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The 3 Questions To Ask Ourselves As Higher Education Marketers

For anyone beginning a career in university marketing, Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education (Norton 2015) serves as an excellent, brief introduction to issues facing American universities and colleges today. Zakaria, the Emmy-nominated host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, is a careful observer of developments in a number of critical cultural fields.

The book had its origins in an address to his daughter’s college class and has the flavor of zealous boosterism for the values of a college education. Which isn’t all bad if you find yourself forgetting the big picture, feeling overwhelmed in the trenches of enrollment management, or facing pressure from competing institutions.

Zakaria reminds us that “loving to learn is a greater challenge today than it used to be.” While colleges and universities prepare students for specific careers, undergraduates can also expect to learn “how to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas — and most of all to enjoy the intellectual adventure enough to be able to do them easily and often.”

He provides a brief history, identifying classic debates between “those who understand liberal education in instrumental terms and those who see it as an end in and of itself.”

Since the beginning of higher education, faculties and families have discussed the apparent tension between the “practical and the philosophical.”

But is the tension real? In his chapter on ”Learning To Think,” Zakaria cites Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin recalling that “the firm employed some one hundred eighty thousand people, mostly college graduates, of whom eighty thousand were engineers and scientists. I have concluded that one of the stronger correlations with advancement through the management ranks was the ability of the individual to express clearly his or her thoughts in writing.”

Among other benefits of higher education Zakaria cites, importantly, the overall ability to learn how to learn.

Zakaria’s take on today’s university students is optimistic. They “search for morality and meaning of life in different ways than in prior ages, as with any new generation, especially in times of tremendous change. They are more incremental and practical. They seek truth, but perhaps through quieter avenues than the heroic ones of the past. They try to combine their great urges with a good life.”

As higher education marketers, we can read In Defense of A Liberal Education  as providing a kind of mental checklist:

  1. Does our communication capture the core value of the “brand” we represent?
  2. Do we present our current students in a manner that is both honest and inspiring?
  3. Do we capture the overall energy of our institution, as well as the less visible search for knowledge taking place here?

Zakaria shares a unique perspective as one who chose an American college rather than a university in his native India or elsewhere —  alternatives offering considerably more rigid academic paths. Charmingly, he tells of almost accidentally learning about the SAT exam, and then taking the test with no preparation. And he notes his amazement reading American course catalogue descriptions “written like advertisements –- as if the teachers wanted you to join them on an intellectual adventure.”

Whether we’re new to university marketing or veterans, it’s worth reminding ourselves that what we promote is an “adventure” like no other.

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