What Colleges Can Learn From the Borscht Belt Resorts

I took one of those personality tests on Facebook this morning, and it confirmed what I already knew. Based on my responses about the color of a rectangle it concluded I was an optimist.

I grew up among optimists. When things looked bad, my father would say “it will all work out.” My uncle admonished us to “be of good cheer and all that jazz” when times were tough.

Even my grandmother was an optimist, although she talked like a pessimist. She owned stock in the Penn Central railroad at $86/share, but was holding out to sell when it reached $100. We all know what happened to next. By the time she sold her stock was virtually worthless.

Although I am an optimist by nature, things have gone badly for many of the things I am passionate about. The Borscht Belt resorts, where three gourmet meals, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, free golf and skiing, and A-list entertainers were included in the price of the room, have all closed. Deluxe, long-distance passenger trains like the Super Chief and Twentieth Century Limited no longer run, and their successor, Amtrak, limps along from year to year. Conservative synagogues are closing, especially on Long Island, because elderly members are moving away or dying, and not enough young families are replacing them.

Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, I worry about the future of the field in which I have worked for the past 16 years, higher education. Will parents be willing to send their kids away to colleges and universities where they will live in dormitories, attend classes with hundreds of fellow students, eat in cafeterias and hang out in bars?

Idle Hour on the campus of Dowling University, which closed in 2016. Financial pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic could force hundreds of other colleges and universities to close or merge. http://www.dowling.edu

Although many institutional leaders are putting on brave faces and saying publicly they plan to reopen in the fall, enrollment could be as much as 20 percent lower, according to a report by the research and marketing firm Simpson Scarborough.

Pain will be felt all around. Many private institutions will be forced to close or merge. Public colleges and universities are likely to face reductions in state aid and be forced to raise tuition.

Higher education’s financial woes are not new. Enrollment has been declining for several years due to changing demographics, i.e. fewer graduating high school seniors in the pipeline. However, many institutions double downed by spending more on marketing and amenities to recruit students, especially those who could afford to pay full tuition.

In some ways, this strategy reminds me of those Catskill resort owners who played “keeping up with the Jones’” with one another during the Borscht Belt’s Golden Age, roughly 1945 – 1965. If, for example, one hotel built an indoor swimming pool and health club, the others followed suit. After all, their guests expected it.

They would borrow to finance these expansions, assuming that their guests and their growing families would keep returning and generate enough income to cover the loan payments. What they were not prepared for were the Three A’s that killed their businesses – assimilation, air conditioning and (lower) airline fares. As hotel owner Max Kellerman said toward to the end of Dirty Dancing: “…it all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want.”

In my introductory graduate marketing class, I learned about the two core components of a marketing plan: the macro-environment, i.e. those global trends, which you have no control over, and the marketing mix or four P’s – product, place, price and promotion – over which you have total control. Higher education leaders need to understand – and adapt to – the first in order to manage the second.

Product is the most critical. Are the programs your institution offers in line with market needs? Can a liberal arts college thrive in an environment where students are seeking programs that will lead to careers in recession-proof fields? Can you realign your resources to teach in-demand skills?

Product is more than what you teach. It is how you teach it and package it. Many institutions offer only three products: bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees. That doesn’t help someone like me who has the first two, has no inclination or desire to pursue the third, yet needs additional training to keep up with new technologies and tactics. I and many of my peers would be interested in having credentials in such skills as social media marketing, grant writing and leadership, but we don’t want to invest time and money to take 30 or more credits.

Colleges and universities will have to change, just as many manufacturers switched to producing masks and other personal protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic.

Place Where will you engage with your students? On-campus? Online? Hybrid? Will you have more than one campus so you can serve commuting students as well as residential?

The shelter-in-place orders that forced campuses around the country to close has thrust distance learning, something many institutions previously ignored, into the spotlight. Many colleges were forced to quickly adapt. Online education has its limitations, however, especially with classes requiring extensive laboratory or studio time. Also, there is no substitution for face time and the friendships that result from sharing experiences on campus with classmates.

Institutions that can come up with innovative solutions that address these issues will become tomorrow’s higher ed leaders.

Price      With private institutions asking as much as $300,000, all in, for a four-year degree, higher education’s price-value relationship needs to be re-balanced. Charging the same for an online course as one conducted on campus makes no sense since their value is not the same. However, by opening online courses to a larger market and pricing them lower, an institution could generate incremental revenue that could make on-campus tuition more affordable.

Promotion          Prospective students won’t convert to enrolled students unless they can learn about your offer. Marketing communications strategies need to align with that offer and the target audience. This should be reflected in your messaging and how you use different channels including public relations, social media, paid media, digital advertising, and branding to connect.

“The road to recovery lies through change and innovation,” higher education thought leader Ann Kirschner wrote recently on Forbes.com. Higher education is having a “survival of the fittest” moment. Institutions must adapt in order to survive and thrive. Those that can’t or won’t, will wind up like those Catskill resorts that kept rolling the same dice and hoping their luck would change.

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