Let me start with a disclaimer.

This is not an article about people, families or households.

This is about Colleges.  And it’s a story about how the college planning landscape of 2011 is so much different than 1991.  And how that is a bad thing.

But, it’s also a story of possible hope and opportunity.

Once upon a time, thousands of colleges came in an incredible range of shapes and sizes.  They covered the land with quads and football fields and commuter parking lots.  In fact, they still do, but many people have forgotten that.  Because…

The evil national rankings came in and changed everything.  Soon, College Viewbooks sounded like Casey Kasem – “up a big four notches this year to #7 among midwestern liberal arts colleges, it’s…”

Around the same time, Colleges realized they could advertise.  Like real companies.  And the land was covered with billboards and buses and radio spots (oh my) that all praised the best of all worlds, a tradition of excellence and a personal yet big, cutting-edge yet traditional college experience.

The rich got richer.  The cheap got richer.  The ‘average’ school that had educated so many (and still does, by the way) struggled to keep their name in the conversation.  Most adapted.  They grew their adult programs, then their graduate programs.  They increased their aid packages.  They developed some key niches.  Some merged.  Some went co-ed.

But most of them held it together, knowing that most people understood the value of a college education (value both measurable and immeasurable).  As long as the economy held up, they’d be okay.

(Cue the ominous music)

In the past few years, both the perceived value of higher education and the economy have taken a beating.  I am not qualified to discuss the latter, but I think I am regarding the former.  And it wouldn’t fit into a blog post.  But – short and sweet – take a look at the unemployment numbers for college grads and non-grads.  Look at the average salaries of college grads and non-college grads.    And understand that the argument that college grads are not making enough money after graduation is mostly a failure of business, not higher education and the greatest irony in the world is that business folks now want to show how higher education can be “fixed”.  (I feel better now.  Stepping off soapbox…)

Meanwhile, thousands of good colleges, with qualified faculty and quality resources, struggle to keep their names in the conversation in a world where national magazine rankings (even from magazines that don’t exist anymore), large advertising budgets, deep pockets and brand recognition matter.  And I think the story of how much they struggle has yet to be fully shared.

I offer two rays of hope to those schools and a suggestion to my readers and clients.

Ray of Hope #1:  We live in a world where ‘viral’ can come from anywhere or anyone.  Without deep pockets, without prior status.  And the 3900 colleges that live in the shadow of the 100 or so that grab so much of our attention can be heard.  And seen.  And read.  And considered.  I hope those colleges realize the amazing opportunity that is available to them and capitalize to the fullest.  (So far, I’m not seeing it, but there’s still plenty of time.)

Ray of Hope #2:  Viral can go both ways.  Students at those 3900 colleges have a chance to scream about their future alma mater.  Alums can do so, too.  And future students can ‘discover’ the next great indie college – the Plain White T’s or OK Go or Pomplamoose of the Higher Ed industry, as it were.

Suggestion: When you get a moment, check out a school whose name you vaguely recall or even have never heard of.  Look at their website or drive through their campus.  And check out one of their YouTube videos.  I guarantee you this – you will be pleasantly surprised at how much College of Never Heard of It and University of Vaguely Familiar have to offer.  And maybe, just maybe, you’ll help create the next viral sensation.

And if College Counseling for the Rest of Us can do anything to help save and grow the Middle Class of Higher Education, please know that we – I – will.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at info@cc4therestofus.com, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR.   And now on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/CCRMichael?feature=mhee.

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