It’s not the data, it’s what you do with it that counts

As an avid fan of The West Wing, I can often relate quotes from the show to real situations. Reading Paul Fain’s “Elusive Data on Education and Workforce” on Inside Higher Ed reminds me of the episode “Two Cathedrals.” In it, Mrs. Landingham says to the President, “You don’t know how to use the intercom.” The President responds, “It’s not that I don’t know how to use it. It’s just that I haven’t learned yet.”

Fain’s summary of a U.S. Government Accountability Office report concludes that data systems fall far short of linking education and workforce after eight years of work and $640 million in spending. Federal grant programs have attempted to establish longitudinal data systems linking K-12, higher education, and employment. It turns out that the shortcomings are not technical—we have adequate database systems. Instead, we need to address public policy around student unit records.

Controversy is rooted in tracking individual students through the education system to employment. Using Social Security numbers as a unique identifier would be more reliable than matching on names and dates of birth, for example. However, the approach raises student privacy concerns and wide opposition by higher education lobbying organizations.

As an academic leader and practitioner, I can attest to the need for higher quality data to inform decisions in the education field. But while student unit records would provide better data, a new system could be subject to misuse and abuse in determining the value of higher education institutions. The conversation should be broadened to a variety of other concerns, particularly for academic leaders engaged in continuous quality improvement.

At the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education, our highly acclaimed internship program, NEOintern, connects businesses and college students. One of the best indicators of success is internship and co-op placements. But this statistic remains elusive (except for internships for college credit). And this is challenging for other organizations, including colleges and universities, with internship programs. How can we improve the quality of services we provide if we are unable to track such a basic metric? How do we determine the quality of internships if we don’t know about placements? How do we track the long-term impact of internships on career advancement?

NOCHE protects student privacy, and we would take every measure to continue that practice in a student unit record system. More importantly, we would gain access to data that we could use to improve our programs, which ultimately would lead to more college students landing better jobs.

This is only one example that illustrates the potential benefit of unit records. Even absent a unit record system, I am working with my colleagues at NOCHE and our colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio to improve our internship placement tracking. It’s not that it can’t be done. It just that we haven’t figured it out yet. Let me know how this is true for you.

May 1: When worlds collide in higher education

May 1 is one of the biggest days in college admissions. It is the traditional deadline by which students are asked to respond to offers of admission. College and university administrators know the composition of their incoming classes, and in many cases, know what still remains to be done in order to meet fall enrollment goals. This is the time when colleges and universities are making their closing arguments to students and families and earnestly reinforce their case to prevent incoming students from balking at the last minute.

May 1 also marks the beginning of commencement season on campuses. Students and families celebrate the major accomplishment of finishing a college degree, reflect positively on past experience, and contemplate future opportunities. One of the most prevalent future opportunities is employment: for some graduates, it is the start of a career and for others it may be a career change or further advancement. News is filled with stories about employment prospects and job placements of the new class of graduates.

This reminds me of Seinfeld character George Costanza’s worlds colliding problem.

On one hand, higher education institutions enroll new students with promises of life-changing experiences, including improved employment prospects. On the other hand, hundreds or thousands of new graduates attest to whether their expectations are met.

In George’s case, having worlds collide is bad. In the case of higher education, having worlds collide represents fulfilling an institution’s mission.

This is an important time of year for colleges and universities. When news media focuses on college cost, student loan debt, and job placements for college graduates, this is an important time to communicate to students, graduates, and their families about the value of a college degree and the particular advantages of our institutions. Be relentless!

Jobs and college

Perhaps more than ever, college students and their families are concerned about jobs. In the past, higher education institutions competed on prestige and academic profile. Today, higher education institutions are increasingly facing pressures on learning outcomes, career preparation, and job placement. A variety of external economic and political pressures have caused this shift, which affects every type of degree program from an applied associate’s degree to a traditional liberal arts degree. Everywhere you go, students and parents are asking about jobs for new college graduates.

Higher education marketers should monitor this trend and help their institutions adapt to these changes. On Thursday, April 18, 2013, Inside Higher Ed hosts “Jobs and College: What Really Matters.” I will attend this one-hour webinar, and I would encourage every other higher education marketing professional to do the same.

According to the webinar description, Georgetown University Research Professor Anthony Carnevale will share data on the topic of the economic value of degrees and certificates and how to apply that data academic affairs, admissions, and advising.

Much of my work at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education focuses on college completion. I have been using data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, of which Dr. Carnevale is director, for almost three years. The evidence is clear: more college graduates in a region correlates to higher economic prosperity. I have read multiple reports from a variety of sources, and all of them reach the same conclusion. Using these data as a rationale and rallying cry, my organization leads the Northeast Ohio Talent Dividend to convene business, civic, education, nonprofit, and philanthropic stakeholders for programs that boost college completion.

As a program manager, I am concerned about broader economic forces and regional economic development plans. However, as a higher education marketer, I must also focus on the needs and wants of individual students and families and the important role college has in satisfying those needs and wants.

As a marketer and communicator, I should know how students and families value a college degree and how academic programs prepare students for jobs. Each campus needs to explore this question in order to understand what it might do better to prepare students for jobs (i.e., how it can adapt to its environment), and what it might do better to communicate its advantages versus its top competitors.

Thursday’s Inside Higher Ed webinar is only one of a multitude of sources on jobs and college, a topic on which higher education marketers should become experts.

Marketing positions available in higher education today

Following my previous post about chief marketing officer (“CMO”) positions in higher education, I conducted a quick search on three popular higher education job websites for CMO listings: The Chronicle of Higher Education, HigherEdJobs, and Inside Higher Ed.

I did not find many CMO opportunities, limiting my ability to conclude anything substantial from my search. One CMO opportunity was clearly described as a position responsible for communications and promotions within a particular unit of a larger university. Another CMO position reported directly to the head of the institution and involved strategic and institution-wide responsibility. A part of the job advertisement included “fostering institutional trust,” a phrase that implies knowing target student populations and serving those populations better than competitors.

Broadening the search beyond the CMO title to include positions as vice president or director did not reveal many senior-level marketing positions. One institution may still be struggling to define the role for its marketing officer, with a position responsible for institution-wide marketing reporting to the associate vice president for development with a dotted line to the vice president for public affairs. I wonder where academic affairs, student affairs, or enrollment management fit into that role.

Even marketing positions that report directly to the president focus primarily on communications and public relations.

However, marketing positions that encompass the entire marketing mix do exist, such as the associate vice president position at Northwood University. In addition to communication and public relations, the position responsibilities include pricing, monitoring student retention, and analyzing competitors.

This is not a rigorous study, but a glance into a snapshot in time. It seems to confirm two findings that I have already written. First, marketing is not well defined in higher education despite wider acceptance in business. Second, institutions are making their individual adaptations to their environments.

A variety of opportunities exist for marketing practitioners, and the more marketing professionals that enter higher education, the better we can serve our institutions.

Does your university have a chief marketing officer?

Whether or not to have a chief marketing officer (“CMO”) is an important question for governing boards and presidents in higher education. In a rapidly changing and competitive environment, colleges and universities cannot leave to chance environmental scanning, marketing planning, or organizational adaptation. As external political, economic, social, technological, and legal forces act upon higher education institutions, some have adapted their organizational charts to include a position for CMO. This has tacitly signaled marketing’s increasing (albeit slow) acceptance in the academy.

The College & University Professional Association for Human Resources ([CUPA-HR], 2005, 2013), which has been tracking salary and demographic data since 1967, added the “Director of Marketing” position to its annual salary survey in 2004-2005, and as of 2012-2013, did not list a college or university marketing position in its top executive and senior institutional officers category. The latest survey included a CMO position in the heads of divisions, departments, and centers category (CUPA-HR, 2013). No clear model for marketing in the organizational structure has emerged in higher education despite wider acceptance in other sectors (Fleit & Morel-Curran, 2012; McGrath, 2002).

However, titles don’t tell the whole story.

As I explained in a previous post, marketing is not the same as advertising and promotion. Marketing involves adapting an organization to the wants and needs of target markets. Advertising, public relations, marketing communications, direct marketing, personal selling, and interactive marketing are marketing activities. Additional marketing activities include environmental scanning, targeting the marketplace, segmenting, positioning, branding, developing products and services, and pricing.

With marketing properly defined, it is easier to imagine why higher education institutions have been slow to add CMOs to their organizational structures. Some marketing activities relate to university functions that are the purview of established and accepted positions such as president, provost (or chief academic officer), vice president for business affairs (or chief financial officer), vice president for student affairs, or vice president for enrollment management.

Perhaps your college or university’s CMO is the person in one of these positions, even if his or her title does not contain the word “marketing.”

When I conducted research on organizational adaptation to the rapidly changing external environment, I found that Notre Dame College in Ohio increased student enrollment from 894 in 2003 to 2,147 in 2011 by deploying marketing strategies without any evidence of a marketing plan or person with “marketing” in his or her title (Brown, 2012). President Andrew Roth was Notre Dame’s de facto CMO, which I found through an analysis of his shrewd application of the marketing mix on his leadership of the institution (Brown, 2012).

Just like it is possible to have a CMO whose title is president, it is possible to have a CMO position primarily responsible for marketing communications with little crossover in academic and student affairs or business and finance.

Therefore, answering the question whether your college or university has a CMO requires that you look past titles on an organizational chart.

Do you have someone reporting to the president or governing board who is responsible for (or brings senior staff together for) identifying target student markets, learning about the wants and needs of those students, and delivering products or services that satisfy those wants and needs in a superior way than competing institutions?

If you do, then you have marketing management in place, and you have positioned your college or university for adapting to a rapidly changing environment. This will give you a competitive advantage in your marketplace.

If you don’t, then how do you organize instead? Will your organization provide you a competitive advantage in your environment?


Brown, S. M. (2012). Organizational adaptation to the rapidly changing external environment: A case study of strategic marketing at Notre Dame College in Ohio (Doctoral dissertation). Available from Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3525742)

CUPA-HR. (2005). Administrative compensation survey for the 2004-2005 academic year. Retrieved April 7, 2013, from

CUPA-HR. (2013). Administrators in higher education salary survey for the 2012-2013 academic year. Retrieved April 7, 2013, from

Fleit, C., & Morel-Curran, B. (2012, March). The transformative CMO: Three must-have competencies to meet the growing demands placed on marketing leaders. Los Angeles: The Korn/Ferry Institute.

McGrath, J. M. (2002). Attitudes about marketing in higher education: An exploratory study. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 12(1), 1-14.