September 11, 2007

Colleges and Universities

In the last few weeks I have found myself on the campuses of many colleges and universities. Some are Pitney Bowes customers, some have been venues for meetings I have attended, some are campuses I have shown my 16-year-old son, who is starting to look at colleges, and I have visited my 21-year-old son, who is a student at the University of Southern California, and my 14-year-old daughter, who took a summer class at Princeton University. I also had occasion to visit the University of Wisconsin and Harvard Law School, the schools from which I received my degrees.

I have several observations:

  • All of these schools have more global reach than ever. Our primary and secondary education systems are inferior to many other countries, but we still are a magnet for undergraduate and graduate college students from around the world, especially from the Asia-Pacific area. I also am seeing an increasing number of students from Eastern European countries – who not only come to school here, but are most likely to be filling the summer jobs at resort areas and in big cities that used to be filled by American students.
  • There is an incredible amount of construction going on everywhere on every campus I visit. Interestingly enough, some of the buildings being replaced are newer than some of the buildings being renovated. At the University of Wisconsin, some of the buildings built in the 1950’s and 1960’s are being demolished, whereas older buildings are being renovated. I was also surprised to learn that much of the Harvard Law School is under reconstruction and renovation and will be resituated within Cambridge over the next few years. I get piecemeal announcements informing me of these events, but its impact is much more dramatic when you actually see it happening.
  • The communities surrounding these schools, as well as the school buildings themselves, evidence a far more upscale college and university population than was the case when I was in school. One indicator of this fact is the spending power marketers assume that students have. At one of the mailrooms I visited in June, the number of undeliverable direct marketing catalogs filled several large postal sacks, and many of these catalog marketers were upscale retailers that clearly believed that college students had sufficient disposable income to buy very expensive items.
  • Students also have expectations about amenities far beyond anything we had. They expect state-of-the-art technology in their dorms, apartments, classrooms, libraries, and laboratories. They also expect to have the latest and greatest consumer electronics tools, and have laptops, cell phones, PDAs, and broadband television reception. They are also far more fashion-conscious and frequent a better class of eating establishments than we did. As a student at the University of Wisconsin, I used to go to a Rennebohm’s drug store diner and coffee shop for breakfast (images of famed drug store). Today, someone in my situation would be going to a Starbucks and paying many times as much for a simple cup of coffee. Students also expect far more convenient services like dry cleaners, copy and print shops, beauty salons, and even mailing and shipping centers to be on campus and open long hours.
  • Colleges and universities are very fragmented and siloed organizations. Departments and schools do their own separate fund-raising, and share relatively few resources with other parts of the university. In fact, even the centralized print and mail centers of large universities find that much of the work they should be doing is outsourced by individual departments or faculty members to print and mail shops outside the university. One of the most frustrating consequences of this fragmentation, according to many people familiar with colleges and universities, including parents of other students, is that it is very difficult to get a complete understanding of how much has to be spent to educate a college student. There are multiple expenses, and they are invoiced in a very fragmented way to the students and their parents.
  • The fragmentation relative to how universities operate is one explanation of why tuitions just keep increasingin good and bad times. In addition, policy towards tuition increases from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Another explanation is that colleges and universities spend heavily to build their capability to attract top students from around the world. Unlike governments, which cannot keep raising taxes, or businesses, which are subject to severe competition, great colleges and universities are perceived to have a lifetime economic value for students who graduate from them that enables them to charge what the market will bear.
  • Contrary to the popular view that mail is going away, colleges and universities aggressively market themselves to younger and younger students through direct mail. My 16-year-old son gets postcards, letters, and even think marketing kits every day, and my 14-year-old daughter has even started to get some postcards from a few colleges and universities. They also market heavily to alumni, to parents of current students, and to other potential donors. Much of their communication with students is web-based, such as the description of courses and the grade announcements, but the marketing material is still heavily paper-based, and there is more of it than ever.