As a market research company that has been heavily involved in higher education research since our founding, Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) makes it a point to monitor trends in that industry. In addition to reading about these trends through news outlets, we often see the ground-level manifestation of them in our research. Through the course of our projects, we talk to students, potential students, parents, college administrators and employers on a regular basis and we are constantly studying the competitive environment in which our higher education clients operate.

Through all that formal and informal research, we see a great number of issues that are worth paying attention to, but one factor that looms large over every aspect of higher education is cost and growing concerns about affordability.  Continuing to deliver high quality education to a population that is growing less able (and perhaps less inclined) to pay for it is the single biggest issue that American colleges and universities must grapple with in 2012 and for the foreseeable future.

The College Board reports that in 2011-12, the average published price (combined tuition, fees and room and board) for four-year public institutions was $17,131 per year for in-state students and $29,657 for out-of-state students. At four-year private nonprofit schools, the average published combined costs were $38,589. Those figures, compared to the 2010 median national household income of $49,445 show just how significant an expense college is for the average American family.

Of course, the high cost of a college education in America is nothing new. In 2010, a Forbes piece on college costs reported, “Over the last 30 years, the average sticker price at public and private American universities has accelerated upward. Since 1981 the list price level of tuition and fees has risen sixfold while the consumer price index has only increased two-and-a-half times.” This is an issue people have been worried about for some time, but the concern has taken on a new urgency in the past few years as the sluggish economy and soft job market have led to many people questioning whether college is even worth it from an ROI perspective. This has led to many Internet debates and pieces in the media such as this recent one from Time Magazine questioning the financial benefits of a college education. This represents a shift in the traditional thinking of past decades when the economic value of higher education was essentially unquestioned and educational attainment and upward economic mobility were seen as going hand-in-hand.

We do not wish to weigh in on that debate in this post, but as higher education researchers, we must acknowledge that the debate is part of a landscape that colleges must operate in and that it has colored the thinking of some potential students. Increasingly in the future, colleges will have to present their value proposition in terms of the professional and career benefits their graduates can expect. This need will also grow in importance as American higher education increasingly caters to adult learners and career changers as opposed to traditional college aged 18 to 24 year-old students. (More on that trend in a future post.)

The good news is that today’s economy requires a highly trained workforce with specialized technical skills. Employers still want to hire college graduates and expect colleges to be major providers of workforce training and retraining. There is certainly no shortage of demand for the knowledge and skills that colleges provide. The challenge for the future is really in finding educational models and delivery options that fit into the economic realities and needs of the 21st Century.  In short: adapting to change. At RMS, we help our higher education clients adapt to the ever-changing environment, and in finding ways to best communicate higher education’s value to the workforce as a whole and to the individual student.  It all starts with a step that institutions of higher learning are extremely familiar with – research.

Are you interested in learning more about how RMS can provide insights and solutions for your college or university? Contact our Business Development Director, Sandy Baker, at 315-635-9802 or email her at