3 Strategic Challenges Facing Higher Ed Marketers in 2019

I’ve managed the marketing strategy for programs of small, private institutions with fewer than 700 enrollments, all the way up to public, state universities with over 20,000 enrollments. Each institution faces unique challenges, but all non-profit colleges and universities are going to be facing some common trials in the year ahead.


1. All of the societal, market, and demographic trends that made higher ed a growing industry for the past several decades are all diminishing.

This isn’t just a marketing issue–this is an industry issue, which institutional marketers can help solve.

There are projected to be fewer high school grads over next five years.

According to this great interactive data from Wiche, the number of high school graduates in 2018 will be higher than at any point in 2019-2023. The enrollment and marketing professionals who I talk to all have enrollment goals that are increasing–while the prospect pool is decreasing–which means that a scenario where the majority of colleges miss enrollment goals is a real possibility. It’s simply a numbers game.

The number of alternative college options are increasing.

This generation may be the first one that doesn’t feel the need to go to college in order to have a successful career. Newer, tech-related jobs don’t need four-year college graduates, and leading employers like Google and Apple have gotten rid of college requirements for some positions. Young people today see successful individuals flooding their social media feeds with images of expensive cars, luxury homes, and a message that you don’t need college to have the lifestyle you want–you can grind your way to success.

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The looming college debt crisis of 1.5 trillion dollars is changing how people view the value of a college degree.

Taking on college debt used to be accepted as a necessary evil, if not a norm. But now people are questioning if it’s wise and if it’s worth it. Is it fair to be asking 18-year-olds to make decisions about taking on $100,000 in debt?

These factors will force institutions to find alternative revenue streams, such as adding online, graduate, and adult-friendly programs. How can institutional marketers help? Instead of competing against each other, higher ed marketers must now persuade people that college is worth it in the first place. It’s no longer about convincing prospects that you’re the right college for them, you now need to convince potential students that college is right for them. The higher ed marketers that succeed over the next year will be the ones that use content and imagery to effectively communicate value and demonstrate outcomes. That’s a challenge most marketers haven’t encountered in the past, but will need to prepare for.

2. Marketers will need a clear goal structure in place that can be tied back to revenue.

The business model of higher ed is built on generating revenue from two places, tuition dollars and donations/endowment. If your marketing department doesn’t have goals associated with enrollment or advancement, you aren’t demonstrating your organizational value and your departmental resources will be at risk.

How can a marketing professional make the case for having a marketing budget of X, if they can’t predict how many students that budget will generate?

Most private, non-profit institutions are tuition-dependent, yet marketing departments often don’t have clear goals tied to revenue. The absence of goals is usually related to organizational history or organizational structure. Either way, it prevents marketing from measuring success in meaningful ways.

When I ask higher ed marketers what their strategy is to generate more students, there is usually an uncomfortable silence. Having a goal-based strategy in place will help you be successful, generate internal confidence in your abilities, and prevent you from undertaking distracting or ineffective projects throughout the year.     

Without a strategy, a faculty member can walk into your office, ask you to undertake a creative project for them, and you will feel obliged to say yes. You can’t say no, because everyone is your customer and there's no priority. Having a goal-based strategy means that everything that doesn’t impact the bottom line takes a back seat.

So when your president stops you in the hall and says, “My nephew spends all day on Snapchat. We should have a bigger Snapchat presence”, you can explain why you are or aren’t on Snapchat, why that is the case, and how it relates to the overall strategy of generating enrollments.

3. Marketers will need to have a comprehensive strategy that embraces digital marketing.

The phrase “digital marketing” can create a lot of anxiety, especially if you don’t have a strong digital background. You don’t have to be Google certified to oversee an effective digital strategy, but you do have to know what’s important in digital marketing, and what’s not.   

Your strategy must start with the website.

Your .edu website is the most important marketing resource you have. The website produces the highest quality, lowest cost leads, and without an optimized, highly-converting website, your marketing strategy will leave enrollments on the table.  

What about social media?

There are two sides of social, organic and paid. Organically, your social media should be tied to strategic goals (i.e., establishing the brand voice, reinforcing positioning) and metrics (i.e., driving web traffic, engagement rate). Don’t feel the need to use every channel, especially if you have limited resources.

For the paid side, there are a few low-cost, no-brainer strategies that you should use, like website and CRM retargeting.

The other main paid advertising tactic is Google Ads, formerly known as AdWords. Like paid social media, there are a few elements that every college should be doing, such as retargeting and branded search, that won’t dent your budget. The problem for most higher education institutions is that the more advanced Google Ads tactics can be difficult to manage in house due to the technical knowledge required, so many schools need to find a vendor or consultant that they can trust (*ahem*, if you’re in this boat … we know someone).

We created an in-depth post that walks you through how to create a higher ed digital marketing strategy, which channels you should use, and which ones you should avoid.   

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If you work on a campus, you know there are plenty more than three challenges facing higher ed marketers. Feel free to share what you see as major challenges, in the comments below.