Lori Ruggiero
Lori Ruggiero

Ivy League and other elite schools caught up in the college admissions scandal will likely suffer little or no damage to their PR reputation.

The episode, though, is yet another reminder that smaller and mid-tier colleges need to rethink their branding and overall image because they don’t enjoy the same exalted status as the Ivies.

Social and broadcast media featured plenty of outrage about the elitism on display in the scandal. But, this too shall pass.  Numerous books and studies have previously detailed questionable and legacy college admissions processes. They've been happening in plain sight. 

Ivy and elite schools aren't worried about the opinions of the masses. That’s not their target audience. The class of people they hope to attract will perpetuate, both financially and reputationally, their elite status. Right or wrong, wealthy and influential people aren’t necessarily concerned with “fixing” a system that benefits them.

For those on the outside looking in, it’s much easier to bemoan this reality. Some call into question the value of an Ivy League education. While undeniably there are plenty of colleges and universities offering excellent educations, few offer the social status and access that Ivy and elite schools do.  And that access is tied to future success, even if it hurts to admit it.  

Let’s look at some facts: The past six U.S. Presidents have at least one Ivy League diploma each. The founders of the country’s five largest companies graduated from, or attended for a period of time, an Ivy or elite private school. Internationally, a significant number of billionaires attended top, well-known schools in their respective countries. This list goes on and it’s not a coincidence.

So, from the standpoint of these Ivy and elite schools, sitting atop multi-billion-dollar endowments and on the winning side of supply and demand, little needs to be done in the wake of last week’s indictments.  

Their carefully crafted statements cast the schools as victims of the alleged crimes and distance the schools from the individual employees implicated. None of the statements bother to address any backlash by condemning wealth influencing admissions or by suggesting the need for a revamped or transparent admissions process. It’s not in their best interest to do so. Unless lawmakers step in, or over-step depending on your perspective, changes are unlikely.

It’s a very different situation for the vast majority of colleges and universities across the country, where enrollments are down and closings and consolidations are up. Population shifts, rising costs, and other factors have taken a toll on higher education. When faced with changes in the marketplace, brands, and in this case colleges and universities, need to pivot, adjust business models, and, or rebrand. Overall market share is shrinking and only those who differentiate and successfully target their audiences will be left with a piece of the pie.

For example, it may no longer be enough to offer a top-notch liberal arts education, as many schools claim. Once a highly vaunted area of study, there is an emerging stigma that a liberal arts degree translates to lack of the specialty expertise that produces career-ready skills and the ability to quickly earn enough to cover oppressive student loans.  

When the average person questions, “Is a college education necessary?” they are not debating a Harvard education.  They are considering the, on average, $25,000-$50,000 a year cost of a typical four-year school. This questionable value is the image problem the other colleges and universities need to address.  

In an era where legacy brands are told to embrace transformation for future growth, the very legacy of these Ivy and elite schools is what fuels their success.  

Smaller, state, and mid-tier colleges and universities that don’t have this luxury, may want to instead focus on some marketing basics: creating educational programs that address a specific need or gap in the current labor force, creating clearly articulated differentiators, and effectively targeting would-be college students and their parents through the channels they use most.

The room for error is slim, much slimmer than it is for elite schools, and devastatingly slim without a huge endowment as a safety net.

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Lori Ruggiero is executive VP-strategy at North 6th Agency.