Starving the Beast: What Marketers Can Do to Reverse Higher-education Funding Cuts

Zach Brooke
AMA Higher Ed Symposium
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Key Takeaways

What​? A new documentary, Starving the Beast, explores systemic changes to public higher-education institutions over the past 35 years.

So what? The film shed lights on the debates about the role and goal of public colleges and universities, particularly how they are funded.

Now what? ​Higher-education marketers need to convince administration to come forward and passionately defend public higher education.​

November 11, 2016

New documentary explores dueling philosophies and budget battles surrounding America’s institutions of higher learning

How has the role of public higher education changed in society over the last half-century? What’s driving that change, and what is coming next? Those are the central questions director Steve Mims explores in his provocative new documentary Starving The Beast.

By examining some of the most high-profile battles over university funding of the past several years, the documentary explores what it calls to “one-two punch roiling public higher education right now: 35 years of systematic defunding and a well-financed market-oriented reform effort.”

Mims will be in attendance to answer questions when the documentary is screened at the AMA’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, Dec. 4-7 in Orlando, Florida. Producer Bill Banowsky won’t be there, but he offered his thoughts via e-mail on how higher education is changing and why.  

Q: Early on in the film, the narrator says, “This is one of the nation’s most important and least understood fights.” What do you mean by that? What’s at stake here, and how is the public missing the action?

A: Investment in public higher education peaked in 1980. By 2015, after 35 years of reductions in state funding, financial support for higher education had declined to 55% of 1980 levels. As a result, tuition and student debt have skyrocketed. And access to higher education for all has been substantially compromised. Historically, we as a country have made public higher education affordable to all, viewing the investment of state funds for public higher education as an investment in the public good, in a better society tomorrow. That is no longer the case. That’s what makes this story so important. Few people outside the industry of higher education are actually aware of what’s going on.

Q: The opaqueness of the battle you describe unfolding, occurring at the same time there are wider public discussions around the question of the worth of college, suggest there is a clear need for higher-education marketing. What can marketers at colleges do to secure the future of their academic institutions? How should the discussion be framed, and how are colleges and universities being sold short?

A: The message should be directed to the policy makers, the state legislatures and governors who decide the level of state funding for public higher education. In the film we demonstrate that our country has made public higher education a priority for more than 150 years. We have historically viewed this as an investment not in a particular student, but in our society. As a result, we have created the world’s greatest public higher-education system. People from all over the globe come to the U.S. to take advantage of our public higher-education system. For the past 35 years we have systematically defunded public higher education, putting at risk the great public research and teaching institutions we spent more than 100 years creating.

Image Source: Screenshot from Starving the Beast Trailer

Q: How should higher education be marketed to prospective students? As career-training or as a broader public good?

A: Many reformers believe that our public higher-education system should focus on training citizens for the jobs that currently exist in the economy. My daughter graduated last spring from the University of Virginia with an English degree and a focus on poetry writing. Upon graduation she was hired by Oracle. Oracle, like many employers, looks for people who can communicate and think critically, people who can read and write well. They are perfectly happy to train these people for the jobs they want them to do. The truth is we don’t know what jobs will be needed in our economy 5 or 10 years from now. But if we discard all of the disciplines that don’t match up with what our policy makers believe are needed to fill current jobs I worry we will substantially reduce the quality and impact of public higher education. Personally, I’m grateful to the Commonwealth of Virginia for investing in students to learn poetry. I hope they continue doing that.


Image Credit: Starving the Beast Media Kit. Pictured left to right; Graham Reynolds (Composer), Steve Mims(Director) and Bill Banowsky (Producer).


Q: How should colleges and university measure success? By the earnings of their graduates, their impact on regional culture and economy or by other standards?

A: I think colleges and universities should measure their success by all relevant metrics, including earnings of graduates, but also including the impact its graduates and the institutions themselves have on their region and the country and the world.

Q: What responsibility do colleges and universities have to be self-sufficient, or at least manage their expenses? Where does that rank in terms of importance within the hierarchy of institutional goals?

A: There is no question that public higher education is a highly inefficient enterprise. And our public colleges and universities should unquestionably strive to be more efficient. But these are not typical businesses. They have a different mission. And despite their inefficiencies, these public colleges and universities have contributed mightily to our economy and our society by training the next generation of thinkers and leaders. So, our hope is that we, as a society, will become more measured on how we alter the course of public higher education. We hope we can make these institutions more efficient while not entirely throwing them out and starting over.

Q: Is there a role for higher-education marketers in lobbying state governments to restore their investments in public universities? Are state legislatures receptive to marketing? Is anyone?

A: Certainly there is a problem with the message coming from public higher education. Sadly, in most cases it seems the administration is unwilling to make the strong case about the harm systemic defunding is causing public higher education. These administrators are walking a tightrope, not wanting to alienate the legislature for fear of having even more substantial cost, but at the same time dealing with horrific cuts to their operating budgets. Their dilemma is understandable. Still, we are fortunate to have some strong leaders out there who are fighting this fight and speak the truth about what is happening to our public higher-education system. College presidents like Bill Powers, former president of the University of Texas at Austin, and David Boren from the University of Oklahoma, who testified before the Oklahoma state legislature, said, “We should start asking what kind of state we want to be? Who are we as a people? I don't think we want ignorance and lack of opportunity to be our legacy.” We need college presidents who are willing to come forward and passionately defend public higher education.

Q: What do you hope your documentary achieves?

A: The film is designed to build awareness to an important issue that has been largely overlooked by both policy makers and the public at large. For more than 150 years high-quality public higher education was considered a “right” in this country, an investment in the public good. This idea has fundamentally changed. We are now robbing the next generation of an opportunity to get a high-quality education. We have changed the rules on who gets to go to college. We are becoming a society that allows only those with means to get the best college education this country has to offer. That’s a tragedy, really. And we hope this film will help cause informed policy decisions to be made that take into account the important role that public higher education has historically played in our country.

Don't miss Starving The Beast at the AMA’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher EducationDec. 4-7 in Orlando, Florida. Reserve your spot today!

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Author Bio:
Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the American Marketing Association. He can be reached at
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