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?