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moon awake at night

What Keeps Higher Ed Marketers Up at Night: Operating in a Silo

Steve Heisler

moon awake at night

When admissions, administrators and marketers work together, colleges and universities can raise revenue, increase enrollment numbers and thrive—despite treacherous financial conditions

Higher education marketers cannot operate in a vacuum. This year’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, held  Nov. 10-13 in Las Vegas, demonstrated that, due to diminished resources and dropping enrollment numbers, college and university marketers are taking on multiple roles and collaborating across departments to conserve the bottom line. But without the full support of admissions, faculty and university administration, higher ed marketing cannot effectively stave off “the cliff.”

The phenomenon of the cliff, an impending erosion of higher ed enrollment figures, began in 2008 with the last economic recession. Birthrates took a nosedive and the number of college-eligible students is expected to sharply decline beginning in 2025. Schools will be fighting over potential students by emphasizing brand differentiators, affordable costs, flexible degree options and post-graduate career placement.

“It’s enough to keep anybody awake at night,” says Jesse Stoddard, director of marketing and brand management at D’Youville College. “But there are a lot of [other] things that are unpredictable in regard to the changing ideas about the value of higher education.”

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It’s especially frustrating for higher ed marketers to face this cliff after fighting to prove the value of a college degree. According to Statista, graduating students with bachelor’s degrees have generally been met with stagnant wages, hovering around the $45,000 mark since 1990. Yet during that same time period, tuition and fees have risen 393%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and confidence in higher ed declined 9 points from 2015-2018, according to Gallup. It now sits below 50%.

This year’s symposium attendees were losing sleep wrestling with how to quantify and qualify value to potential students, despite disheartening statistics. When asked what keeps them up at night professionally, an informal survey of 20 conference attendees revealed that they’re struggling to measure, communicate and grow their school’s distinct value. Some cited a lack of data, either not having enough to make informed decisions or unable to collect the most targeted data available. Brand positioning was another cause for concern—wrestling with how their college or university stands out. Some wished they could keep in better touch with alumni, who might assist in articulating value and donate.


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More than anything, though, these marketers were tired. Lack of resources in the form of staffing, technology and finances overwhelms departments. “[I have] too much work to be strategic,” says Sharon Handy, director of college communications, PR and marketing for the University of Louisville’s College of Business. “I’m in the weeds so often. And I think leadership buy-in to restructure our processes and procedures will help me get out of the weeds.”

Leadership buy-in touches on all the pain points higher ed marketers are experiencing. Solid relationships across university teams can, for example, result in better brand standardization across all university communications, including voice and visuals. The ability to leverage greater university resources also frees up time and brain space for higher ed marketers to undertake the kinds of large-scale initiatives that can shore up enrollment.

Indeed, some of the more successful stories presented at the conference involved close relationships between marketing, admissions and faculty departments. The cross-functional team behind an ambitious campaign from Siena College, which included the director of admissions and VP of enrollment and marketing, presented a session titled “Let’s Rock & Enroll: Experiential Marketing at Work” about the virtues of experiential marketing, or conducting outreach via participatory events. The numbers backed up their efforts: In making decisions about what schools to attend, 78% of prospective freshmen say that campus visits and tours hold the most influence.

Over the last few years, Siena has engaged with prospective students on campus by setting out prizes, providing photo ops and constructing spectacles, such as the a mammoth sand sculpture built in the shape of the school’s St. Bernard mascot in the middle of summer. Admissions was consulted and the team lured current students and faculty to events by offering them food and drinks. They also empowered visitors to set their own agenda while on campus by providing a flexible, choose-your-own-adventure schedule and moving visiting windows to holiday weekends so students wouldn’t feel rushed.

In another example, Colby College took a bold, interdepartmental risk. The school partnered with a marketing agency to craft a $750 million donor campaign—the largest of its kind in liberal arts history. With the blessing of college administrators (and the budget) they launched “Dare Northward,” a digital and experiential campaign that toured the country throwing parties for alumni. The campaign raged on a New York City rooftop, where they admired the Empire State Building bathed in Colby blue. The team converged on Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and invited professional dancer alums in Washington, D.C., to put on a show. An astounding 88% of alums who attended these events gave to the campaign—which to date has raised $487 million and counting—and the campaign’s homepage has been visited 65,000 times.

During his presentation, “The Reasons Behind a Student Saying ‘No,’” associate director of marketing services at Eduvantis Rich Funk outlined how interdepartmental support can assure that students admitted to a college will actually attend, and how marketers can work smarter, not harder. Marketing can effectively leverage drilled-down data from admissions to craft targeted, step-by-step campaigns that reduce the chances a prospective student will opt out. This data also aids in creating targeted personas—such as a student seeking a degree that mixes both online and in-person education—to further improve marketing. Admissions also captures when exactly students apply during the information-gathering process, and sharing that information with marketers helps in mapping out calls to action. Avoiding a “no” is almost as good as eliciting a “yes.”

During his keynote, Kaplan University President Brandon Busteed suggested higher ed marketers start thinking of students as customers, and this paradigm shift further underscores the need for multiple university departments to work in concert. In the corporate world, C-suite executives live the brand, analysts present findings that inform marketing efforts, employees post on social media and everyone prints on the same letterhead, hands out the same business cards and directs potential clients to the same website. In the world of higher education, selling students is a university-wide effort, and marketers are tired of carrying the burden to increase yield rates. Let them sleep, even if only in shifts.

Steve Heisler is staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.