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Why College Enrollment Is a Marketing Problem

Student enrollment at colleges and universities dropped this fall, continuing a trend that’s concerned many in higher education since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The declines run counter to previous years’ gains that had some institutions worried about being able to keep up with the increasing demand for student slots.

Colleges and universities are watching enrollment figures slip and looking for ways to boost them, but the challenge is about much more than revenue. The broader issues institutions are facing represent a marketing problem, impacting the rate of enrollment in recent times.

Values are Changing Among Incoming College Students

The changing landscape of higher education is becoming a challenge for marketers. No longer can institutions rely on their reputation or brand to convince students that college is the best decision for their future, especially when facing more competition with each passing year in a globalized landscape.

As such, today’s institutions need to focus less on what makes them unique and more on what will make their prospective students unique and better positioned for success.

Marketing is all about understanding your audience’s worldview — knowing how they think, what they think, and why they think it. To increase college enrollment numbers, it’s time to invest more in analyzing how both traditional and nontraditional students think about post-secondary education in the modern age.

Have a Clear Value Proposition

Students are making their choices based on the value of an education that an institution delivers, in more ways than one, and the questions they’re asking of their college choices go deeper than basic academic value:

  • Will an education at this college really be worth my investment of time and money?
  • Given the amount of time and energy I need to get into, pay for, and complete my education, are the returns worth it?
  • Will I walk away with real skills I can use on the job market?

As AccessU Faculty Member Dr. Dean Browell says, “If ever there was a time to measure twice and cut once, THIS is it; you need to take the time to understand where all of your audiences are right now in their attitudes and behaviors, or you are literally throwing media dollars away.”

Many young Americans assumed their college degree would earn them a high-paying position in decades past, but today, that connection isn’t so clear.

If you are marketing your sports teams, your on-campus amenities, or your housing opportunities instead of the value your education provides, you may be missing the mark and losing out on potential enrollments.

Instead, highlight the assets for a student’s learning needs, like professional grade hands-on training equipment, smaller class sizes and opportunities for one-on-one instruction with professors currently working in their field.

Leverage Your Career Services Team

How well does your institution prepare students to market themselves in the working world? Do students have the right type of skills and experience that companies are looking for?

The education your organization offers is only part of your value. Your career services office should be dialed in to connections that can help students get jobs and internships in their desired field. Alumni. Stakeholders. Managers. CEO’s.

Beyond providing an education, your institution has room to prepare students by holding mock interviews, offering resume writing workshops, and networking with workforce partnerships that can develop them as leaders.

When your career services team is fulfilling their role and helping students land jobs and internships, you can use this as a major marketing point for enrollment.

Using a practical approach to helping students establish their careers can help set your institution apart, helping families feel they are getting their money’s worth out of their degree. Your students will feel more prepared when they graduate, helping set them apart from others when seeking jobs in their fields.

Promote Dual Enrollment Opportunities

The goal of dual enrollment is to encourage high school students to take college-level courses. It’s a win-win for everyone. The students get a jump start on their future and save money because most colleges charge them in-state tuition rates.

If you represent a community college, you can maximize your marketing efforts by drawing attention to your dual enrollment opportunities.

If your enrollment is declining, one problem may be that high school graduates aren’t aware that they can continue their education at your institution. They may also be unaware of all of the exciting opportunities available, even if they don’t plan to earn a degree.

Promoting dual enrollment to high school students has a long-term payoff, as many individuals who choose your organization for additional credits will be more willing to enroll full-time after graduation.

Your dual enrollment opportunities are a great “trial opportunity” for students who want to see if they’re a good fit at your institution, serving as a marketing tool in and of themselves.

By successfully promoting your dual enrollment program, you can let your school’s education and identity speak for themselves as students experience your organization part-time.

Concerns Among International Students Impact Enrollment

We are experiencing a different world, and many students are making different decisions about where to study. It’s important that we understand the root of this issue and address it in our marketing strategies while there is still time. We need to be honest with ourselves and with our market.

Tapping into the international student market is nothing new for universities; these students are often more interested in quality education than athletics or the social scene.

But the ambitious expansion programs that schools have initiated in the last decade have been fueled largely by revenue from international students, who typically pay full tuition and fees. More than half of revenue at public research universities comes from non-resident students, many of whom come from other countries.

Promoting Equality at Your Institution

There are a number of reasons why international students might be hesitant to enroll in your institution, and it’s important to address them. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes that one of the biggest challenges facing international students is overcoming stereotypes and feeling like they belong at their academic institution.

It’s important to create a learning environment where students feel welcome, regardless of their race or ethnicity. You can increase enrollment and address concerns about inequality at your institution by sending the right message to prospective students.

Students Want Unique and Authentic College Experiences

If you represent a college or university, it is important to make sure you are communicating your values and identity in a way that resonates with prospective students.

As with any marketing, the key to creating an effective campaign is knowing your target audience, understanding its needs, and ensuring that every element of your marketing program speaks directly to its members.

Modern college applicants are looking for unique and authentic higher-education experiences. They want to be able to take part in something that makes them stand out from the crowd when applying to jobs, internships, and graduate school.

By embracing the factors and features that make your institution stand out, you can add to your value proposition and attract new students.

College is a popular experience, but it’s not always an easy sell. Students want to get the most out of their education, and they’re looking for more than just a degree. They want a rich experience that will help them develop professionally and personally.

COVID Impacts the Way You Speak to Potential Students

Today’s perfect storm of information and communication technologies has altered the landscape for higher education marketing — but this has further been impacted by a shift in the way parents, students, and schools approach post-secondary decision-making.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the way families approach their decisions for post-secondary education.

Families are asking themselves what colleges are doing to protect students from COVID-19 while continuing to provide the same quality of education as before the pandemic.

For example, some incoming students may want to take online classes, and you need to assure them that they will experience the same quality educational opportunities through remote learning as they would in a physical classroom.

If your students are living on campus or sitting in classrooms, they’ll want to know the precautions your staff follows to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

By marketing an attentive approach to COVID-19 prevention, you can encourage more students to choose your institution for higher education while acknowledging their concerns about health and sanitation.

Speak to Students Who Un-Enrolled During COVID-19

Thousands of people who were enrolled in college or university classes before the COVID-19 pandemic are no longer pursuing their degrees. Why? What can you do to reignite their interest and increase retention at your university?

Students stopped registering for classes during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to protect themselves while the world figured out how to manage the outbreak. Others preferred in-person learning to online learning, unenrolling from their school when classes went remote. Not to mention the college experience that was made up of amenities, athletic events, and Greek life disappeared with COVID. For some students, that was their main motivator in attending college. Probably because it was marketed that way.

Depending on the reasons why your students stopped registering for classes, you can boost enrollment by marketing your current opportunities and alternatives.

For example, schools that are reintroducing in-person classes may use them to attract students seeking in-person learning, while others may use their ongoing remote approach to attract students who are taking a more preventative approach to COVID-19.

Make it clear that your institution understands the importance of minimizing COVID-19 and give your previous and prospective students an idea of what to expect from your institution while you are addressing the coronavirus outbreak.

University Marketing Should be Honest, Clear, and Concise

Colleges need to adopt a more direct approach when communicating with potential students about the realities of college life.

The problem is that admission offices do not think of themselves as marketing departments. Yet they are responsible for generating interest in their schools by promoting them in both traditional and social media.

The same tools that have been so successful at reaching audiences through digital channels have also made it easier than ever before to fact-check claims and discover hypocrisy.

Today, students are inundated with information about higher education options and choices — and some marketing experts believe that students have become overwhelmed with the influx of information.

So how do you make an enrollment prospectus or marketing material that will get families’ attention? How can you tell a compelling story that will resonate with readers and get them excited about what your school has to offer?

A good approach is to strip everything away until you’re left with the absolute core facts: what your school does well, what makes it special, and why someone should apply there instead of anywhere else.

In other words, spend less time on lengthy narrative, and more time communicating simple, direct, and clear points of information. A student might seem to easily know why they want to go to major state university, but not so easily or at all for a small liberal arts or community college.

If your mission and core values are not clear to prospective students, your organization will have a harder time standing out with your marketing efforts.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, if enrollment rates are going to increase, you need to present students with a better value proposition as an educational institution. College isn’t just an academic investment; it’s also an investment in a future career and one that isn’t without its potential pitfalls.

In the end, it is all up to individual students to determine whether they see enough return on their tuition dollars to make such an investment worthwhile. Until institutions provide them with a more compelling reason to enroll (and graduate), skepticism will remain.

Your school’s marketing campaigns need to clearly convey your value proposition if you’re going to increase enrollment. As new options in higher education continue to proliferate, schools must promote their value message if they want to attract more students into their ranks.

About the Author

Rachel Spencer

Rachel’s expertise in strategic planning, qualitative research, brand messaging, public relations, and crisis communications has proven integral to AccessU for over 16 years. She began her career at a health and government-focused PR agency in Washington, DC, where she mastered the art of media relations. She later became the primary...

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