Do universities use inaccurate marketing to get students in the door, especially at the business/grad program level?

This is kind of an interesting topic to me for a variety of reasons. I went to grad school (two-year business program), struggled to get a job, finally did, and now regularly look back on the entire process and reflect. That’s my arc.

I got a message on Facebook from a woman I attended grad school with; we’ve been done for about 2-3 months and she doesn’t have a job yet either. One of the things she mentioned in her messaging back and forth was that she thought “(our program) was better at marketing themselves than actually achieving results.” In some ways, I guess you can argue all companies are like that — they sell one thing and the experience is a little bit different. You see that from base things like hotels and airlines to more nuanced things like Apple products and Honeywell thermostats. It happens.

Then I saw this article on Quartz about unrealistic MBA salary expectations, and it got me thinking a little more about my experience pre-enrollment in graduate school. We (“we” as a collective, as in the entire applicant pool and eventual accepted cohort) were told certain things about the viability of jobs. One metric said something along the lines of 97 percent of students in the program end up with a job by graduation; for the three cohorts I had knowledge of, that number ended up being closer to 65-70 percent. That’s still high and commendable for sure, but it’s not 97 percent. That’s just one small example.

There are others — certain companies were advertised as coming to recruit from my program who never came. One notable example here was Proctor and Gamble. I’m not even remotely saying that I would be good at a job with P&G, or that I’d want to live in Cincinnati — neither is likely that true — but I was intrigued by that company coming to visit. They never did. I heard urban legends that they used to recruit at University of Minnesota (where I went), but too many people they were placing wanted to return to Minneapolis too fast, and they stopped recruiting there. Again, urban legend. May not be true. But they were supposed to come and never did; I can think of about 8-9 other companies in the same boat (we were told they’d come, but they didn’t).

The starting salary discussion is a long-fraught one, so I won’t go deeply into that. (I never expected to make a lot of money, honestly; I wasn’t interested in finance or consulting, and those tend to be areas where you can make more.)

Final individual component: the primary career counselor for my program was very good at working with a select group of students (not a lot of work experience, so that the counselor was selling the program more than the individual — as in, “This program has made this individual into a great early-career resource!”) and very bad at working with another group (the older, a bit-more-experienced section of the cohort). That happens. I’m sure I’d be horrible at the job regardless.

But it got me thinking: there’s a pretty deep disconnect between the “university world” and the “working world” at a lot of levels, isn’t there? Take this whole idea of “Big Data.” That’s a seeming revolution in the corporate world and yet — we’re not really teaching it in universities. Now think about what MBAs learn as regards “the marketing funnel” — it tends to be very traditional, but that funnel has been disrupted by social/online/other channels.

This all could be tied into a greater focus of late on “getting good grades” as opposed to “learning how to learn,” or it could be tied to professors being so busy that they don’t want to update their curricula. It could be tied to literally dozens of things — universities, as a general concept, tend to move a little bit slower than the pace of generalized “business” does — but it leads to an interesting broader question, then: are universities using the wrong marketing approaches (i.e. incorrect ones) to get students in the door? More bodies is better for an university, after all — but unlike more people buying an iPhone, which they can find an alternative to somewhat quickly, more people buying into a business grad program off inaccurate information just sets people back and increases debt levels. That can’t be good, right?

Of course, you should research graduate school programs not just based on what the school itself tells you, and that goes without saying. But many people do begin their searches there, and many still end their searches there — but if the information isn’t accurate, how effective can that be?

Could dishonest or non-contextualized information about university options be harming our future leaders? It is something to consider. And remember: this is all happening at a time when schools, en masse, are boosting up support staff and dropping full-time professors. Is this really the best higher education environment?

Ted Bauer