Data continues to show that college graduates have substantially better career outcomes than those without a degree. If this is true, then why do higher education enrollment rates continue to decline?
Last year, Harvard University professor Clayton Christensen went viral with a prediction that half of all colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years. Yet the statistical correlation between higher education and career success begs the question: when did it become so fashionable to prophesize the attrition of higher education institutions with the inevitability of death?
Higher education as an industry is in peril, in spite of the fact the data proves the investment pays off. College graduates fair better professionally than those who don’t, and a four-year degrees in the U.S. is still a gateway to increased wealth over a lifetime.
While better messaging is necessary to reverse declining enrollment trends, enrollment managers should embrace the challenge rather than fear it. The core purpose of an institution of higher learning is to educate the masses—in this case, on why a college education is still necessary and relevant, in spite of the increasingly widespread myth that it isn’t.
Marketing the benefits of a college education is no longer just an enrollment strategy, it’s a form of social responsibility. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon colleges and universities to crack the code and reach the next generation of students. The fact that the message is currently lost on them is an indictment of us, not them.
Modernizing Marketing in Higher Education
Savvy higher education enrollment managers must be sensitive to the current cultural climate. The most advanced and successful companies in the world, corporations like Amazon, Apple, and Google, have been at the forefront of transforming their marketing efforts from linear and traditional platforms to utilizing the most modern tools and techniques of the trade. These companies have been at the forefront of the post-digital age, fully leveraging wondrous advancements in technology and data science, giving them the unparalleled ability to aggregate extraordinary quantities of quality customer data to drive unprecedented levels of efficiency and effectiveness in their marketing and sales efforts. Never before have companies had the types of consumer information, which changes not only how products are marketed, but how consumers are engaged.
1. The perception problem.
For those of us who love the pursuit of knowledge, this is a bitter pill to swallow: many Americans question the value of a college education—especially Generation Z –who came of age during the Great Recession and are thus dubious of the inflated costs of college tuition. Enrollment managers must shift the conversation to emphasize the value of a college degree.
A value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered. It’s the primary reason a consumer should invest in the product you’re selling. In the case of higher education, the value proposition is a clear statement that explains how a four-year degree solves a potential student’s problems or improves their outlook for the future. It quantifies the value of a degree by demonstrating the short-term and long-term salaries of college graduates vs. non-college graduates.
Your value proposition needs to be communicated directly, in easy-to-understand language and broadcasted online, through social and video platforms. Use statistics, personal stories from successful students and alumni and real-life examples to drill the point home.
2. Demo the ivory tower: Colleges and universities can learn from corporate America.
The fundamental premise of modern marketing is that advancements in data and analytics can now drive much more effective brand positioning and the creation of more relevant and powerful branded content. This data-driven equation helps optimize marketing performance, leading to enhanced consumer engagement and ultimately, a much greater return on investment. In today’s highly competitive environment, it is imperative know your customers, leverage a strong brand and messaging platform, and connect with potential students on a real, human level.
Higher education has yet to make this shift, often painting an elitist or overly-rosy story of real life. It is clearly now time for institutions of higher learning to follow the suit of modern consumer brands. Leverage the power and experience that your institution provides its students with. Connect with them by expressing the emotional connection that one has towards their alma mater.
3. A multi-platform approach.
Finally, as the old adage goes, it is critical to ‘fish where the fish are’ in order to optimize success. Prospective college students aren’t making a four-year commitment as a result of a pamphlet that arrived in the mail—their perceptions are formed by information streamed through smart phones, laptops, and tablets. Hence, the deployment and distribution of mobile, social and digital content must be done strategically and comprehensively through both programmatic and direct channels.