere.

• Does the college against which we are competing offer field study, clinical and other off-campus experiences like Augustana’s? Point to examples such as the geography and geology field trips; our environmental field stations; the scholar-ship and steward-ship geography research boats; the exceptional clinical experiences in our Center for Speech, Language, and Hearing; service learning in the Quad Cities and beyond; the tremendous student teaching opportunities in our education department—especially the variety within the Quad Cities; the music ensemble and athletic team trips (including international); and the three major combined ensembles in the music department preparing for and performing at the Chicago Symphony Center. What are other examples?

• Is the college against which we are competing located in an area rich with opportunities like the Quad Cities? Our location in the diverse and sizeable Quad Cities provides a tremendous variety of options for recreation, field study, cultural events, internships, employment, course-related activity, community involvement, arts and entertainment, and environmental action.

Why do these variables matter and contribute to the value gap?

Special services

• Does the college against which we are competing offer comprehensive services that help student clarify their goals and path for their future, like the CVR, Career Center and the Office of Internship Services? (These resources work together to provide a supportive, well-rounded and multi-faceted approach.)

• Does the college against which we are competing boast a nationally recognized, award-winning library? (2006 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award from the Association of College and Research Libraries, in the college library category, for its creativity and innovation in meeting the needs of the Augustana academic community. Emphasize the important role of our library and librarians in our general education studies program for all students (AGES first-year liberal studies courses).

Does the college against which we are competing offer the opportunities for spiritual growth and development of personal values and interests, like Campus Ministries, the Office of Diversity Services and the Office of Student Activities (not to mention more than 150 student groups, with new clubs started by students every year)?

Why do these variables matter and contribute to the value gap?

Performance and outcomes

• Does the college against which we are competing prove its claims by making survey information publically available? This good question can be supported with the simple introduction to Open Book. Point out the value of providing this real information and the benefits to the users in finding the facts so readily available, just in case they don’t actually go through the information themselves.

Why does it matter that a college makes survey data available and how does such information contribute to the value gap? (It proves what really occurs, demonstrating our respect for prospective families and their difficult decision process, and willingness to provide real information and not just slick marketing.)

Access to balance of living and learning

• Does the college against which we are competing ensure interaction with a diverse student body and surrounding multicultural community? (Provide examples of outreach into nearby Hispanic neighborhood, such as translation services and bi-lingual CSD services. List wide variety of on-campus multicultural programs, events and services.)

• Does the college against which we are competing deliver a genuine residential living experience? Describe the wide variety of residence options, which ensure a transition to independent living, and the residential life programming that complements the academic program. Focus on a campus that offers a wide variety of ways to gather in groups for fun, extra-curricular and course-related activity, and meaningful day-to-day encounters.

Access to faculty as teachers and mentors

Is the faculty at the college against which we are competing committed to teaching? Point out the ways our faculty and administration demonstrate their teaching commitment at the public/administrative levels—such as the Center for Teaching and Learning; ongoing support for faculty starting with their first year on campus; development of contract majors with students; and commitments to Senior Inquiry, collaborative projects and the Celebration of Learning. Point out the ways our faculty demonstrate their teaching commitment at the personal level—such as one-on-one instruction, collaborative projects, advising and mentoring, energetic and innovative use of endowed chair positions, close focus on individual learning that develops in the classrooms and is demonstrated throughout the academic year—including during field study, local projects and international study.

Why does a commitment to learning matter? Why should it matter, and how does it prove a value gap?

Hidden Costs

• Are there hidden costs at the college against which we are competing?

Why do hidden costs matter and contribute to the value gap?

The value gap is real. The value gap is what defines our worth. Our worth is what will enable us to attract the best students and improve our reputation and market position.

What are your examples that reinforce the value gap between you and your less expensive competitors? How are you going about the process of defining your value gap? How do you systematically encourage all members of your community to seek to define the value gap?

Kent Barnds (a.ka. @bowtieadmission)