I have a lot of respect for Seth Godin. In the marketing world, he’s been the best advocate for authenticity in marketing in a time of massive media upheaval. His books sell a hell of a lot of copies because he’s smart, funny, and a great communicator about the marketing world.

He knows marketing. He breathes marketing. He is marketing.

And I think that’s why his post this morning about higher education is so detached from the reality of higher ed.

Mind you, I agree with his basic premise (and have said so in the past) — that higher ed in this country is on the precipice of collapse. Nine years building and running websites for my large research university employer has given me a view into the dark present and darker future of our institutions of higher learning.  Some have overemphasized research at the cost of providing solid undergraduate instruction. Others have solid teaching, but the diminishing returns of massive tuition increases means they are vulnerable to the coming revolution in online learning, which will bring the same Internet-driven changes to colleges that have come already to the music and news industries. Budget cuts in public institutions are obliterating any chance for schools to do anything but hunker down and survive. Meanwhile, private schools like Stanford (Godin’s alma mater) now charge more than $50K a year just for tuition.

The business model of higher education is completely unsustainable. I think Godin and I agree on that. And it pains me to defend higher ed, because I know where the problems are and who the problems are and that why universities are in trouble now and in the years to come.

But his case is so vapid and superficial it’s as if he’s seen the postcard and that’s all the data you ever need to judge a place. And sadly, that’s his case, in a nutshell.

Pick up any college brochure or catalog. Delete the brand names and the map. Can you tell which school it is?

No, you can’t. But first off, you’re not buying a car. You’re buying an education. An experience. And every school has their flipbooks of ivy walls and brick buildings and oversaturated blue skies because that is exactly what we expect.

Not students, mind you. Parents. Students don’t read the flipbooks. They read the websites. And the websites of higher education are a vibrant, diverse cohort. And that’s where the real competition is, if you call it that. The schools that have chosen to dive into social media and have sought to interact with potential students that way have been rewarded. Those that haven’t, well, they have flipbooks.

Flipbooks and catalogs and brochures go to two kinds of people: Parents and prospective students who need to have something “tangible” to show them that yes, they are really going to apply for that grad program. Everyone else uses the web. And as public colleges have more and more of their funding cannibalized for, I don’t know, paying for lawsuits over pointless immigration and abortion laws (I’m looking at you, Arizona and Oklahoma), there’s less and less money for print. Most of the schools within my employer have ceased printing catalogs, telling people to go online instead.

College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up. As a result, there are millions of people in very serious debt, debt so big it might take decades to repay….

Well, yes. DUH. College costs have outstripped inflation for something like 25 years straight. But there are a lot of reasons why they’re going up. State support has collapsed. Health insurance costs have risen. Students are demanding more and more services — nicer dorm rooms, wi-fi, cable, writing centers, etc. — that cost money. The one thing I can say isn’t the problem, honestly, is tenure. Tenure protects the bad eggs and gives those who “can’t do” a teaching job, that’s certain, but a vast majority of faculty work their rears off writing papers, winning grants, and teaching students just to get tenure.

But the problem here isn’t that colleges are tone-deaf to the rising costs. It’s that as a society we think it’s perfectly acceptable to pass the full cost of a four year degree off onto students. If they’re unable to afford it, tough. This despite the desperate needs we have in this country for well-trained scientists, nurses, accountants, technicians, programmers, and thinkers. This is a post-manufacturing America we’re living in, after all; if our children stand a chance in a world where a Chinese peasant can build toys for $1/hour and an Indian college graduate will code for 1/5 what an American developer makes, we have to give them the best shot we can at winning the global economic game.

And that’s the weird conundrum we’re in. We throw the kids in the pool saying “Learning to swim is what we all must do!” then yelling “You can figure out how to swim on your own!” from our deck chair. We can’t have it both ways. Godin, I think, wants to have it both ways.

Why do colleges send millions (!) of undifferentiated pieces of junk mail to high school students now? We will waive the admission fee! We have a one page application! Apply! This is some of the most amateur and bland direct mail I’ve ever seen. Why do it?

Biggest reason: So the schools can reject more applicants.

Here Godin looks at a pig, walks around the pig, pets the pig, stares at the pig’s snout, and announces it’s an ostrich.

Why is university direct mail so bland? Three reasons, I think. One, it’s been done this way for a generation, and it’s hard to break out of that rut. Two, in order to break out of such a rut, you need creative, dynamic people — the sort of people who won’t work for universities because they can’t be paid enough. Three, universities are so tight on cash they can’t drop $100,000 on hiring a marketing firm filled with young Seth Godins to spruce up their images.

The best universities can do is pick up what they can during a downturn knowing they’ll be gone the moment the green shoots of an economic recovery appear. And during that collapse they’ll have no money to effectively execute such a plan. Or, they lean on young, green BS/MS marketing students who are just learning the ropes and don’t understand the university’s issues from a business perspective.

So 90% of college marketing is barebones, repeatable, and filled with tropes (such as Jared Spool’s Girls Under Trees) because that’s the best most schools can do. And if you’re a unit within a university, you have even less to rely on.

(This is not to knock the 10% of people in higher ed marketing that are doing innovative and remarkable stuff. I flip through the CASE awards every year and think how people are managing to do some spectacular pieces despite the lack of resources at hand.)

So the question to Godin is whether a university should be dropping $100,000 on hiring him to fix the “undifferentiated pieces of junk mail” problem, or whether they should be spending that $100,000 on scholarships. Or on maintaining a wireless network. Or, heaven forbid, cutting tuition.

As for the “increasing rejections” issue, it’s far from the truth. Maybe all that advertising draws more students and ups the rejection rate, but it’s just one factor in the mysterious US News formula. You could do as Clemson did — cut class size — and get a better ROI out of the rankings than you would with blasting eleventy-billion flyers out there. And remember, if it’s all less than compelling, why would you apply in the first place?

[Added 4/30/2010: Let me reiterate that last point, because I think it needs to be. Godin is saying these publications are less-than-compelling marketing pieces, and they’re using them to bolster their reject rate. If schools are really trying to bolster their reject rate, why wouldn’t they use COMPELLING media pieces? Wouldn’t they have a far, far higher ROI? Wouldn’t they be hiring marketing gurus? Godin, again, can’t have it both ways. Either these marketing materials are useless, or they’re compelling enough to skew reject rates. Which is it, Seth?]

College wasn’t originally designed to merely be a continuation of high school (but with more binge drinking). In many places, though, that’s what it has become. The data I’m seeing shows that a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn’t translate into significantly better career opportunities, a better job or more happiness than a degree from a cheaper institution.

What data, Seth? Where? Because studies have shown that people with bachelor’s degrees earn substantially more than those with only a high school diploma. Yes, the ROI gap is closing due to the massive tuition increases, but it hasn’t closed yet. And consider the medical field, where 10 years of education will leave the average doctor with well over $150,000 in debt — schools are still churning out doctors every year.

And honestly, I think the primary issue here is that if you go into college without a plan, you’ll spend a decade wandering around making minimum wage waiting for your life to start. For the people who come to college for “binge drinking” this is the life they’ll end up with. But I’ve been teaching college students this quarter, and I work with college students, and I’m friends with college students, and I can tell you that almost all of them are driven to get an ROI out of college. They’re not in school to binge drink. They’re in school to learn and gain opportunities their parents never had. And binge drink. But only after binge studying.

The college that Seth (and I) went to, the place of Animal House and weed parties, is vanishing. What’s replacing it is an environment where kids work and study and push themselves. In other words, the institution Seth wants already exists right now. Yeah, still drinking, still drugs, still sex, but it’s all part of college and growing up, anyway.

Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

A lot of these ills are the result of uniform accreditation programs that have pushed high-cost, low-reward policies on institutions and rewarded schools that churn out young wanna-be professors instead of experiences that turn out leaders and problem-solvers.

As someone who’s had to go through the horrors of the re-accreditation process… bulls**t, Seth. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

Outcomes are what drive accreditation. Measures. Goals. They’re not about high cost, high risk, low reward. It’s the opposite. It’s about getting schools to offer the low risk, high reward stuff that’s essential to an education. It’s also about making sure that a public health graduate will be what the public health organizations need, or a computer science graduate will be what software companies need.

And that means in some majors requiring practical aspects of the field be baked into the program. Internships. Practicums. And it also means taking a careful look at each class and each syllabus and asking whether the program is building future leaders.

Sure, in the sciences you’re churning out professors. But no business school would last if it were churning out professors. Ditto public health, nursing, forestry, veterinary science… hell, marketing!

Yes, online programs are struggling to get recognized by accreditors. But we know that will be solved soon enough, just as when blogs weren’t considered worthy of producing news, or when online-only musicians weren’t “real” musicians.

Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One reason to go to college was to get access. Today, that access is worth a lot less.

The premium services a university provides are ones that can’t easily be replicated by online learning, like one-on-one teacher interaction, or working in a research lab, or learning group dynamics. Whether those premiums are worth paying for will be the question students and colleges will have to answer over this next decade, but there are definitely benefits to such an experience. Yeah, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Costco destroyed the five-and-dimes and department stores, but Nordstrom is still around, because people are willing to pay for a great customer experience. And when the Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Costco of higher education finally arrive on the scene, they will leave a trail of destruction in their wake, but most colleges will survive, for the same reasons Nordstrom survives (and thrives).

I think we all know that some schools — Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Penn — glide by because they have a great reputation that feeds back on itself. We also know that other schools are trading on a good name but are shadows of what their reputation suggests they are. And there are schools out there that are offering a superior education but don’t have the name brand that Harvard/Yale/Stanford/Penn do. But such it is in any industry.

Yeah, my college degree is nowhere close to my chosen field (which, mind you, didn’t exist until about my junior year of high school). So you could argue my education was meaningless. But college also taught me how to think critically, read widely, and write clearly. It exposed me to the full spectrum of the liberal arts, giving me ideas and thoughts that I’ve been able to port into my chosen field. I don’t think I’d be the success I am if it weren’t for my college education.

Could I have received that education outside of the ivory tower for a fraction of the cost? Perhaps. Perhaps if there were an internship in web development I could have taken right out of high school… oh, wait, I graduated in 1990, a year after Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web and three years before Mosaic, the first viable web browser, became available. So I guess that’s not an option.

Could I have done anything else? Sure. Worked a job. Taken a gap year. And eventually I would have probably made my way to college. But maybe not. I think I made the right decision to go to college, even if at times it feels like I’ve lost a few years to indecision and feeling myself out.

But my big problem with Seth’s line of thinking is he’s throwing rocks at the ivory tower without understanding what’s inside that tower. It’s different over here, Seth. Maybe you should climb down from your marketing tower and come see what the modern university is like. You’d be surprised, I think, to see what it’s really like — that students are getting a quality education with a solid ROI despite everything going against higher ed right now. Maybe it’s time you taught a class, or just spent a few days helping people like me figure out how to market their university school with no budget whatsoever. You’re certainly welcome to show up at my office and offer to pitch in.

Climb down, Seth. Come find the truth over here where we dream of just having a marketing budget that matches your honorarium.