Reimagining Higher Education’s value: Someone may need to sell the category

Higher education is a $2 trillion industry sticking its chin out to be disrupted,” and as a marketing professor, Scott Galloway knows a thing or two about market position. He has made a career by both celebrating higher education and questioning it from within the halls. As a marketing professor, Galloway seems to have an innate capacity for identifying trends in consumer behavior that need to be addressed, like the fact that a recent study by The Gates Foundation, HCM Strategists, and Edge Research to understand why enrollment is declining in higher education found that “Higher Education Must Prove Value to Potential Students, Who are Currently More Attracted to Immediate, Lower-Cost Options.” In this study, “non-enrollees” (defined as 18-30 year olds who never enrolled or never completed a degree) saw professional licenses or certifications as better value for their goals. 

The learner attitude toward the value of a degree is increasingly being reflected in the hiring requirements for jobs, as a Forbes article states, “With great fanfare, companies have been dropping four-year degrees from their job ads, turning the concept of ‘skills-based hiring’ into a bonafide buzzword.” And with a low unemployment rate in the US, companies are looking to attract talent who have taken alternative pathways in their careers. There are organizations, like Opportunity@Work and their Tear the Paper Ceiling initiative actively looking “to rewire the labor market so that everyone can contribute their skills, talent, and energy in pursuit of a better life.” Coursera continues to build a platform to help both employers and prospects find the programs needed to develop the skills organizations need.

Statistics about the value of a degree meaning around $1.2 million in increased earnings over a career are abstract compared to the stories about the collective $1.7 trillion, with a “T” that Americans owe on their college educations and individual horror stories from arguably reputable news sources, like CNN who posted the headline, “She borrowed $34,000 in student loans. Now she owes over $500,000.” And the assessment of a “potential” earnings increase of $1.2 million versus a fear of a $500,000 debt hanging over you becomes harder and harder for prospects to accept.

The imperative for higher education is clear: redefine its value proposition. This challenge requires more than individual institutions marketing their programs; it calls for a collective effort to “sell the category” of higher education itself. Traditionally, this role might fall to trade organizations, but the task at hand demands a more coordinated, impactful approach. Whether through membership organizations like the APLU or innovative institutions, the sector must articulate and demonstrate its inherent value.

Scott Galloway’s suggestion that the “industry is sticking its chin out to be disrupted” is a potent reminder of the digital disruptions in music and video streaming: just as Napster, Apple, and Netflix redefined access to entertainment, a similar revolution looms for higher education. The monopoly once held by institutions over academic content is fracturing, paving the way for a new model that values access, affordability, and relevance above all.

The future of higher education hinges on its ability to adapt and articulate its value in a rapidly changing world. By embracing innovation and demonstrating the real-world impact of its offerings, higher education can navigate this pivotal moment, ensuring its relevance and value for generations to come.