Northeastern vs. Connecticut… marketing lessons learned

Twitter and other parts of the social media world are alive lately discussing the contents of a letter send by a parent to the admissions office at Northeastern University explaining why a son in this family was enrolling this fall at University of Connecticut.

The letter and several comments to it are online at the USphere website. One person is beside himself at this latest flagrant example of a helicopter parent intruding into the life of the son, but most are sympathetic to the financial choice facing a family that apparently received little if any financial assistance from Northeastern to lower the sticker price of a bachelor’s degree from that school.

Let’s look at just a few of the lessons at play here:

  • Private sector colleges and universities are urged to emphasize the “value” of their educational product over that of lower cost (usually public) institutions. To some extent that’s reasonable, but when the dollar difference becomes near $27,000 per year as in this case, the marketing weight of relative value shrivels. In this troubled financial year, the “value proposition” is under extreme stress.
  • The parent implies that he might be able to afford the $47,000 annual cost at Northeastern but that he sees no reason to draw down family resources when an acceptable alternative is available for $20,000 per year. This is a strong lesson in brand strength. For the past few years, Northeastern has been waging with success a campaign to achieve higher status in academe, in part by increasing the academic profile and geographic distribution of undergraduate students. Now that goal is in jeopardy. In this climate, only the strongest brands in the private sector (and there are few of those) will not see incredible pressure to reduce net costs to students to maintain previous enrollment yields. For Northeastern, this enrollment cycle will test just how much brand strength has increased as measured by how much of the sticker price people are willing to pay.
  • The parent’s situation may be compounded by geography. Northeastern aspires to a national enrollment. This family lives in Massachusetts. And so despite the “stellar” academic record that the parent reports, there just might have been a more enticing financial offer if the family lived in Illinois or Texas or Oregon. (I’ve no inside info about how Northeastern does this, but differential packaging of merit aid based on overall enrollment goals is common practice.)

The good news here is the quality of the student’s immediate educational experience is not at jeopardy. Both Northeastern and Connecticut will provide what is needed to earn a fine education. Nor are the son’s future prospects likely to suffer for having earned his degree at Connecticut instead of Northeastern, based on relative brand strength now and in the future.

Connecticut is, after all, “The Top Ranked Public University in New England.” Must be true or they couldn’t say it on the home page of the website, right? 

2 Comments

  1. Bob,
    Thanks for the dialogue — as the guy behind U Sphere who decided to post this letter (with complete permission, courtesy of my friend Paul Lloyd Hemphill at PreCollegePrep), I’m not at all surprised at the buzz it created.
    My take is a little different: 5 years ago, I worked in downtown Chicago with a guy whose daughter was a high-performer at a really really good public high school in the North Suburbs. Who was most aggressive in courting her, of all the schools, public or private? Connecticut. She fell in love with the place, signed up, attended, graduated, and is now out in the real world.
    So, while some are wondering why UConn over Northeastern — I mean, how COULD you??? — this reporter thinks it’s perfectly normal to start with the two on equal footing.
    Your “brand strength” comment is a good one, especially when you branch out of the Northeast. Gosh, Northeastern, Boston University, Boston College…U Mass…all of the “colleges of the Fenway…” Could a student go wrong?
    Again, great discussion!

  2. Dave…
    Your notes on UConn recruiting aggressively in Chicago 5 years ago are well taken. Not quite sure when it started (8 or 10 years ago?) but there’s been a strategic plan in place there for quite some time designed to elevate UConn to a more prominent place in academic heaven.
    Rather like what Northeastern has been doing for about 5 years or so.
    And so the question… how much room is there in academic heaven?

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