“Are we worth it?” It’s one of the toughest questions colleges and universities must ask themselves.

The time to answer and address that question is now. The challenge of paying for college will only increase for parents and students in the coming years. Children born today will pay an estimated $157,000 for a bachelor’s degree at a four-year public college or university – and $355,000 at a private institution.

That’s according to a new report by SavingForCollege.com. The numbers caught my eye in an article in Financial Advisor where, interestingly enough, the key takeaway wasn’t really those jaw-dropping sums.

Instead, the author emphasized that many U.S. families should set less ambitious goals for college savings. Funding all of a child’s college education – or even half – is simply unrealistic for most families. A more realistic goal is 25 to 33 percent.

To meet that goal, a family opening a 529 plan today would need to save $110 per month (for a public education) or $250 (for a private one).

That’s 18 years of significant saving and only a fraction of the investment required.

These numbers should light a fire under the teams responsible for branding and marketing at colleges and universities.

Schools need strong, differentiating brands that inspire students and families to navigate the financial roadblocks.Click To Tweet

Schools need strong, differentiating brands that inspire students and families to navigate the financial roadblocks. And, their marketing should find inspiration in consumer product marketing, with an eye to quality, user experience and long-term resale value. It’s never been more important to demonstrate the return on an investment.

Schools already face a skeptical, consumer-driven and financially-stressed marketplace – and it likely won’t get better with time. The colleges and universities that find opportunities to refresh and reposition themselves today will fare better in the years ahead.

For more insights on communications and brand strategy, industry trends and more, subscribe today to the Weekly Buzz here.