Niche Marketing

4 January 2002

All the photos from my trip are up here and beyond, including the amusing dress shopping ones. In case you're curious.

I had a letter waiting for me from my old advisor from college, and he said he didn't believe J-term was long for this world. J-term, for those of you unfamiliar with this schedule, is also known as January-term, Interim, or 4-1-4 scheduling. It's a single month (January, logically enough) wherein you take (or teach, I suppose -- have to get my brain going that direction) a single class. Ideally, J-term is good for in-depth study, and that was true of the Nuclear Physics class I took in it. Guess how many people took Nuke in J-term? Two. And one of them was a foreign exchange student.

In reality, J-term is used as a time to goof around (while fulfilling one or more distribution requirements, ideally). People have competitions over who has gotten into the most "cake" J-term. J-terms that meet from 1-4 in the afternoon are especially popular.

So there's a problem here. The idea of J-term and the reality of J-term are quite, quite different. But I think the problem is bigger than that. I think it's one of a failure of niche marketing.

Here's the deal. How many colleges are there in this country? Thousands. Very, very many. And how many different sets of college-related goals are there in this country? Also very, very many. At a trivial stage, you could claim that there are as many as there are college students, but I think that's pushing it. People can be grouped. There are the people who want a vocational education for a specific profession. The people who want a classical liberal arts education (more about which in a minute). The people who want to prepare for grad school and a lifetime of in-depth study of a field. The people who want a one-way ticket to the middle class. The people who don't know what else to do with the next four years. The people who are looking for a spouse. The people who are looking for a good party. There's some overlap, of course -- people who want engineering degrees as a one-way ticket to the middle class, for example.

Thing is, you can find all of these types of people at most colleges and universities. You can find them all in the same classroom, more often than not. There are some institutions that manage to avoid this -- institutes of technology, for example, tend to be focused in on people who want to learn science and engineering; conservatories are for people who want to learn music. But for many small colleges and large universities alike, people are jumbled together into groups with goals that are not only separate but in direct opposition to each other.

And they're doing it on purpose. They're trying to market their college to everybody above a certain ability level as evidenced by high school grades and SAT scores. Sure, you want people in your college classes who are capable of reading the texts and extracting meaning from them, but there's more to it than that. We have enough colleges. If they would specialize a little more in the philosophy they take to the classroom, it might take awhile, but everyone could walk away happier.

Of course, many parents don't want to admit that their kids are in college because they don't know what else to do with their lives. Some of them don't want to foot the bill for four years of self-discovery, or spouse-discovery, or whatever. But they're doing it anyway now.

I guess I feel that college itself should really be for a niche market. The liberal arts ideal, of having everybody educated in a wide variety of fields, is appealing, but I'm pretty adamantly opposed to educating people who don't want to be educated. And it seems that the vast majority of people don't care about Classics, don't care about Russian history or English lit or astronomy or anything like that. And if that's the case...well...what are they doing in college? If you don't care about any of the classes, why take them? Yes, I know -- our current system is set up so that corporations look for "BA" or "BS" after a name. But it shouldn't be, for most jobs. Some jobs, sure, but most of them? Not at all related. Just a hoop to jump through. Just stop now.

(I do believe in the value of the old liberal arts ideal. I think that there is value in studying a wide variety of topics. But it's a relative value -- relative to the person doing the studying. It's not something that one has to have in order to be a worthwhile human being, or a good friend, spouse, or family member, or good at most jobs, or....)

Some niche marketing has really taken off, but it seems that some of it has been totally forgotten recently. A lot of movie producers and directors, for example, want to go for the big-budget mass-market movie, rather than using a more modest budget to make a movie that's well-targeted. There are counter-trends, of course -- the move towards genres in fiction is one, and the same move more recently in music is another. But the idea of everybody liking and using a product or service is too seductive for many companies to resist. And the same is true of organizations that don't tend to think of themselves as companies -- churches and schools, for example. Why copy what someone else in the area is doing? People who want that can go there. Offer something different. Play to the people who aren't satisfied with what's already going on.

Ah well. One could hope. Instead, in this particular case, J-term will probably die because the professors are looking at the course offerings and realizing that they don't have much curricular value as things stand. And that's really a shame.

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