The value of higher education is under fire as skepticism around its reward-to-cost ratio grows among a distrusting public. For Bridgewater College (Va.) President David Bushman, this is not the time to fall back. It’s time to step up.
For Dr. Bushman, a U.S. public that can’t trust its higher education institutions is “tragic” not just for Bridgewater, but the entire country.
This critical point for higher education to re-stake its claim as a pillar in American society in the public’s eyes intersects with Bridgewater College’s first-year student enrollment and retention rates rebounding from the pandemic.
“This is one of those moments where it’s about stepping out and being a leader and being part of a national dialogue about the real value of higher education,” says Bushman. “I’m excited for that. I think that’s a conversation we need to have.”
Bridgewater’s tuition reset
Bridgewater College wants to build better trust between the institution and prospective students and parents they wish to serve. And the first step to building that trust is becoming as transparent as possible. In August, it announced it would be cutting its published undergraduate tuition price from $40,300 to $15,000 in Fall 2024.
Skeptics might say that tuition resets move institutions downstream. The Chivas Regal effect, a phenomenon in marketing psychology, posits that consumers associate better products with a higher price tag. But Bushman argues that tactic has long been broken since it confuses and dissuades students from applying in the first place, thinking they can’t afford it.
“We want them to know we were always as affordable as most of the public college, but we were hiding it behind this, you know, very gaudy price tag,” says Bushman.
Communicating college value better
Bridgewater College is doubling down on its commitment to the student experience. It recently completed its “next-generation library,” a $13 million redesign and expansion of a learning commons focused on academic support and student organizations. It is also working on a $8 or $9 million building renovation for career development and support.
But if a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear, does it make a sound?
The area of the Shenandoah Valley where Bridgewater is located is also home to an array of other institutions, including Eastern Mennonite University, James Madison University and other regional community colleges. In order to reach the right students, Bushman is highly intentional in curating Bridgewater’s brand and image to pique the interest of the right kind of student—not all students possible. “You can’t be everything to everyone,” he says.
But the key to a strong marketing strategy is being substantive enough to speak with authority. “We’re very genuine with how we talk about ourselves; it’s ‘authenticity sells,'” he says. “That’s our marketing strategy.”
Bridgewater College’s marketing game plan is backed by the completion of its “next-generation library,” a $13 million redesign and expansion of a learning commons focused on academic support and student organizations. It is also working on two other multimillion-dollar renovations on career development and classroom buildings.
The college has also expanded its academic offerings, opening an undergraduate engineering program this fall semester, along with four master’s programs in the past five years.