JC Anderson Consulting

Changing the language of education

I recently returned from a week in San Francisco with a national nonprofit organization, Achieving the Dream, for their annual collaborative and learning event.

The convening, DREAM, brought together many of the most innovative thinkers, leaders, and practitioners in higher education. My work with ATD enabled me to attend plenaries and keynotes and special sessions led by college presidents, faculty, researchers, authors, and administrators who are on the leading edge of their work in higher education, specifically in community colleges. Among the many themes I heard throughout the convening, one came through more clearly—or perhaps more loudly—than the others: changing the language of education.

Dr. Tia Brown McNair, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Student Success at Association of American Colleges and Universities, facilitated a plenary panel of faculty to discuss their role in leading change. In her opening remarks, Dr. McNair urged the higher education community to “change our language,” specifically, to remove labels we place on individuals. For example, “at-risk” students are really underserved students, and shouldn’t be labeled as anything except “students.” Faculty, she argued, are “faculty.” Let’s not label them adjunct, or junior.

I came away from the discussion thinking about how to further adjust how we communicate to prospective students, to families of those students, to current students, and to faculty—removing labels and boxes into which we tend to place these individuals.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, Director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise and Professor of Higher Education at The Ohio State University, delivered a strong message of “our words matter.” He shared research and excepts from his books, underscoring the power of our words to help students truly believe that they “belong.” He talked a great deal about the need to “belong” and how that concept can and should be used at colleges and universities. He urged colleagues to “pay attention to the words on your website, because people pay attention to every word.” I thought about ways in which colleges and universities can use this motivating language to create the “sense of belonging,” both in words and in images, to draw prospective students closer to the institution, and to help them feel they “belong” there. It’s a strong argument for changing the language used in recruitment materials to create a sense of belonging, not just in words but also in images and the “feeling” that can be created in marketing materials, and to help students see themselves belonging, and succeeding there.

The final thread that tied this together for me were comments by Dr. Martha Kanter, Senior Fellow at the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University and former Under Secretary of U.S. Department of Education. She said “we need to change the language from calling education an expense, to calling education an investment. Having educated citizens will reduce costs, not increase them.”

And that was the key for me. That message of education as an investment is the right message. It will take time to create and disseminate strong and consistent messages across all communication channels in order for them to break through, but I believe that can, and will happen.

I am energized to work with my clients to move these ideas into action in their marketing and communication materials, to change, or turn, the language of how they communicate with prospective students, families, donors and funders, alumni, government officials, and others about education; about the value of education as an investment.

Because words matter.