The average annual college tuition for a four-year private university is $29,056, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Columbia University has the highest price tag, at more than $49K. The average Columbia professor earns a princely $212,300 per annum.

The skyrocketing costs of a college degree have forced many schools to justify their cost-benefit ratio with increasingly sophisticated branding and marketing campaigns. In the first half of 2013, colleges and universities spent $570.5 million on paid advertising. What messages are schools sending to attract students? How effectively are they delivering on their brand promise through their website experience? I took a crash course to find out.

Summa Cum Cash

I started at the top, by examining America’s priciest campus: Columbia University. Surprisingly, the school doesn’t have a tagline. But its logo is worth a million words (or dollars, in this case). It’s a king’s crown! Ouch. Talk about reinforcing a negative stereotype.

The website experience is what I’d expect from an Ivy League school: proud, pedantic, and professional. But there’s no attempt made to explain the cost/benefit ratio or any focus whatsoever on post-graduate job placement success. I’d grade Columbia’s high-brow attempts at communicating value with a gentleman’s C.

I next visited the website of Ball State University. I was interested in Ball State because it claims to offer "…the only PR master’s program certified by the Public Relations Society of America." I’m a PR guy, so that got my attention. I’m pleased to say that BSU’s website experience delivered on its "Education Redefined" tagline. In fact, the school tells its story through the eyes of a successful graduate, Colleen Bormann (who redefined her career path thanks to the Ball State education). BSU didn’t have to sell me on its cost/benefit ratio. One of its graduates did. That’s no b.s., just smart marketing.

Mercy, Mercy Me

Mercy College startled me with a banner ad that I spied during my morning commute. It read, "Surprise yourself." The copy that followed read, "Who will you be in one year? Let’s find out." Considering the sky-high costs of post graduate degrees, I guessed the answer would be: "Deep in debt and, thanks to a degree from an unknown school, still vainly searching for a job."

The Mercy College website is interesting but, unlike Ball State’s, it doesn’t address job placement. There is a very interesting program called PACT (Personalized Achievement Contracts) that pairs students with mentors, but it focuses solely on enriching the student’s college career and not on finding a relevant job after graduation. Mercy surprised me by not explaining its surprise.

The Fighting Jobseekers

The University of Notre Dame’s tagline is: "Fighting." In a world in which school violence is the norm, I found the slogan to be frightening.

ND’s website old me the Fighting Irish are, in fact, fighting to help the sick, fighting for education, and fighting for the ethical use of technology. The only thing the Fighting Irish don’t seem to be fighting for is post-graduate careers for its students. I’m guessing one needs the luck of the Irish to pay off student loans long after leaving the hallowed South Bend campus.

Another Catholic school, Seton Hall University, does a far better job of explaining its cost-benefit ratio. SHU’s tagline is, "This way up." I love double entendres in taglines, especially ones that ring true. And this one does.

The website contains a link to a YouTube video that explains the many ways in which a student can reach higher highs (legal ones, of course). And, in a Q&A, Dean Joyce Strawser not only explains what differentiates a Seton Hall MBA from the competition, she also provides an example of a career path in sports management. It’s not quite as compelling as Ball State’s first person student success story, but it works well nonetheless.

It’s ironic that so many colleges and universities struggle to communicate the single biggest issue facing prospective students, and more poignantly, their parents: justifying the huge investment needed to attend our nation’s institutions of higher learning. It’s even more ironic that tiny Ball State provides a far more compelling ROI story than does world-class Columbia. You’d think an Ivy Leaguer would know better.