We accidentally marketed ourselves into a corner

What if I told you about an industry which:

  • Indebts most of its customers, sometimes for twenty or more years a person
  • Not only consumes most of four years of its customer’s time, but impacts its prospects for years before even interacting with them
  • Enjoys extremely strong brand preferences between competitors and has virtually no successful generic substitutes
  • Dramatically alters relations within a family, often for generations
  • Doesn’t do it on purpose


…according to most of the studies I’ve seen, there’s very little or no difference in the efficacy of one competitor vs. another.

Of course, I’m talking about undergraduate colleges in the US.

The most competitive colleges are as competitive as ever–in most cases, more so. Many admit only one in ten students. According to two senior officials at Swarthmore, the differences among the ‘good enough’ applicants is basically zero. Rather than putting tens of thousands of kids through insane anxiety, they wonder, why not just put all the ‘good enough’ students in a pool and pick the winners randomly?

Here’s the amazing part: According to The Chosen, an exhaustive study of college admissions, there’s no measurable difference between the outcomes of education with the most exclusive schools and the next few tiers. Graduates don’t end up happier. They don’t end up with better paying jobs. They don’t end up richer or even healthier.  The whole thing is a sham (which costs a quarter of a million dollars a person at the top end).

There’s no question that a Harvard degree helps (or is even required) in a few fields. There’s also no doubt that spending four years at Yale is a mind-changing experience. The question isn’t, "are they wonderful?" The question is, "Is it worth it?"

It’s almost as if every single high school student and her parents insisted on having a $200,000 stereo because it was better than the $1,000 stereo. Sure, it might be a bit better, but is it better enough?

Boomer parents have bought in to the marketing hype at a level rarely seen in any other form of marketing. They push school districts, teachers and their kids to perform pointless tasks at extreme levels just to be admitted to the ‘right’ school, even though there’s hardly evidence that the right school does anything but boost their egos.

Schools respond by spending a fortune on facilities that will increase their rankings in various faux polls, even though there’s no evidence at all that a better gym or a bigger library matters one bit to an undergraduate’s long-term success in life.

If it weren’t so expensive (in terms of time and money) it would make a marvelous marketing case study. Add in the tears and wasted anxiety and it’s really a shame. Very few people are pointing out that the emperor is barely clothed, and those that do (like me, I guess) get yelled at.

I’m not criticizing a college education per se. No, it’s clear that that’s a smart investment. I’m talking about the incremental cost (and anxiety) separating consumers of the ‘top’ 500 schools from students of the ‘top’ 50. It appears to be pure storytelling, a story that so appeals to the worldview of baby boomers with teens that they are absolutely unable to resist the story, despite the facts.

High school students are thrust into a Dip, in some cases the biggest one of their lives. The Dip extracts significant costs along the way, and then ends with a giant spin of the roulette wheel. I wonder if we’re marketing ourselves to a dead end.

I guess I’d do two things. First, I’d figure out how to teach parents to understand what really matters and what doesn’t about time spent in high school and the choice of a college. Second, I’d push for every selective college to share one application and do a draft similar to the one they do for medical residencies. Every applicant ranks the schools they’d like to attend, in order. Every school considers all the applications, grabs the students they’d love to have in priority order, puts the rest into the "good enough" pile and lets a computer sort em all out as pareto optimally as possible. At least kids will go into their twenties correctly blaming a computer instead of mistakenly blaming themselves.