Higher Education Marketing: Why are 98% of Colleges Missing the Largest Growth in 40 Years?

According to research, 2% of colleges and universities are accommodating half of the recent enrollment boom. Why aren’t more colleges and universities getting their piece of the “increased enrollment” pie?

According to a report released in June 2010 by the Pew Research Center, college enrollment grew 6% between 2007 and 2008, the most recent data available.  Certainly the type of school and the beginning of the recession impacted this growth rate, and it is predicted that when new statistics are available, a strong trend will continue through 2009 and into 2010.

So for college and universities, this is a dream!  A natural increase in enrollment, driven not by the expense of marketing and advertising, but the fact that for graduating high school seniors, job shortages are pushing them to work on their degree while waiting for the job market to rebound.

But wait just a minute.  The Pew Research Center report goes on to explain “half of the total increase in freshman enrollment occurred at just 109 colleges and universities out of nearly 6,100… less than 2% of the nation’s colleges and universities accommodated half of the enrollment boom.*.”

Hmmm.  So what do the 2% of colleges know that the other 98% haven’t figured out yet? That makes me think that enrollment gains may, in fact, be driven by marketing.  Back to the basic 4 P’s of marketing:  Product, Place, Price, and Promotion.  The Pew Research Center’s report supports that Product, Place and Price are playing a role.  Those universities are paying attention to market trends, and listening to what today’s students need, are more likely to see enrollment gains.

That leads us to Promotion.  As a marketer, I’m always curious to understand the role promotion and advertising plays in driving growth and more importantly, how marketing evolves to drive this growth.  I would fathom a guess that one of the reasons 98% of colleges and universities have not fully capitalized on an industry growth rate of 6%, is that their go to market strategy has not changed fast enough.  In any industry where there is a consistent, annual pattern such as a school year, it is easy to fall into a planning cycle that only interjects new ideas once a year.  Testing is limited to this annual cycle. Higher education marketers become complacent because deviating too far from what we did last year seems too risky.

So what’s the solution for colleges and universities?

In my experience, here are a few key “game-changers” in the higher education space:

  • First, listen and let the prospective student’s guide your higher ed marketing.  This includes taking into account changes in the make-up of the student body.  Minority enrollment is the fastest growing student population.
  • Find marketing solutions that are fast and easy to deploy, track and measure.  This allows you to continually try new things throughout the year.
  • Allow individual departments and admissions advisors to contribute to the idea generation process.  Then quickly implement some of their suggestions.  You’ll have their buy-in and efforts behind the test initiatives.  That good ‘ole sales and marketing working together applies to higher ed too.
  • Make sure your testing includes multiple channelsto understand not only what gets you noticed, but what leads to the almighty enrollment.

Finally, here’s one last piece of information that may be helpful.  Selecting a college or university has as much to do with individual interests, as the school as a whole.  Lead nurturing campaigns that feature amenities and specific departments of interest make a more personal impression.  (Here’s a link to a Case Study that outlines the problem and solution implemented by one university.

Avila University’s small change in their approach to marketing created an immediate impact on the relevancy and timing of their marketing by adding a personal touch to recruitment efforts.  Maybe it’s the first step to getting more colleges their piece of the “increased enrollment” pie.

Editor’s Note: Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project provided the statistical information utilized in this article. Freshman enrollment at the nation’s 6,100 post-secondary institutions surged by 144,000 students from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2008.

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