Facing declining enrollments due to changing demographics and societal factors, many higher education institutions are engaging in marketing practices that don’t make sense.  Instead, institutions should consider embracing marketing strategies that are based on informal and formal market research. Developing these strategies should include reviewing current messages, crafting new messages, and reallocating resources from ineffective marketing efforts to promising pilot programs.

Changing the Paradigm

Higher education marketing departments get a bad rap because many don’t have marketing experience that corporations or other industries have. However, the majority of higher education’s marketing issues are not due to failures of the marketing department. Instead, these issues are due to the institution’s inability to identify the type of students who enroll, the reasons why they come to the institution and why are they successful.

Research tells us that most current students enroll in an institution within a 40-mile radius of their home so they can be a commuter student. An example of this is Aurora University outside of Chicago. Instead of thinking about how to market to more students from a wider geographic location to fill up dorms, Aurora realized it needed to meet the needs of commuter students who want to complete their degree program quickly at a very low price. The institution is trying to attract more of these types of students by offering top-quality programs attractive to commuter students. In addition, institutional leaders realize this approach may mean that some dorms may need to close.

Refining Marketing Efforts

Most institutions are trying to be “all things to all people” through casting a wide net for students, but this approach waters down the marketing message because the institution generally is not clear about what they offer–and do not offer—to prospective students.

Smart institutions are realizing that they have to stop this, and they are becoming more targeted in their marketing efforts.  This leads to greater efficiency and more cost-effective marketing.  They increasingly are able to recognize who their target market is and then use that information to attract those types of students.

These institutions look at the students who enroll and complete their degree programs in order to analyze several factors:

  • Who are these students?
  • What do they look like?
  • What do they want?
  • Why are they coming to the institution?
  • Why are they successful?

 

Institutions then can use this information to craft marketing messages to attract more of these types of students.

Market Research

Institutions that take a blanket marketing approach (instead of a targeted personalized marketing approach) create a tremendous amount of institutional waste. The vast majority of institutions don’t have a large budget for formal market research, and consequently don’t do the positioning and differentiation that’s important in marketing. Fortunately, College Board and ACT have resources and data to identify where an institution’s students are coming from and how to reach those students.

Informal market research can be helpful too, especially through anecdotal information such as feedback from current students. Conversations such as these can provide rich data and are supplemented by having similar conversations with faculty, staff and alumni, and will help institutions craft their messages on how they can differentiate themselves from competitors, as well as identify gaps in the university’s marketing materials.

Finding New Avenues

One area that is ripe for plucking is that many students do not have the realization that their career will require a lot of work on projects that have a messy start and require continual refinements until project completion. This has huge marketing implications. Institutions can highlight the number of students enrolled and educational outcomes, as well as the programs that help students be successful. This makes the degree worth it, thus offsetting questions about the value of a college degree, and can differentiate the institution from its competitors.

Furthermore, it’s important for higher education institutions to look at today’s markets to identify what students want and then develop plans for how to offer these types of programs. For example, the traditional MBA program in which people take time off from their jobs to pursue this graduate degree is no longer working for many people, and consequently, the number of traditional MBA programs is declining. Aurora University has developed a plus-one program in which students who have completed their undergraduate degree can complete an extra year of business coursework, including an internship, to earn an MBA, thus helping students become more marketable. 

Some institutions (Cal State San Marcos) are offering undergrad seniors practical work experience through a serious work project (vs. a fluff internship). These experiences give college seniors a chance to earn course credit by working as part of a team on a real-world project for a local business or non-profit, and they gain direct experience in their major and makes them more attractive to employers.

Stacked credentials also make a lot of sense. In addition, some institutions are marketing credentials to businesses so that the businesses will pay for their employees to return to school. There’s a large market for higher education institutions to help businesses, which in turns balances higher education’s revenue streams. It also helps train people and creates a pipeline for high-demand jobs, such as coding and cybersecurity. However, because institutional accreditation can limit the flexibility in creating those types of mini-courses, it’s important to identify how to shift the higher education paradigm to become more nimble.

Three Tips for Higher Education Leaders

Three pieces of advice for higher education leaders:

  • Do market research. At the very least, talk to students and recent graduates, faculty and staff to get a solid understanding of who you are.
  • Craft marketing messages to reach prospective students who want what you’re really offering.
  • Give your marketing department the freedom to stop doing some things that aren’t working. This will free up some dollars to pilot new marketing efforts that will help the institution personalize and target the right students.

Bullet Points

  • Higher education institutions need to do a better job of identifying who their ideal students are and then developing marketing strategies to reach those prospective students.
  • Casting a wide net for students is an inefficient and costly approach, especially during a time when enrollments are declining and funds are limited. Therefore, institutions should review marketing efforts to determine what truly works to increase enrollments (and what doesn’t work). This analysis can help institutions build efficiency by refocusing marketing efforts.
  • Market research is important. However, a formal market research effort – which can be costly – is not required. Informal marketing research can be conducted through having conversations with students, faculty, staff and graduates.
  • Creating new programs that meet prospective students’ needs can make marketing more efficient.

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