CMO Corner: Solving Higher Ed’s Perilous Marketing Problem

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The pandemic’s effect on higher education now has numbers behind it – and they are startling. In 2020, there was a 13.1% decline in first-time freshman enrollment over the previous year, according to the the National Student Clearinghouse, in very clearly showing that the issues created by the pandemic are affecting individual risk tolerance and the broader interest in taking on the commitment required for higher education. 

The hardest-hit sector within higher education has been at the community college level, where enrollment has declined 10.1% over the previous year. These numbers are making college and university leaders at all levels nervous, and driving them to take deep dives into financial models where very hard decisions around rightsizing and budgeting need to be made.

Marketing as a strategic department has never been more important than it is today, and yet, higher education has a perilous marketing problem. To say that competition will be at an all-time high is an understatement, particularly now that students’ options aren’t bridled by demographics or learning models. To remain competitive, marketers must clearly articulate their unique value proposition to reinvigorate their interest in higher education and, most importantly, impel them to choose their institution over others. They also must avoid the me-too marketing syndrome that’s evolved over the past decade where every school’s mission, tagline and messaging start to look similar. These are difficult tasks in the best of times.

Fierce Education Virtual Event

Higher Education: Technology- Profiles in Success, Fall

Thursday, October 21 @ 1pm EST to 4:30 pm EST

Higher education institutions have had to accelerate their technology usage and investments to better engage students, ensure accessibility, and to more effectively assess knowledge and progress, while keeping their data secure.

This half-day, virtual event will showcase essential ways universities and colleges can embrace technology effectively to improve the student experience in this new blended learning world and address how the decision-making process needs be fast and inclusive to meet market demands.

Many schools are adapting their models to include the right balance of both online and residential offerings, assuming they had a residential component pre-pandemic. There is an identity piece many institutions are working through, which may include an ardent commitment to a residential, online or hybrid campus, while shedding the other options. Distilling the value proposition for students who are unsure about their future, and much more aware of financial impact given high unemployment rates, brings the question of a degree’s ROI and their personal risk tolerance for interacting with others.

Evaluate Your Need for Enrollment Marketing vs. Brand Marketing

Distilling the value proposition effectively starts with differentiating between brand marketing and enrollment marketing. There is always a delicate balance that must be maintained for colleges and universities – this balance involves calculating the need for students now (enrollment marketing) and the need for students later (brand marketing). The pandemic has tipped the balance in favor of enrollment marketing to replace lost revenue, which is putting pressure on college and university leadership to make tough financial decisions that could include reducing personnel. Focusing efforts on next-term or next-start enrollment can significantly increase acquisition costs, and it takes dollars away from brand marketing, which aims to create a student pipeline for later dates or years. This near-term approach only serves to perpetuate marketing’s challenges into the future.

Scaling digital marketing to offset recruiting losses is a difficult, and potentially, fatal strategy when you consider that large online universities with near-limitless budgets are dominating the space. The ways colleges or universities recruit students have a lot to do with reducing acquisition costs and preparing for a sustainable future. There are a few key matriculation points that can be incrementally improved with the right focus and execution.

Test, Test and Test Again

One of the first areas that can be leveraged to help produce enrollments and reduce acquisition costs is the inquiry database – the student leads already generated by the university. Many institutions fail when it comes to properly running their text and email nurturing campaigns, which have proven to be highly effective in turning prospects to enrollments. When targeting an existing database, it’s critical to put forth the right messaging and call to action. Most importantly, marketers need to be measuring them for effectiveness, a critical element that often gets neglected. Split-testing texts and emails to create incremental improvements can have impactful results. Take a hard look at what is going out to potential students, current students and alumni, and reflect upon the foundation of the campaigns. Are they yielding what you expect them to? Are you split-testing the messaging, senders, subject lines and call-to-action to improve results? If not, take the time to fill these gaps.

Measuring Your Success Breeds More Success

If your institution has run your marketing effectively and a student shows interest, are the appropriate systems in place to measure response times from your enrollment and financial aid units? Many institutions do not measure, or care to measure, the response time from when a student submits information or applies to when they’re actually contacted, despite the digital recruiting landscape growing fiercely competitive. Knowing that students may be the marketing targets of scores of colleges or universities in and out of state, it’s critical to ensure the back end of your front-end processes are sound.

“Speed to Lead” is a metric that the for-profit education sector zeroed in on in the first part of the century – a metric that became a barometer for service excellence. Understanding how long it takes a team member to respond to a student is the first step to reducing acquisition costs. Does it take a day?  If that student also submitted their information to a large online university, assume that they’ve been contacted in less than two minutes. Is it taking more than a day? If so, your university may not even be in the conversation by the time you reach out to that student.

Higher education’s marketing problem is going to persist well into the future as slimmer budgets, increased competition and declining enrollment dominate the conversation. To really solve the perilous problem, institutions need to look outside in instead of inside out. 


Joe Sallustio, Ed.D. is the COO and Executive Vice President at Claremont Lincoln University (CLU), a non-profit online university offering master’s degrees through a Socially Conscious Education®. Joe oversees all areas of university operations, including business administration, enrollment management, marketing and

more. His role is to ensure that CLU is at the forefront of innovative graduate education in the 21st century by being disruptive, innovative and disciplined. Joe also hosts The EdUp Experience podcast where he interviews some of the most intriguing and influential people across higher education.