Brand Strategy

Colleges are adapting corporate marketing tactics to drive enrollment

CMOs and CRMs have their eye on helping higher education institutions to boost declining enrollment numbers.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

· 7 min read

Booze, books, and…brand activation? While going to college remains a key milestone for many American students, enrollment numbers indicate that fewer are enrolling each year due to factors like rising tuition.

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) shows enrollment across all colleges was down 2.7% in fall 2021 and 2.5% the year before that. While two-year and for-profit colleges have taken the hardest hit, private non-profit and public four-year institutions saw enrollment decline 1.6% and 3% last fall, respectively.

Covid certainly played a role in decreased numbers over the last two years, as students weigh factors like safety and remote learning, but it’s a trend that has been happening since before the pandemic began. Matt Yuskewich, managing director and SVP of business strategy at creative agency 160over90, said that the universities he works with aren’t blaming Covid.

“Most of our clients see Covid as an accelerant to a long-term trend that’s not going to reverse course anytime soon,” he told Marketing Brew.

With students reconsidering their next move after high school, colleges and universities are growing their marketing and analytics capabilities, changing their tactics, and adopting corporate strategies to bring in their next graduating class.

Reeling ’em in

Angela Polec, VP of enrollment, marketing, and communications at La Salle University, joined the university in 2019 in its first cabinet-level marketing role. Last year, enrollment marketing was absorbed into her list of duties.

“This is kind of a trend that you’re starting to see for tuition-dependent institutions,” she told Marketing Brew. “We have enrollment and marketing communications combined in one division, which has actually allowed us to really integrate at a level that organizational silos sometimes prohibit.”

For Polec, combining marketing and enrollment into one team—and bringing a CRM administrator onboard—in the last year have been game-changers. She predicts college investments in marketing technology will only continue to grow in the near future. For the first time in the last three years, Polec said La Salle has seen an increase in completed applications for freshman undergraduates.

“We were able to actually really leverage all of the data and analytics that we have and really map the full user journey so that we could be delivering the most up-to-date, customized content for our students as they consider colleges and universities,” she said.

Greer Davis, associate director of strategic communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that using a CRM over the last four years has also drastically impacted her team’s success: “Segmentation has been a really big piece of our work in making sure that we have different communications for different audiences,” she explained.

Davis said UW-Madison had a record 53,829 applicants for fall 2021, up 17% from the previous year, and brought in its largest freshman class to date.

Through the CRM, Davis said her team has been able to customize the messages they send out to admitted students on topics like potential majors, student organizations, and costs, which differ for in-state students, international students, and those with reciprocity, which lets certain out-of-state students receive in-state tuition.

“What we do find is students from Illinois don’t love seeing that they don’t have reciprocity, but Minnesota does,” Davis said. “So that’s also something we keep in mind.”

Colleges have adopted other tactics, like using influencers and student ambassadors to drive engagement with prospective students. Polec said La Salle has “had a lot of success” with things like student social media takeovers and “social listening” exercises to see what resonates online. “For a high school student, they don’t want to hear the marketing speak necessarily,” she said. Often, they just want to hear what other students think.

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“We know that it’s an investment for students and their families and we’re constantly, as an industry, being charged with, ‘But is it worth it?’” Polec said. “How we message the ‘Is it worth it?’ has to be deeper than just taglines. It really has to get down to the student experience and the outcomes that the students can expect when they leave an institution, right when they graduate.”

Welcome to the board

If it sounds like colleges are taking a page out of the corporate handbook, it’s because they are. Yuskewich said 160over90 first got involved with higher-education clients in 2003 when the president of a small school approached the agency and asked if it could help drive enrollment after seeing that they could drive 17-year-olds to American Eagle. Since then, the agency has worked with universities like UCLA, Texas A&M University, and the University of Arizona.

And it’s not just in marketing tactics—it’s also in hiring. Marketers seem to be making their way to the C-suite at universities more and more; according to higher-education marketing firm SimpsonScarborough’s 2021–2022 CMO study, more than half of the 230 “lead marketers” surveyed said they have either a CMO or VP title, up from 38% in 2019–2020.

Polec, who wrote a dissertation on CMOs in higher education, said she’s witnessed a dramatic increase in CMOs reporting to college presidents or getting a seat in their cabinets in the last 5–10 years. “I think that that really demonstrates higher ed realizing that the marketing communications officer has or should have a voice and a seat at the table in conversations about institutional strategy,” she said. “Marketing communications in higher ed previously was relegated to the end of the production line.”

Doug Edwards, executive strategy director at Ologie, another agency that works with higher-ed clients, said many college CMOs aren’t from higher-education backgrounds. “They’re from sales departments or big complex matrix organizations that understand decentralized communication structures,” something he believes works in schools’ favor as they try to reach large, diverse audiences. Examples include Pace University’s CMO Mary Baglivo, who was previously CEO at ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and University of Mississippi’s CMO Jim Zook, who previously worked in communications at Deloitte.

The cost equation

Perhaps the biggest hurdle these university marketers will need to overcome is selling the “value-add” of college. A 2021 Georgetown University analysis of Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor statistics found that tuition in the US has risen more than 160% since 1980. Average earnings for 22–27 year-olds, meanwhile, have only gone up around 20%.

Edwards called it a missed opportunity for colleges to not be forthright about finances. “Getting that message up front, getting it to students sooner through a more broad mix of marketing tactics is the opportunity right now.”

Yuskewich pointed to Dayton University, which worked with 160over90 to develop a tuition calculator. “They got a lot of credit for it, but it also helped them enroll more people because they appreciated the honesty. They knew exactly what they were getting,” he said. “When [students] were weighing that against another school that was kind of hiding fees and other things, it became an easy choice for a lot of folks.”

He said as enrollment numbers decline, “marketing reinforcing the value equation is going to continue to be important.” In other, corporate words, many schools may need to start putting their ROI where their tuition is.

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