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The Ethics of Marketing a Degree in an Economic Downturn

The Ethics of Marketing a Degree in an Economic Downturn

Sarah Steimer

illustration of person wearing mortarboard pushing wheelbarrow filled with cash

Higher education is hyped as a means to successful ends—but that guarantee is in question during volatile economic times

Part of the Marketing News Higher Ed Marketing Special Issue

The great driver for those hemming over the affordability of higher education has often been the likelihood of a degree that all but guarantees lasting employment.

That was, until the country began careening toward staggering unemployment rates.


The ability for college marketers to publicize their graduates’ employability becomes exceedingly difficult when jobs and internships—long touted as one of the best routes to full-time employment—are disappearing every day. The April unemployment rate for those with some college experience or an associate degree was 15% and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 8.4%. Is it possible to convince families to spend dwindling paychecks on an education that may not lead to immediate or well-paying jobs?

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the ethics of higher education marketing were paramount. John Bradley, a consultant psychologist with The Educational Guidance Service in the U.K., breaks down three key reasons why: Higher education is an expensive product, the value of the experience can only be judged once students begin their studies and the standards of promotional accuracy are expected to match those of the school’s academic research.

“[T]hese issues of ethical marketing are put into sharp focus in the current COVID-19 context,” Bradley says.

According to ZipRecruiter, U.S. job openings fell 47% between mid-February and the end of April. And a New York Times article noted residual effects for recession-era grads: Historically, college students who graduate into a recession have settled for lower-paying jobs at less prestigious companies, and an economic theory known as “scarring” suggests the effect can last for 10 or 15 years of higher unemployment rates and lower salaries. It begs the question of whether families would want to spend the money if the payoffs are narrowing.

But reduced opportunities for college grads doesn’t mean these opportunities no longer exist, and higher ed marketers need to find the silver lining without sugar-coating the facts: Yes, the economy looks much different today than it did earlier in the year—but the right degree from a strong institution can still offer a leg up.

Know What Data to Highlight (and What Not to Use)

Not every industry—and therefore not every college or major—is being affected in the same way. For example, figures from ZipRecruiter show that postings for jobs in education fell 48% from mid-February to the end of April, postings for healthcare jobs fell 46% and those for jobs in the finance and insurance industries fell 52%. On the other hand, positions that have seen a lift in job postings since mid-February include e-commerce specialists (266% lift), travel nurses (245% increase) and financial consultants (52% increase).

“There will be differences across schools in terms of what industries their graduates tend to go into, perhaps what part of the country they’re in,” says Peter Golder, a professor of marketing and faculty director in the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. “It’s important for each school to look at their own situation, look at their career placement and adjust the messaging accordingly.”

The best data to direct prospective students to, in lieu of underscoring typical graduation-to-employment figures, may be job posting trends for the prospective field. In general, employment and earnings figures tend to be misleading even in the best economic times. The lag between job stat collection and the point of graduation for prospective students, for example, can be particularly misleading.

“If you take a typical four-year course, the graduate statistics they publish will typically be at least one year, sometimes two years old,” Bradley says. “They are read by potential students who have not yet applied and so won’t start the course for another year. There will then be four more years before those new recruits graduate themselves. The time span between the data quoted and the graduation point for the recruits will be six years or more.”

It’s also important to consider what types of students you attract. Students from families that are inexperienced with higher education may be under the impression that a degree is a golden ticket to employment, so communications should be carefully crafted to avoid making unintended promises.

“The groups of potential students at greatest risk from any exaggerated marketing claims are those who have the least familiarity with higher education,” Bradley says. “This will be two groups in particular: students from backgrounds where there is no history of higher education and so no sources of ‘informal’ information, and overseas students who may be unfamiliar with U.S. society, geography and higher education.”

Long-Term Benefits

Perhaps the most ethical way to suggest the resilience of a college education is for the school to lead by example. Few, if any, institutions have been untouched by the pandemic. When colleges are deft in their pivots and revamps in relation to the economy, safety and regulations, it provides a template for students to become flexible and fact-driven professionals.

“It’s really a chance for schools to put into practice what we’ve always been striving to teach our students for years through this accelerated environment,” Golder says. “I do believe there are enhanced learning opportunities and it’s incumbent upon schools to take advantage of these opportunities. In that sense, you’re looking at an enhanced education rather than a diminished education.”

For the school to ethically promote the benefits of its rather expensive product, it needs to emphasize—or create—programming that will give its graduates a leg up. If internships are being canceled or postponed, schools should provide clear messaging that points to its alumni network or alternative programs that provide hands-on experience.

And while there is the concern of economic scarring for those entering the job market during a recession, there is still a long-term benefit to having a degree.

“Churning out graduates that are more ready to operate in these dynamic, uncertain times that are part of business life in general and have been increasing over the decades—certainly that rate of change has increased dramatically in this current situation—but the underlying dynamics of change and uncertainty, those are not going away and the managers who can operate in those environments—those managers will be rewarded over the course of their careers,” Golder says.

But like every institution functioning during the pandemic, the most ethical communication may be the most exhausted one: acknowledging that things are uncertain, but that the school is keeping an eye on developments. When the product is as costly and future-defining as higher education, it’s best not to make promises that cannot be kept.

Illustration by Bill Murphy.

Sarah Steimer is a writer, editor, podcast producer, and yoga teacher living in Chicago. She has written for Marketing News, Chicago magazine, Culture magazine, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, and other outlets.