Higher ed gets a lesson on marketing during the pandemic
Cayla Woten thought about postponing college this fall, due to the high cost of higher education and the scary headlines about the pandemic. But Purdue University’s ambitious recruitment strategy — including a freeze in tuition as well as room and board that has enabled 60% of students to graduate debt-free, along with an emphasis on strict safety measures around COVID-19 — helped persuade her to take the plunge.
Part of the impetus was Protect Purdue, a sprawling $50 million initiative at the West Lafayette, Indiana, university, which includes a website packed with information and resources about COVID (it’s earned half a million unique visitors), social media, outdoor ads and YouTube videos. Purdue developed the initiative with marketing firm Ologie of Columbus, Ohio, whose clients also include the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers.
Woten says she and her dad were also surprised to learn from its marketing that Purdue, even though it’s out-of-state — Woten is from Hebron, Kentucky — was more affordable than colleges closer to home. “Purdue really cares about its students,” she says.
The pandemic has forced Purdue and many other colleges and universities to work overtime to serve current students and market to prospective students as enrollment slumps because of factors such as the pandemic and stratospheric tuition costs. Schools are taking a fresh look at their marketing outreach as they confront these bleak times.
And it’s about time, says Joe Lapin, VP of marketing at San Diego-based Circa Interactive. “There’s this great sea of sameness out there,” when it comes to college marketing, says Lapin, whose company works with more than 50 higher ed clients, including the University of San Diego School of Business and Tulane University.
To stand out in the sameness, schools are trying everything from reduced tuition, fast-track admissions and free health service, along with upping their digital game using slick mobile apps, virtual campus tours and celebrity pitchmen and women (in the case of Georgetown University, men’s basketball coach and National Basketball Association legend Patrick Ewing). They are also rethinking their targets, in some cases going after students closer to home, as the pandemic rages.
Falling enrollment and rising tuition
There’s a lot at stake: Undergraduate enrollment fell 4% nationally this fall, while graduate schools attracted 2.7% fewer students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Community colleges were hit particularly hard, with enrollment plummeting nearly 10%. Meanwhile, the pandemic and current enrollment trends threaten to hasten the demise of a number of smaller private schools already struggling before this year. University of Pennsylvania professor of education Robert Zemsky, co-author of the book “The College Stress Test,” estimated that some 20% of colleges and universities are in serious financial distress at the moment.
Amid the pandemic, some colleges have converted to fully online instruction, while others continue to hold classes in person and still others offer hybrid studies. In every case, marketing has proved an essential tool for communicating with current students and prospective ones, given how COVID has exacerbated other issues plaguing higher education. Over the past decade, the cost of undergraduate tuition, room and board and other expenses at public institutions soared 31% and 23% at private schools, per Department of Education statistics. Even though a number of institutions have frozen or reduced tuition, it hasn’t been enough to keep many would-be students from asking whether college is worth the expense. Sen. Bernie Sanders has famously championed easing the burden for students.
“There’s no one silver bullet” for college marketing, as Brien Lewis, president of the private liberal arts school Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, put it. So colleges are bringing a fuller marketing arsenal to bear.
College fairs go virtual
A large number of schools are ramping up their digital and social media marketing efforts, emphasizing search ads as well as platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. But with institutional finances under pressure, many marketing budgets have been slashed, including for digital investment. The average spend on digital marketing this year fell 15% across 25 institutions surveyed by Primary Research Group, including Notre Dame and the University of Utah.
The digital expanse — where so many prospective students live — remains at the center of higher ed marketing strategies, even as colleges continue to rely on traditional advertising tactics like outdoor, direct mail, print and college fairs. The fairs have been crimped during COVID. The National Association of College Admission Counseling scuttled several high-profile events, including the National College Fairs and STEM College and Career Fairs, but sponsored virtual gatherings in the summer and fall where representatives from more than 600 colleges and universities met with prospective students.
Because of its strict response to COVID, Purdue, with an enrollment of 40,000, opened its doors this fall to students like Woten and went on to hold 15,000 student events, more than half of which were in-person, all with minimal impact from the virus, says Ethan Braden, Purdue’s marketing chief, who was named the American Marketing Association's Higher Ed Marketer of the Year for 2020. Owing in part to its marketing strategy emphasizing safety, the 150-year-old university had the largest freshman class in its history this year, with 8,925 students.
Braden believes institutions of higher ed must get more sophisticated about promoting themselves and focus their lens more on prospective students. “Random acts of marketing are more perilous than ever. Institutions of higher learning will always benefit from deliberate, definitive promotion of the brand,” says Braden, who held senior marketing and sales positions at drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co. before joining Purdue two years ago. Braden, in fact, says there are more similarities between the two industries than one might think. “In the pharmaceutical industry, the best marketers realize that it’s not about medicine — it’s about the patient,” he says. “By focusing on the patient as the hero, you create connection, affinity and loyalty. It’s the same in higher ed.”
Serving savvy students
At the University of Pittsburgh’s Johnstown campus — part of the larger Pitt system, and founded in 1927 — the Frontline Workers Scholarship was established to provide college credits for more than 1,000 essential employees, valued at $3.8 million. It was developed in partnership with Brooklyn-based online education platform Outlier. “Technology has enabled us to leverage new ways to engage students in and out of the classroom, and the pandemic has compelled us to all be more creative and innovative,” says Jem Spectar, president of Pitt Johnstown, which has an enrollment of 2,500. “Students these days are savvy consumers, they know what they want and they have many, many choices when it comes to education. That puts a premium on institutions that know their place in the market and their purpose.”
Pitt also works with the makers of the mobile app Tallo, which enables colleges to develop profiles and connect with prospective students and helps students build a professional online presence, identify a career path, and research colleges and scholarship programs. And aiming to set students on their way post-college in a tough job market, Tallo in August rolled out another app, Ping, which matches talent with recruiters by way of virtual job fairs. Since the pandemic took hold this past winter, the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina-based company, which also counts schools such as Clemson and the University of Minnesota as clients, has attracted 400,000 new users, according to CEO Casey Welch. “You can’t lean on your brand name anymore — you have to look at ways to connect with students and bring them in,” Welch says.
Private schools adapt
While the odds would seem stacked against small private schools, some have bucked the trend.
One is 173-year-old Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a campus of 2,500 students that enjoyed 6% greater enrollment this fall after doubling down on marketing efforts close to home. Nick Mulvey, VP of enrollment, says after finding that most students were considering staying local because of the pandemic, it ramped up print and email campaigns within a 150-mile radius of campus, encompassing the Chicago and Milwaukee metro areas. In November, more than 450 prospective students and their families attended Aspire Week, a four-day, virtual event where attendees learned about Carthage’s career planning program.
Carthage’s marketing messaging has also focused on affordability, financial aid and scholarships. The college also continued a 30% tuition reduction instituted in fall 2019. It has already seen a 20% increase in applications for next fall.
As Carthage president John Swallow noted, established tactics like billboards and cold calling prospective students have also yielded results. After all, “a lot of them are home,” he pointed out.
Another small college that’s holding its own is 240-year-old Transylvania University in Kentucky, home to 1,000 undergrads. A centerpiece of its outreach is the Pioneer Plus program, which allows students to extend their college experience an additional year at no extra cost. President Brien Lewis says it’s part of the college’s overall mission to get the word out about the college’s affordability and authenticity. The results speak for themselves, with fall 2021 applications tracking ahead of this year and graduates overwhelmingly getting accepted into medical school and law school.
With higher ed marketing, there is no one playbook that can serve every institution. And despite the technological innovation, there remains a stubborn uniformity about much of the creative content — and that’s bad news for colleges looking to compete with video games and TikTok for the attention of prospective students.
“COVID has, in many ways, highlighted some of the fundamentals about higher ed marketing, so institutions can see how they are behind and how they can innovate,” Lapin says. “If universities don’t change the way they think and put their focus on being distinct, then they will go extinct.”