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Future Learning: Higher Ed’s Path Forward

Julian Zeng

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Higher education in America is at a crossroads. Institutions for years have rested on their laurels, but changing dynamics in learners and looming economic trends signal the need for immediate disruption. Can colleges across the country make the relevant adjustments?

“We have to be competitive like businesses, that will be key. Unfortunately, it goes against academics to a certain extent, but I don’t think we have a choice.”

Ellie Diaz, an attendee of the 2019 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, held Nov. 10-13 in Las Vegas, says schools are in need of some out-of-the-box thinking. Traditional themes of institutional prestige and the value of a broad education are no longer sufficient draws for prospective students. In fact, 45% of young Americans think a high school diploma can provide adequate preparation for today’s economy, according to a report by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

It’s no wonder that Diaz—who works in brand strategy and advertising at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business—and so many other attendees of the conference work for institutions that have suffered from lagging enrollment numbers amid rising tuition costs. (College enrollment in the U.S. decreased for the eighth consecutive year, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.)

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So what do schools need to do to disrupt the industry and better serve a growing number of underrepresented segments of learners in 2020 and beyond?

Get Personal

Personalized marketing has emerged as an essential trend in the industry. Advanced marketing personalization tactics have the potential to drive higher payouts of $20 or more for every dollar invested, per a report on the value of personalization by The Relevancy Group. And when done ineffectively, brands risk losing 38% of customers. Institutions should view their “customers” no differently.


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“I foresee [institutions] going deep into personalization and creating … a red carpet experience for prospects, and earlier interaction or touch points with prospective students,” says Chris Kappen, VP of operations and innovation at marketing agency Epicosity. “One of the reasons personalization is going to become such a big thing is that technology has made it so much easier to do. When you can tailor an experience for someone from one market to another, it will force universities to really define who they’re for and not for, rather than just chase a bucket of people that they got from a list because of their ACT score.”

Fordham University, for instance, elevated its personalization efforts by creating a PIP, or personalized information packet. Within, the university specifically outlined financial aid and scholarships, tailored program offerings and outcomes unique to the recipient. Not to neglect parents, Fordham created a closed network, similar in look and feel to Facebook, to allow them to discuss admission requirements, campus happenings and exchange contact information. The Undergraduate Admission campaign, in collaboration with Student Involvement, Alumni Relations and Development, raised the institution’s academic profile, increased parent engagement and eventually brought in more donations.

“We’re having to think about ways that we’re both delivering our degrees and how we’re talking to students and parents,” says Logan West, assistant director of marketing at Fordham. “The future has to be smart, nimble and quick. That’s not something that most universities are set up to do. Above all things, higher ed marketing has to be innovative. We think of our degrees and (communications) flow as very unique to our institution, so you have to start matching your degree offerings to what you’re doing in house. I don’t think people are used to thinking that way. By doing that, people will be better off moving forward.”

Be Authentic

The majority of Gen Z’s time is spent on social media and streaming video. Any institution that neglects its presence on these platforms does itself a grave disservice, especially considering the generation’s waning interest in earning an advanced degree (64%), compared to millennials (71%). There’s no silver-bullet solution to catching their eye, but authenticity emerged as a defining characteristic with which to win over Gen Z.

“The authenticity and honesty that we’re seeing Gen Z wants, others crave it as well but haven’t demanded it as much,” says Alexandra Loizzo-Desai, associate editor in marketing and communications at Fordham. “I think when everyone’s trying to compare themselves to each other and referring to U.S. News and World Report rankings, it’s not going to work because eventually there’s not enough room for so many carbon copies. So if you don’t own who you are and present that to an audience, I don’t think students will care.”

Coastal Carolina University overhauled its social media presence to give prospective students a real, transparent and original look at the institution’s daily life. Through Instagram campaigns such as a creative doodling competition (Instadoodle), curated slideshows featuring student-taken photos and #CCUfamily video interviews with current students, Coastal Carolina boosted its following by 59% over two years. Forty-two percent of CCU’s audience is between the ages of 13 and 24, so much of the school’s target audience can get a first-hand look at campus life, often from the perspective of those already attending.

Lindsi Glass, Coastal Carolina’s associate VP of marketing and branding, sees the potential for “augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence to play a big part in social media. It’s going to stick around and keep evolving. There’s going to be so many more possibilities in that realm.”

A Changing Student

“The model that many institutions have enjoyed for so long of being able to essentially ride on the momentum of growing classes of high school graduates looking to go to college—that’s no longer the case,” says Matt Walters, VP of client services at VisionPoint Marketing. Walters echoed the sentiments of many attendees at the conference. He and others stressed the need for institutions to package offerings to be better aligned to the needs of older, nontraditional students, an oft-overlooked audience.

The adult learner also tends to be misunderstood. “We tend to treat these students as if they screwed up their lives by not following a traditional path,” says Christie Harper, associate VP for enrollment marketing and communication at the University of Arizona. “In reality, they have grit and tenacity, and they’ve made it this far in life and have enough money to go back and pursue a degree. These are accomplished people, just not accomplished in that traditional path. As marketers, we can serve our institutions well by lending a voice of respect to that audience, not condescension.”

Institutions would be well-served to cast a wider net in anticipation of the much-maligned 2025 “cliff.” The drop in birth rate around the start of the recession in 2008 portends a significant lapse in college-bound high school seniors in the coming years. The drop-off may not be as severe as projected by many, but institutions should nevertheless be prepared—if they can work well enough together in house.

“I think the fundamental thing that stays the same through any change in policy or technology is the people on campus doing the jobs,” says Meredith Purvis, director of undergraduate marketing at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. “If we can’t figure out how to build bridges and partnerships, we won’t be functional.”

Regardless of how universities choose to prepare for the future, all attendees would undoubtedly agree with the need to show respect to the individual student, no matter their academic or financial standing. A determined focus in meeting the next generation’s needs should yield promising results in an industry coming to terms with disruption of its traditional tendencies.

Julian Zeng is assistant managing editor at the American Marketing Association. He may be reached at jzeng@ama.org.