Cost. Affordability. Value.

As an academic strategist, you may be wondering if there’s any way to improve the money conversation.

We think you can move from costs, where the conversation often stalls, to value, where it belongs. Value, or the relationship between perceived costs and perceived benefits, has intuitive clarity. This is the ratio that brings useful perspective to the question of affordability. When the conversation stalls on costs, the ratio between costs and benefits never comes into focus.

You can move the conversation forward by improving the way you speak about value (the language of value) and by shifting who tells your value story (the voice of value).

The Language of Value

One of the challenges in communicating value is to determine what is of clear value to your constituents. Many colleges and universities default to industry measures like NSSE to demonstrate value. Yet parents and students do not set the NSSE agenda. When they look at your institution and compare it to others, they need language that reflects what they value in education and an educational experience.

How do you know what they value? You ask. The key is to ask students, prospective students, parents, and other constituents what they truly value in higher education. When you ask, you will likely learn something about F-B-O, or features, benefits, and outcomes.

A feature is a quality or characteristic. For example, you might have a library with 4.3 million volumes or an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Taken no further, a list of features seldom attracts or keeps the attention of a prospective student or donor. Your audiences want to clearly understand, from their perspectives, what they gain from a large library or swimming pool.

A benefit articulates what they gain from those features. Benefits come in many varieties, from the short-term experience of finding the exact book you want to the long-term satisfaction of a thirty-year career of progressively greater responsibilities.

When a benefit moves from an interior good to an externally verifiable achievement—not the satisfaction from the career but the career itself—we call it an outcome. Understandably, outcomes matter most to parents and students when they assess educational value. They want to know how the large library will help them get better grades, land a better job, or enable them to get into a better graduate school.

To strengthen your language of value, then, do two things:

  1. Ask your audiences to identify the benefits and outcomes they value.
  2. Then, translate your features into benefits and outcomes your audiences value. Your audiences will be attracted by benefits, and they will invest their time and money in outcomes.

The Voice of Value

A related dimension in this value work is the voice of value, or rather, who gives voice to the value of your institution? In other words, who communicates the value of your institution? Is it you, or do let your students and alumni carry the message? In general, we trust the voice of experience, and the more voices, the better.

Check first to see whether you are collecting the voices of value. Do you have a regular method for collecting stories (testimonials, profiles, and so on) and presenting them? That’s creating content. Looking ahead, as you gather the stories, you will begin to curate more than create content. Your challenge will be to look for opportunities to curate stories that are already a part of the broader institutional narrative, but are now largely hidden.

Give it a try….and let us know how you choose to use the language of value and the voice of value to talk about your institution. How are you curating the stories about your institution that allow others to speak for the value of the educational experience? We’d love to hear from you.


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