For years, institutions of higher education haven’t had to work too hard to meet enrollment goals; the students were just always there. But with declining birth rates, a student debt crisis in the trillions and a plethora of free online learning resources, universities are competing for fewer overall students.
Companies like Apple and Netflix are no longer requiring college degrees of their applicants, and this trend only threatens to accelerate in the 2020s. Make no mistake, colleges and universities aren’t going anywhere any time soon, but as the industry begins to grapple with the sea change of a smaller overall applicant pool, marketing tactics are coming into focus to help stem the tide. Marketers will have to call upon old tricks and new as universities scramble to rethink how they communicate the value of their institutions, and the value of a college degree, all over again.
A Changing Academic Landscape
The reasons for the decline in student enrollment are many, but the fact remains that for the eighth year in a row, college enrollment is down. U.S. News and World Report, which publishes the most well-known college rankings, estimates that while more elite, top-50 institutions won’t feel the squeeze as much, regional four-year universities are poised to lose as much as 11 percent of their students by 2029.
In his book “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” researcher Nathan D. Grawe attributes most of this decline to psychological scars that can be traced back to the Great Recession, when birth rates dropped precipitously, have yet to rebound, and are still in fact falling. According to Grawe, fewer births means fewer prospective students, and therefore lower demand for colleges and universities down the line; the ramifications of which are already being felt.
Other factors contributing to the decline include an increase in tuition costs of almost 400 percent since 1990, well surpassing the rate of inflation over the same period. Even with low unemployment and a strong labor market, wages have not grown in a commensurate manner. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans have about the same purchasing power now as they did 40 years ago. Higher tuition costs combined with stagnating wages have led to a student loan crisis amounting to more than $1.5 trillion and growing.
The prospect of taking on that much debt has a lot of prospective students thinking twice about the value of a four-year degree. Indeed, while college graduates still make overwhelmingly more than their counterparts with a high school diploma, the income gap between the two groups was largely unchanged between 2010-2015, after an intense period of growth in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Strategy 1: Understand Why Students Choose You
Taken as a whole, these problems cannot be solved by marketing alone. But as institutions of higher education begin to formulate plans to combat these wider industry trends, marketing and messaging will have a bigger role than ever in determining whether these efforts are successful.
To this effect, higher ed marketers must first understand what drives college choice in order to better craft their messages. According to a 2017 report by Eduventures, 80 percent of students surveyed cited one of the seven following factors in determining what school to attend: affordability, availability of a desired program, reputation/academic quality, career outcomes/job opportunities, value of education for cost, feeling of fit, and proximity to home.
The research found that 24 percent of students who decided to attend an in-state public institution cited affordability as a key determining factor, whereas students who choose private institutions most often cited reputation/academic quality as the most important factor.
Of those who cited affordability as a primary factor, a discussion with parents/family was one of the key elements in making that determination. This represents an important opportunity for marketers who can target this dynamic via a family-focused strategy. Such as strategy could include more student/parent events and marketing campaigns zeroing in on costs and financial aid opportunities, which might be effective in convincing this segment.
A misconception that public university marketing teams can address is the notion that affordability means a “cheaper” or lower quality experience. By creating campaigns touting academic reputation and targeting parents of high-school aged children, marketers can influence this assumption while intriguing students from families with more means, who may be basing their decisions on academic reputation.
Private institutions on the other hand should focus on perceptions of unaffordability that could limit their ability to attract students from lower-income backgrounds, students who are often minorities.
By better understanding the factors that go into college choice, marketing teams can better hone their messages to close the deal with students in the lower end of the admissions funnel who may just need a little push before making their final decision.
One final note from the Eduventures report: aside from those students who cited affordability as the number one factor, all other segments ranked social environment and physical location about as high as any other determining factor, meaning there is a big opportunity to differentiate schools based on this.
Strategy 2: Keep It Social… Media, That Is
In what is probably news to exactly no one, social media plays a big role in a modern prospective student’s choice of institution. But how big a role exactly? And when in their decision process are students considering a university’s social presence?
According to the “2017 Social Admissions Report,” developed by Chegg, Target X, and the National Research Center for College & University Admissions, 43 percent of students surveyed indicated that they were using social media to research colleges at least once a week, with up to 16 percent indicating that they use it multiple times a day for that purpose.
The top three social platforms used for researching schools were Snapchat, Youtube and Instagram. Students turn to social media to research schools that they are already considering, so social presence won’t necessarily help students discover your brand, but it will help them make their decision.
In terms of type of content consumed, 40 percent reported watching a university-produced video within the past week of being surveyed, and 20 percent had watched a video produced by a current student. Video is a key medium to focus on in marketing communications and universities should consider a robust video content campaign targeting prospective students if they haven’t already.
While a large percentage of students leverage social media presence in their decision-making process, only 1 in 4 found content on social media accounts that they considered relevant to them. What content are they looking for?
Prospective students engaged more with “private good” content depicting the student journey, friends, campus life on Facebook and Instagram, as opposed to “public good,” which would be marketing depicting learning, research, faculty projects, career placement, etc. For the sake of enrollment, research shows that higher ed marketers should make sure there is plenty of content depicting student life on their social channels, if they haven’t already. Virtual campus tours and Facebook Live have also been shown to have a significant and positive impact on student recruitment, as does student-generated content.
Strategy 3: Make It Personal
Today’s prospective student expects to be catered to, and as enrollment rates drop, universities will have to go out of their way to create a personalized experience to attract prospects. More than 80 percent of all seniors, juniors, and sophomores are happy to receive texts from universities, however only about 50 percent of juniors have been contacted.
More than 55 percent of juniors and sophomores also prefer websites that offer personalization, the idea of creating customized experiences for every visitor of the site. ”Hello, _name_,” in the upper right hand corner, for instance, is one example. Other examples of personalized marketing include custom videos, targeted emails, and an active and responsive social media team.
Social is big, but the institutional homepage still remains king in terms of being the channel that is most influential for decision-making purposes, with 70 percent of prospective students saying they would use the main site to do research on the university.
Getting an advisor involved as soon as possible can also create a personalized, student-first experience by making sure your students are supported academically every step of the way. Research indicates that graduation rates improve the more times students see advisors, and mandatory advising is already a mainstay at many universities. Better graduation and retention rates not only mean more student success, they also means more revenue, and in the case of many state schools with performance-based budgets, a bigger piece of the state funding pie.
Putting It All Together
Higher education as a whole is near an inflection point where it will have to come to grips with the reality of a smaller applicant pool and increased competition between institutions for students.
Higher ed marketing teams are going to have their work cut out for them to stem the tide and create meaningful engagements with students that lead to enrollment. By taking a data-driven approach to understanding why students choose one institution over another; by deploying resources toward social media management and content creation teams; and by packaging it all in a highly personalized, seamless experience, marketers can do their best to make sure that their college or university is as prepared as it can be to meet these threats head on and compete in the higher ed marketplace of 2020, 2025 and beyond.