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Can Marketing Save Falling University Enrollment Rates?

Can Marketing Save Falling University Enrollment Rates?

Hal Conick

out of state lead

Experts predict that university enrollment numbers will stagnate. Here’s how marketers are coming to the rescue.

Each new school year, the same boastful platitude rings out across American universities: “The largest class ever!” The campus cliché may be warranted. In fall 2017, 20.4 million people enrolled in colleges or universities, per the National Center for Education Statistics, which is equivalent to 6.2% of the American population. This was an increase of 5.1 million students from the fall of 2000.

However, the safety in numbers and clichés may be in danger. Public and private high school class sizes are stagnating, leaving university enrollment poised to drop. 

Amir Rasool, managing content director of higher education at Hanover Research, says enrollment numbers are predicted to be flat or decreasing over the next 15 years, save for an uptick in 2023. And universities can’t only worry about the future: Estimates from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show that enrollment was down 1.5% from spring 2016 to spring 2017 at U.S. institutions. When pulling back to 2015, nationwide enrollment is down 2.9%—a loss of more than 500,000 students.   


“We typically find that when the economy is faring poorly, enrollments go up,” Rasool says. “We saw this most recently in response to the 2008 recession. Conversely, when the economy is thriving and jobs are more plentiful, enrollments tend to fall.”

Each region will feel the enrollment drop differently as student populations change, Rasool says. For example, the Northeast and Midwest will likely see drops in enrollment, while the South and West may see increases. The Northeast, he says, may be most affected because of its greater concentration of higher-education institutions and a projected drop in student population. National predictions don’t tell the whole story; each university needs to do its own math on how to fill seats. 

How universities will solve that math will differ by institution. Hanover Research’s 2017 Industry Trend Report for Higher Education found that universities will attempt to redress the enrollment problem through tuition fee review and discounting, reviewing the university’s portfolio and recruiting out-of-state students. That third option appears to be the de facto formula for many universities.  

Schools winning over out-of-state students is a popular option because it’s the easiest way to address the enrollment—and therefore revenue—crisis. Each year students pay billions of dollars in tuition, and universities can’t afford to lose that revenue, especially as threats of diminished education funding loom at both state and federal levels. If tuition isn’t the raison d’être of a university’s business, it’s close. 

David Burge, George Mason University’s vice president for enrollment management, says private universities have regarded enrollment numbers as dollar signs for years, but the notion is a recent revelation—perhaps 10 to 15 years old—for public institutions. Winning new students is now “core to the work” of all universities, Burge says. 

This renewed focus on enrollment falls heavily on the shoulders of university advertising and marketing departments. The proof is in the ballooning budgets: A report from Educational Marketing Group and Kantar Media found that advertising spending at universities grew 22% from 2013 to 2016. However, as Rob Zinkan, associate vice president of marketing at Indiana University, wrote in a piece for Inside Higher Ed, outspending the competition isn’t a viable advertising strategy by itself

Instead of using blunt-force spending, university marketers must use guile, creativity and a bevy of marketing tools. Here’s what some successful university marketers have done to keep enrollment high. 

Know Your Geography

Before marketers reach out to students on the other side of the country, universities should be sure they have a need unmet in their own backyard. For example, Zinkan is still able to comfortably lean on bromides, saying that Indiana University Bloomington has a “record-setting class” of incoming students, 70% of whom are from Indiana. While this doesn’t mean Indiana can stop worrying about its enrollment rates, Zinkan says the numbers have allowed the university to divvy up its marketing budget “fairly evenly” between in-state and out-of-state students.

Despite the national trends, George Mason’s Burge says his university has seen an uptick of high school graduates in parts of Virginia. However, the university is forecasting a “substantial decline” of students within 10 to 15 years. This decline shows why each university must understand its own market, Burge says, as a local enrollment rate may be high this year and desiccated the next. 

Data and Measurement 

The University of Alabama is one of the success stories of out-of-state student recruiting. In the past decade, Alabama’s attention to data seems to have paid off: In fall 2006, 15,761 students applied to Alabama; in fall 2017, there were 43,693 applications, a 177.2% increase. Approximately 5,000 students from this year’s freshmen class of 7,407 were from outside of Alabama, says Linda Bonnin, vice president of the University of Alabama’s Division of Strategic Communications, who joined Alabama in 2015.

 Data and measurement have played big roles, Bonnin says. About 15 years ago, Alabama executives noticed a decreasing number of in-state students and started digging into the data. What the school found was clear: If the school was to create a sustainable model, officials needed to aggressively recruit out-of-state students.   

“We know exactly how we can drill down to high schools and determine what the plausibility is of students from that high school choosing the University of Alabama,” Bonnin says. “It can get quite specific in the data. And to me, that’s what’s exciting. It’s not a guessing game. You can determine that you know the viability of being successful with a particular market.”

At George Mason University, Burge says data and segmentation have played a similar role in building “the largest freshman class” ever this year. Approximately a quarter of the new class, 753 students, were from outside of Virginia in 2017, up from 626 out-of-state students in 2013. 

“We expanded our marketing operational capacity to allow us to segment communications and we thought critically about how we identify students in the college selection process,” Burge says. Data is especially important for George Mason, as the school has a growth aspiration of 100,000 career-ready graduates over a 10-year-period. Burge says the school uses metrics to review potential student conversion from lead to application, application to admission offer and admission offer to attendance. 

“We begin each year with very specific targets of new student enrollment, which we have arrived at through a backwards calculation of the number of graduates that we want to achieve over time,” Burge says. “We then break that down by market.”

By this point, Burge’s team can figure out which students should come from Virginia and how many students need to be recruited elsewhere. 

Arriving in the Digital Age 

Before Bonnin arrived at the University of Alabama in 2015, the school was “not in the digital age.” This had to change, she says, as digital marketing is essential to win over the generation aptly referred to by some as the iGeneration. “They have everything in the palm of their hand, so the more you can put in the palm of their hand the better,” she says.

Now, Alabama has joined the digital age, and digital marketing is the most impactful piece of Alabama’s marketing plan, giving the school a tool that is both effective and inexpensive, Bonnin says. Alabama has tried social media ads, geotargeting, retargeting, rooftop targeting, geofencing and “every other kind of targeting you can think of,” Bonnin says. These tools can track ROI to show universities what is working and what to scrap.  

“You can adjust it as you need to, based on what you’re learning from the metrics,” Bonnin says. 

Adding a Personal Touch

No matter how important digital marketing is, students won’t be won over by e-mail and retargeting alone. A personal touch is needed, Bonnin says, and Alabama reaches out with receptions held across the country. These personal touches need to be “50-50” with digital marketing, she says, lest the digital effort be wasted.  

The personal touch has become nearly inseparable from digital marketing; Bonnin says Alabama recruiting events surge in attendance—anywhere from 30% to 200%—when they’re bolstered by targeted digital marketing. 

Recruiters Across the Country

Just as Alabama’s football coaches recruit the best athletes from across the country, the university’s enrollment and marketing departments recruit the best academic students from across the country. Like many U.S. universities, Alabama has recruiters stationed in multiple states. Their job: convince America’s brightest students to come to campus for a tour.

“We have a very organized, strategic and focused effort to recruit out-of-state students,” Bonnin says. “This is from the top-down, all the way to recruiters on the ground. Everybody on our campus recognizes the importance of recruiting students. We don’t want to lose one single student to another university, so all our efforts reflect that commitment to recruitment. We go after the best students in every market.”

Bonnin won’t comment on how many recruiters the university employs, but says they’re in every U.S. state, with multiple recruiters in Alabama. Each recruiter has a set number of students they’re expected to recruit, with the data-determined goals varying across the country. 

George Mason’s recruiting arm isn’t on the same scale as Alabama, Burge says, but the university does place recruiters in regions of the country where they’ve found potential for enrollment growth, including Texas, California and the Southeast region. 

Although recruiting works for George Mason, Burge says it must be done alongside other key investments to successfully develop a new market. University officials must ask themselves questions such as, “Are we buying ACT and SAT names in greater numbers from this area?” and “Am I investing in the right messaging?” to have a successful recruiting program. Plunking a recruiter with vague goals into the middle of America reduces a program’s chance of success. 

There can be a downside to out-of-state recruitment. “Some state institutions are experiencing a negative public reaction from in-state students and their families,” says Rasool. “These groups feel that their tax dollars are helping to fund in-state universities, and therefore they (or their children) should get priority admission. Additionally, some states (North Carolina, for example) have laws capping the number of out-of-state students a public university can admit, and institutions risk losing state funding if they exceed that number.”

Having a Consistent Message

The digital marketing, the data research, the recruiters—all go to waste without a consistent, central message. 

“It’s essential,” says Burge, who adds that his position—vice president for enrollment management—was created to work toward better recruiting and a unified message. “You need to have a smart and thoughtful process to develop the right lead marketing messages,” Burge says. 

Put differently: Your talking points can be amazing, but they won’t do anything if they aren’t thoughtfully crafted for each market. Good, unique messages must be delivered to different markets, but the messages must be on brand. “Both have to be in place for success,” Burge says of good messages and good strategy. “You can’t be successful without them. Period.”

Word of Mouth and Authentic Branding

States like Alabama, Virginia and Indiana may not sound like magnets for young people, but branding and word of mouth can do yeoman’s work in spreading a university’s message. For example, many Alabama students come from the Northeast and the West Coast, Bonnin says, two regions rife with prestigious universities. No matter; Alabama students, alumni and parents move back to these regions and hype potential students with stories of their college glory days. “It just begins to spread,” Bonnin says. 

Word of mouth comes easily to universities that are authentic in their messaging and actions. Whether students visit for a campus tour or consider enrolling in classes, their impression of the university must match the messages preached during the marketing campaign. 

“You shouldn’t go into a market trying to be something that you’re not, changing your message from place to place,” Bonnin says. “Just own who you are. Make everything that you do authentic.”

George Mason doesn’t have the same coast-to-coast name recognition as Alabama; the farther potential students live from George Mason’s Virginia campus, the harder it becomes to deliver the brand’s message. George Mason’s staff must work harder to get a potential student’s attention, keep their attention and inspire them to apply and enroll. 

Less-recognizable schools must take an authentic assessment of themselves to create branding that draws students’ attention, Burge says. In George Mason’s case, this may be reminding potential students from California or Texas about the university’s proximity to Washington, D.C. 

“We remind them [by saying], ‘Here’s how that proximity improves your college experience,” Burge says. “Each institution [needs to] have something like that.”

Bright Lights, Big Reach

Alabama’s football team has given alumni and students plenty of reason to yell “Roll Tide”—the school’s rallying cry—as the team has rarely lost a game over the past few years. Bonnin is right there yelling with them, as Alabama’s athletic success has helped her spread the university’s message. In December 2015, for example, Alabama was playing against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, giving Bonnin a chance to demonstrate the power of digital.

“The excitement was peaking and the football team was there for the game, so we went into both markets with a strong digital presence,” she says. “We began to carry our messages to prospective high school students and their parents. It was really effective for us.”

While sports can mesmerize prospective students, Bonnin says athletics should only be a piece of the wooing process. “It gets a lot of attention at certain times of the year, but we also want them to understand the academic quality of the institution,” Bonnin says. “That’s a message that we drive pretty consistently across the country.”

Even so, the hollering of University of Alabama’s rallying cry is likely a draw for students across America who see the excitable crowds, convivial atmosphere and thrilling games. More than 25 million viewers watched the Alabama Crimson Tide defeat the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 National Championship game. You can’t buy that kind of reach.  

Remember Your Mission

Universities can recruit new students from across America to bolster their enrollment numbers, but Burge says university officials must remember their school’s core mission and values. 

For example, two of George Mason’s core values are diversity and accessibility, which Burge says dovetail with producing great outcomes for graduates. This means George Mason officials look for “the right applicants … for the long-term growth of the institution” as it pertains to the university’s mission. 

“I counsel anybody engaged in this work to think critically about who they are and who they set up camp with to help them achieve this goal,” Burge says. “And to remain true to their mission.”

Part of George Mason’s mission is targeting the neediest students—especially from Virginia—and offering them merit scholarships. When the scholarships aren’t available, Burge says there’s an ethical question of whether a student can afford a four-year degree, which is $34,370 per year for out-of-state students as of 2017-2018. Telling students the truth about money is important, so students don’t feel like they’ve been bamboozled, Burge says.  

Alabama’s mission—to “advance the intellectual and social condition of the people of the state, the nation and the world through the creation, translation and dissemination of knowledge”—also shines a light on how the bulk of the school’s scholarships and discounted tuition are allotted: to students with high academic achievement. Bonnin says more than 40% of this year’s freshman class scored 30 or higher on their ACT (on a scale of 36). In addition, 30.8% of this year’s freshman were in the top 10% of their graduating high school class.

“We definitely want the best and brightest students here because they have better chances of being successful,” Bonnin says. 

Celebrations are Temporary

University marketers can celebrate, but they can’t forget the work ahead, Burge says. He and his team had a temporary celebration after learning this year’s incoming class was the school’s largest ever, but he says no marketing professionals can rest on their prior successes. 

“Last year, I gathered everybody together and we celebrated the numbers,” Burge says. “I said, ‘We should all feel really good about what you did. Now let’s go do it again.’ That’s the nature of enrollment. It has a very clear beginning and end.” ​

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.