Higher Education is Changing. Here’s How University Marketers Can Keep Up.

After more than 350 years of the current model of higher education, established by Harvard as the first U.S. college in 1636, the industry is finally changing dramatically. In fact, it will likely be unrecognizable within 25 years with the advent of online education, higher emphasis on adult and continuing programs, and increased competition. In order to adapt to this rapid change, higher education marketing teams need to dramatically change, and play a much more significant and vocal role in the school’s student acquisition programs.

Thomas Friedman, in Thank you for Being Late, talks about the speed at which the technology and socio-political landscape is changing. He posits that the current rate of change has fundamentally outpaced our systems (laws, patents, education) and that the future education industry will not be a ‘once and done’ model, but rather one of continuous learning and changing (think of education as a “subscription model”). While this is clearly a vision for the future, there are many disruptions and changes impacting institutions of higher education today.

The WEVO team has hosted a series of dinner talks with higher education marketers across the U.S. The following are observations of the challenges and opportunities these marketers are facing.

Competition Is Changing

In the past, most schools knew their competition, and that competition was the same over time. Each school had their “swim lane.” CalTech, Carnegie Mellon and MIT laid claim to the top spots in technology schools. Harvard and other ivy league and elite liberal arts schools, such as Amherst and Williams claimed the top liberal arts mantel. Others competed based on their best speciality programs or specific geographic pools of prospective students.

This system of competition has now changed. Schools are facing competition that is new and different. Some schools are competing with schools that are entering their geography with satellite campuses (for example, Boston’s Northeastern University has expanded to Seattle to take advantage of the Amazon and Microsoft technology ecosystem). Others are facing competition from large prestigious schools offering online programs to students not just nationally, but globally. The world is also coming to us, with international powerhouse schools looking to gain U.S. students via online programs.

Student Engagement Is Changing

In the past, the majority of prospective students would visit a campus to check out schools and see which is their best fit. The set of schools they visited were based on guidance from their college counselors, including their desired geography, area of study and current academic and extracurricular performance. Today, we are hearing that students may never visit your campus before making a decisions, therefore changing the entire recruitment engagement plan that schools have used in the past.

Because so many schools are marketing themselves and reaching out beyond their traditional student set, the old paradigm has shifted: instead of students engaging with schools, schools need to both find and engage their students.

Student Expectations Are Changing

Today’s student is much more aware of the value (and in some cases, lack of value) of a college education. Given the huge increase in tuition prices over the last 25 years, many perceive schools differently than their parents may have. They evaluate schools as much on the future potential of their education, as they do on the traditional criteria of location, campus appeal, dorms, and culture. Many are deciding to forgo attending traditional schools and instead are looking to combine working and learning, either via programs that offer online education and/or via mixed programs where they can pursue their career and academic development simultaneously.

Higher Ed Need to Up Their Marketing Game

We have been privileged to speak with and support institutions who have embraced these changes and have already drastically evolved in both the delivery of their education and the ways they are reaching and engaging students. However, there are still many that don’t recognize the implications of these changes, even if they see them coming, and will likely not be competitive in the future.

Higher education marketing teams that are staying competitive are:

  1. Hiring marketers from outside higher education: Some leading schools are bringing in experts from non-education companies that are leaders in new marketing practices. Digital and data-driven marketing are well established in many industries and companies over the years, so these marketing experts provide a jumpstart to institutions who don’t yet have these skills.
  2. Not afraid of the words “sales and marketing”: We hear from marketers that many school administrators still don’t think of their students as “customers” or their enrollment programs as “sales” and are reticent about using or even thinking in those terms. The schools who “get it” are using leading practices in digital marketing, such as lead scoring, CRM engagement planning, digital campaigns and website optimization, to attract and close the best students. In addition, these schools are taking the time to understand their prospective students, such as, who they are, what they have in common, who is most likely to be successful and more.
  3. Thinking of marketing as measurable: Leading institutions have embraced the fact that marketing is a data science, and that there are many tools and steps needed to measure and test hypotheses and results. These institutions have made the necessary investment in these tools and have set multi-year goals that reflect building the data foundation that will allow the marketing team to excel. The top metrics are also the metrics that university leadership reviews.
  4. Understanding their prospective customer and using that knowledge: In the past, prospective student relationships and education was owned by admissions, however, that has no changed. A school’s website and subsequent engagement marketing may be the only relationship that a school has with prospective students. Leading schools are recognizing this online relationship is critical to engaging in new ways with students along the path to enrollment, even if the path is entirely digital.
  5. Taking a marketing seat at the table. The institutions leading the charge to this new model have close relationships between senior leadership and marketing, and the CMO has a place at the leadership table. Many schools who are behind the curve have leadership who still think that marketing is about brochures and have not connected the deep link between marketing and enrollment.

How are you handling the changes that are either already here or on their way to your institution? Contact us to discuss.

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