Are We Abercrombie or AE?

karenAlthough the years of dragging surly teenage boys through the mall in search of clothes are long past at our house, I read with interest several recent web stories about the fortunes of traditional teen haberdashers American Eagle Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. Market experts have analyzed why AE’s profits are rising, while Abercrombie’s ship may be sinking. Maybe we can learn some lessons for our college and our classroom from their stories.

Marketwatch’s Andrea Cheng quotes Wunderlich Securities analyst Stephen Beder:

American Eagle “has refocused on their core of denim and solid price and value…”

Our community college is undeniably focusing on offering a “core” of education at a solid price and value. I try to adopt those values in my class as well. I help students identify the critical competencies and learning objectives in A&P, providing experiences within and outside of class that deliver maximum results for time spent. Just as a consumer may decide that an inexpensive but poorly made garment is no bargain, my students might decide that what I’m offering is not worth their time “cost.” I want them to know they’re getting a good deal.220px-American_Eagle_Outfitters

Bryan Bove, writing in examiner.com, notes that AE has embellished its traditional core of “must-haves” with a variety of interesting accessories, including a variety of shoes. He also notes:

“What is surprising is American Eagle’s dandy-inspired accessories. A fedora, soft woven cotton scarves, and several bow ties are featured in their fall line”

Our college offers a solid core of traditional courses, but students may choose from a wide variety of “accessories” that allow them to explore new ideas or customize their education to meet their career goals. Everyone takes a solid core of general education courses (denim and button-downs?), but “accessories” include everything from jazz to criminal justice to computer-aided drafting.

abercrombie-and-fitchA valuable lesson this battle of the brands can teach is the importance of attitude. Warning: don’t take a sip of coffee or a bite of anything before reading this quote from a 2006 Salon interview with Abrercrombie CEO Michael Jeffries:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong (in our clothes), and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Spew-worthy, no?

Our school is deeply committed to its open access mission, in stark contrast to Jeffries’ cool-kids-only approach. The ugliness of  Jeffries’ attitude must not invade my own classes, either. To be sure, academic “cool kids,” the ones who come with superior ability, well-developed study skills, and good educational background should find a satisfying challenge in my course. But I also want the academically “not-so-cool kids” to feel welcome and valued. These are the students that I need to outfit in some real educational denim. I want them to feel that they belong. And who knows? Some of them may be up for the scholastic equivalent of AE’s “dandy-inspired accessories,” like tackling more complex topics and enrolling in higher-level classes.

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