• Issue #14

You get what you pay for

A man stands on the edge of a tall, tall cliff, overlooking the ocean.

There’s no room for experimentation when you’re only focused on revenue.

And later, Kristin will take you into her Higher Ed Laboratory.

Thanks for being here.

You Get What You Pay For

How are we still in a place where so many university course adverts are a stock image, a logo, a course name and a totally lifeless strap line that says nothing. Do ad agencies lack creativity or are universities simply getting what they pay for?

— Tracy Playle (she/her) (@tracyplayle) November 12, 2022

My UK-based friend Tracy Playle, CEO of Pickle Jar Communications, tweeted the above query.

Think about the higher ed paid media you see out there on Facebook or search, and you’ll know Tracy is spot-on with this observation. And in the tradition of saying the quiet parts out loud, I replied with this synopsis:

This is a simplified explanation, but we see this often, especially when working with smaller private institutions. They’re sold an outsourced ad-buying and creation package — for a lot of money, no less — and often are sold outsourced online program management as an add-on.

In the end, these large enrollment marketing firms promise increased applicant numbers (that the institution can’t compare to anything else), but the brand experience is fragmented.

Here’s the quiet part: Private equity firms focus on squeezing every last penny out of their business model. That means there’s little if any, experimentation to improve tactics; every piece of data will be obfuscated to make the business look good, and whatever data they’re providing is packaged and reused across customers.

But you know what? Most institutions don’t have websites optimized to qualify and convert applicants. So, of course, an enrollment marketing firm’s landing pages will generate more RFIs. And most institutions aren’t equipped to craft a meaningful, relevant, and effective campaign. And many don’t even have a coherent brand message.

Throwing cash at ad buys before you’ve done what needs to be done for organic reach is a lousy strategy. If you have enough money to spend meaningfully on advertising in the first place, you should assess what happens when someone finally hits your website. Make that spend work for you, even if that means halting your ad buys and shifting it to something else for a time.

Joel Goodman

How Colleges Work at the Edge of Chaos

One of the staple readings in my higher education policy program is “How Colleges Work” by Robert Birnbaum. It’s referenced often enough that we all affectionately call it “the Birnbaum.”

This tome of academic understanding gave my fellow students and me a common language for a few years: tight and loose coupling, anarchical systems, cybernetic leadership, and (probably the most memorable) garbage-can decision-making.

‘The Birnbaum,’ written in 1988, kicks off with a scorching hot take. In fact, it still sizzles today like a TGIFriday’s plate of fajitas straight from the line. Here it is:

Are Colleges and Universities successful BECAUSE they are poorly managed?

Wait, wait, wait. He considers this alternative:

Are management and success not closely related?

Those takes are so great; I love this book. It’s smart and logical, and still, every chapter reads like a stream of consciousness from a man in the midst of an existential career crisis.

Birnbaum takes us on a tour of self-correcting feedback loops in higher education. Here’s an example: Institutional prestige goes up → enrollment increases → the sense of community drops due to an imbalance of faculty and students → faculty morale dips → so institutional prestige drops → enrollment declines → the sense of community returns when the student body gets smaller → and the faculty morale goes back up raising institutional prestige… and we’re back to where we started.

Birnbaum posits that self-correcting feedback loops exist all over a university and that that’s a good thing. An institution of higher education with so many competing values and ideas is too complex for any administrator to lead with traditional, solution-style decision-making effectively. You see, our problems are adaptive. So, applying one solution creates another set of problems. It’s like playing organizational whack-a-mole.

Today, the higher education industry is facing some serious external turbulence. In the last few years, we’ve felt the effects of:

  • Politicians using higher education as a political wedge issue
  • Admission scandals like Operation Varsity Blues
  • Rulings from a conservative Supreme Court affecting affirmative action and admissions criteria
  • Changes to Title XI regulations that could give you whiplash
  • A recession that’s supposedly due any day now if we’re not already in one
  • Changes to financial aid and student loan repayments
  • A decrease in the general trust people hold for expertise

I could keep going. Our financial and technical landscapes are shifting right underneath our feet at this very moment. In this uncertain time, how should industry players respond? How can we shepherd our institutions through the wave of chaos?

Here’s what I recommend: get comfortable in the chaos. In the book, “Surfing the Edge of Chaos,” authors Richard Pascale, Mark Milleman, and Linda Gioja give us four principles for understanding complex adaptive systems:

  1. Our industry is in a turbulent environment. It may be tempting to tame the uncertainty. But, complex systems resist linear solutions. They always have, but never more so than in an environment with as many hungry external variables.
  2. In times of chaos, instability is a strength. Systems that continue to rely on the status quo, utterly unresponsive to new environmental factors, risk becoming obsolete. If you’re feeling magnetic pulls away from threats or towards opportunity, you’re sensitive to what change requires.
  3. When you make an opportunistic move, it tends to be toward the edge of chaos. Why the edge? Because, in the middle, you can’t quickly discern the new bits of information coming through. You only feel those at the edge.
  4. And, when you hit the edge, your system self-re-organizes. You find a sweet spot for creativity and innovation.

This is all pretty abstract, so let’s get down to brass tacks. What does this mean for marketing, communication, and web management teams in colleges and universities?

It means that the rules of Birnbaum’s self-correcting feedback loops are about to get a major stress test. And some of them might change or fail or even remain tirelessly unruffled.

It also means that this is a rough time to set goals. At the edge of chaos, goals are more discoverable than they are settable. Consider sampling some new strategies and see what emerges. Celebrate and chase your bright spots.

If you’re experiencing team changes and organizational disruption, stay open-minded. Your new people and processes will have their advantages - if for no other reason than to give you a glimpse of different perspectives.

New strategies (e.g., giving up on a particular campaign or trying out different technical solutions) create a time when you need to get your ear to the ground for trends or responses. These are the best moments for innovative solutions.

And be open for your offerings and products to shift. Maybe your team set out to develop a new faculty profile, and you find it works just as well (with a few tweaks) for community partner profiles. Or maybe once popular programs get broken up into certificates with new courses attracting nontraditional students. Run with it.

One of the reasons I love studying higher education so much is that my day-to-day work is also my laboratory. Fellow laboratorians, join us for this wild ride we have in store.

Kristin Van Dorn

The Nest is Burning

“To Hell with Elon, I’m staying,” you say.

You’re a leader there, like Optimus Prime.

So what if it’s in complete disarray?

Years you’ve invested, you’ve put in your time.


But maybe it feels quite different now,

With the blue check drama led by a troll.

As Owen Wilson says frequently, “wow!”

The sentiment here has taken its toll.


Where will you go if the choice has been made?

Mastodon, Cohost, Discord, or Reddit?

The answer won’t come easy, I’m afraid,

And can cause great concern if you let it.


So whether your mind is clear or is blurred,

Please join our convo on the dying bird.

Carl Gratiot