An all-American aspiration meets the Big Reversal

Signs that the “sure thing” status of college as usual is eroding

May 7, 2012 – Digit #9

Last week’s New York Times headline struck us as part of a much larger, developing story:  “Harvard and MIT team up to offer free online courses.”  The program, called edX, is designed to offer the learning and a certificate of a Harvard/MIT education but not the credit and traditional diploma. called it “just the beginning” of “the bursting of the education bubble.”

The new plan may be the institutional reverberation of Gen Y and Gen X voices we’re hearing in SCANlabs around the country:

Taking on the debt to go to law school in this economy—I just don’t feel it’s cost effective, so it’s something I maybe want to put off for a few years.”

“It’s extremely hard financially. I went into a career knowing I wasn’t going to make a lot of money, and then you get stuck with all the school loans, and you need to go back to school to make the money you want to make, and that’s more loans you have to pay. So it’s a setback definitely.”

“Signing that student contract for that loan—that’s a huge risk—you could spend a ton of money and then nothing works out and you just spent that money and that’s not going away…”

“I invested time and money in getting my masters and now I’m raising my kids… it feels like that investment was a waste.

Gen Y and Gen X SCANlabs 2012

Since the Great Recession, the American consumer has been questioning every expenditure from clothing to vacations to cars. That fundamental change in how we think about spending is powerful enough that it’s re-ordering how we think about the long-accepted givens of the American Dream – home ownership, attending college (and graduating with a diploma from the best possible school). We call this major shift in consumer motivation and behavior The Big Reversal.

With the new consumer calculation affecting how we look at our cultural underpinnings and aspirations, it’s a clear sign that when we fully bounce back from the economic implosion we aren’t likely to land in the same place.

Business Implications: If consumers are willing to re-think the very fundamentals of the American Dream, you can be sure they’re willing to analyze your brand under the microscope of constraints first, wants second. More than ever, brands have to pass the “sure thing” threshold to succeed in the era of The Big Reversal.

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