The Wall Street Journal reports that a number of universities, wary of the public perception that the degrees they offer may not be worth the student loan burden, have taken to hiring highly-paid “CMOs” (Chief Marketing Officers) to build their brands and coordinate their admissions offices’ sales pitch. Although many in academia disdain corporate marketing methods, the practice is becoming increasingly common:
Some say the arrival of the CMO is the biggest shift in higher-education administration in the past decade—but even more so as schools blur the lines between academia and the corporate world by tapping marketing pros from Fortune 500 firms or hospital systems. . . .
Teri Lucie Thompson joined Purdue University after years as a marketing executive at State Farm Insurance and Safeco Insurance. . . . She runs her department like a traditional marketing shop, with a team of seven directly reporting to her, many of whom have corporate backgrounds. One previously worked at Limited Brands and spearheaded the redesign of Ann Taylor’s Loft brand. “She came with a very different perspective so she asked questions that people embedded in higher education might not actually ask,” Ms. Thompson says. Interacting with students on a regular basis, she gathers consumer insights as a packaged-goods company might, and then models solutions.
This may be a smart move for colleges in the short term, but it would be better to see schools reduce tuition costs rather than add more highly paid experts to their ever-expanding administrations. As Peter Thiel points out, “If you need large marketing budgets, it suggests that something has gone wrong with the substance of the product.”
Indeed, if these CMOs are successful in their mission (and if federal subsidies continue), the student loan bubble is likely to get worse. In many ways, this development is an example of what’s wrong with higher ed today.