Grading and Branding

Posted on December 2, 2018


A few weeks ago, we directed some attention to the phenomenon of grade inflation in America in the past half century.

Today students are thought of as “customers” and “clients,” rather than acolytes in search of knowledge, at least in theory. I’d like to examine another novelty in higher education, “branding.”

My wife was reared in cattle ranch country deep in Central Florida, and of course her dad, her grandma, and the ranch hands branded all their cattle. That’s what I thought of as branding. You’ve seen as many Westerns probably as I have, and the little doggies must be rounded up and the letter or symbol of the ranch they belong to seared into their skin with a branding iron.

Or maybe you go far enough back to remember an actor named Ronald Reagan host a popular television show sponsored by GE, whose “brand” or slogan was “progress is our most important product.”

Branding in fact is part of modern marketing. You determine the nature and strength of whatever you want to sell and invent a brand that the public will associate with your product. Many of you will remember the “Marlboro man.”

Branding now has become a part the language of higher education paralleling the grade inflation phenomenon. As universities compete for students they develop their own brand that distinguishes them from thousands of other colleges and universities.

UA for example has a complete Division of Strategic Communications which manages and promotes their brands worldwide. This is serious business. At stake is any university’s success in competing for the best students coming out of the high schools of America. As Wikipedia noted, “many universities and colleges now operate in a businesslike market where students are ‘customers’ and other schools are competition.”

Shoot, we’re used to that at UA. If Auburn and LSU aren’t competition, who are? But, of course, we are now not talking sports or trash, but true competition in the market place for students: how to best attract them (branding and slogans) and how best to keep them. Strategies include grade inflation and looking after their needs to ensure their happiness, not to speak of their mental and psychological well-being which is very tender among a good portion of the student population these days.

Yale conducted a survey regarding “trigger warnings” and found that “63 percent favored required professors to use ‘trigger warnings’ to alert students” that something, somewhere is coming up that may offend or challenge them.

Today we have “safe spaces” which “refers to an autonomous space created for individuals who feel marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization.” Or, how about, “a place …in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment or, any other emotional and physical harm.” Hello, welcome to the real-world.

On the other hand, your university experience is meant to challenge you with new ideas and perspectives. The free exchange of ideas is part of freedom of speech, and critics of safe spaces and trigger warnings, such as John Ellison, Dean of the Students at the University of Chicago, wrote that “we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

You may think Alabama football is just a sport, but every time UA wins a national championship, there is a spike in applications. People want to be associated with a winner, and Alabama’s shining winner is football. Sorry, you engineers, poets, computer gurus, creative dancers, physicists, marketeers and musicians. You may all be really great and some of you indeed are, but branding follows the winners. UA’s brand on television is “where legends are made.” It’s a well-done short video, but we all know the legends it is highlighting are not dancers or musicians, but Bear Bryant and Nick Saban. This is a truth about the nature of higher education today. UA is not alone.

Since Harvard is viewed as the college gold standard, what are their brands to help recruit students and donations? They have trademarked such taglines as “Ask what you can do,” and “Lessons learned.”

What’s in a name, a brand? It is an emblem of sorts, kind of like our national moto, “In God We Trust.” It catches your attention and has meanings that sometimes transcend its simplicity. Good branding.


Published as “Branding is all the rage in higher ed,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Oct. 21, 2018.

Posted in: Education