Can Higher Ed bring back its ‘Cuda?

For those of us who came of age in the 1960s and 70s, the ‘Cuda, Cutlass and Cougar were legendary.  Some were heavy sellers while others had incredible style and performance.  Today, the mere two ‘Cuda convertibles that were outfitted with the 426 hemi fetch more than $1 million.  Evidently, I wasn’t alone in my passion for those cars.

Between 2000 and 2010, the three brands that made those cars (Plymouth, Oldsmobile and Mercury) disappeared, joining Hummer, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn.  Not since the great depression had so many car manufacturers ceased to exist in the span of a decade.  In their respective last years of production, these companies combined to make over 1 million cars.  Many predicted GM, Ford and Chrysler would be hamstrung by the loss of loyal owners and the dealers that sold them.  Today, more than half a decade after the last Mercury was produced, those predictions proved to be ungrounded.  So, why did the loss of such storied brands not matter?

Well, by the time they all passed on not a one of them was making anything close to the historic models listed above.  Naming protocols had morphed into letters and numbers, GTOs were imported from Australia, sister company offerings were renamed (badge engineering) or each make merely made stuff that nobody wanted.  And so, we lost Oldsmobile and Pontiac but only after decades had passed from when the 4-4-2 and tri-powers ruled the streets.  Enthusiasts mustered an audible yawn when each “job last” rolled off the line.  There were a few writers who lamented and eulogized but the actual deaths were years in the making.

Today, GM is just about where it was pre-recession, as is Ford – and Chrysler is growing rapidly.  Customers may have migrated here and there but current lineups are pretty strong.  Buyers of the retired marques are snapping better stuff up in record numbers.  In fact, today’s sixteen year old was four when the last Olds was built.  He was ten when GM lost four of its other brands and likely has little idea what was lost when they went away.  Maybe it is because very little did.

So, what does this have to do with private higher education? Well, I think plenty.

A host of institutions were considered beacons of excellence forty years ago.  They attracted students who weren’t guaranteed acceptance, offered exemplary teaching in the liberal arts and sciences, and equipped graduates to labor and lead in a changing world.  Graduates parlayed that fine education into top tier grad schools, successful careers and positions as pillars of their communities.  The foundational elements of their successes were owed to their alma mater.

Why was it then that their kids hardly gave dear old alma mater a glance?  And why do so few grads contribute a material portion of their wealth back to the place that shaped them so? My sense is that the greatness of yesteryear gave way to higher ed’s version of “badge engineering.”  Unique programs disappeared when exceptional faculty retired, the marketing budget was cut or the institutional vision no longer accommodated the program.  Tuition discounts multiplied, providing funds to help families offset skyrocketing prices but only if you tended to get A’s or could kick a ball through a brick wall. The desire for more students led to declining admission standards, creating an institutional academic profile that encouraged the more serious alumni kids to look elsewhere.  Simply put, the place lost its distinctive while dumbing down the student body in the name of chasing marginal revenues.

Today, too many institutions with storied pasts are playing price limbo with financial aid.  The loss of Clearwater Christian College was shocking enough.  More disturbing was the bottom dwellers who offered amazing amounts of financial aid to grab the students who had lost their college.  Those other schools can’t afford to do this and will likely motivate existing students (the prodigal’s elder brother) to want the same deal.  The loss of one school sets the stage for the loss of another, and so on.

What can be done to avoid the kind of degradation that leads to closure?  First of all, some kind of real estate has to be claimed.  You should be the very college that any student who knows anything will attend for program X.  Your byline should reflect your most unique characteristic. Stop merely touting your overall brand.  You are not the only palce in America where an education or experience can be transformational. Openly market individual programs instead; to students who have registered an interest in the discipline and who possess an aptitude for success.  Stop stacking aid and avoid chasing after the student who is unprepared both academically and financially to attend your institution. Those excessive discounts will spill over to those who would have chosen you anyway.

In other words, bring back your version of the Hemi ‘Cuda and tell people about it. Remember, if you are a lot like like everybody else, you’d better be the cheapest or located in the middle of Disney World. Not thinking either of those are valid options. You already have a product that will be worth over $1 million.  Act like that is the case.