Marketsmith Inc.

Navigating the New Era of Higher Education:

Putting Students First

In today's fast-paced world, colleges and universities face a whole new ballgame. It's not just about getting students through the door anymore; it's about winning their trust, attention, and ultimately, their hearts. This shift mirrors the consumerism we see in every aspect of our lives—a battle for attention and loyalty.

Imagine being a student on the brink of one of the biggest decisions of your life: choosing where to pursue higher education. It's a daunting task, filled with uncertainty and questions about the future. Understanding this journey and what goes on in the minds of these students is key to helping them make the right choice.

For too long, EDU marketers have focused on capturing as many leads as possible, like filling a leaky bucket. But we've realized that's not enough. It's about quality over quantity, and ultimately about guiding students through every step of their decision-making process, from initial interest to enrollment.

The Changing Higher Education Landscape

Like so many industries, the higher education space has been turned on its head over the past few years. While online learning is no longer the necessity it was at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the continued increase in demand for online education programs is undeniable.

However, COVID-19 wasn’t the only impetus for changes in higher ed. Not only had undergraduate enrollment declined for eight consecutive years pre-pandemic, but colleges and universities must now prepare for an undergraduate enrollment cliff that will begin in 2025.

Luckily, as the higher education space has evolved, so too have the tools available to marketers. For colleges and universities to mitigate enrollment declines and effectively market their virtual and online programs, marketers will need to update their strategies and expand into channels like programmatic, CTV, and emerging social platforms.

What are the challenges we are facing in Higher Education?

The decrease in higher education enrollment rates is fueled by multiple factors. In a recent survey, US adults ranked the price of tuition, family responsibilities, and work conflicts as their top three reasons for not enrolling in higher ed. Competition from alternative and online training programs, such as tech boot camps, is another big factor.

Perhaps even more impactful, however, is the rise in public skepticism over the benefits of higher education. A 2022 poll found that only 49 percent of Americans think the economic benefits of a college education outweigh the costs. And in another survey, nearly half of US parents said they’d prefer their children pursue alternative postsecondary options, even if there were no barriers to getting a bachelor’s degree.

While historically universities have positioned themselves as experts in certain fields and/or relied heavily on promoting campus life, this shift in consumer mindset means positioning must shift as well. This is where constant campaign testing is crucial – for both creative messaging and audience targeting. Adjusted value propositions like online courses where students can go at their own pace, access to faculty, career counseling services, etc. should all be tested against various target audiences to allow for a clear understanding of which messaging paired with which audiences produce the highest quality leads and enrollees.

While the trend of enrollment declines in higher education is a long-term one, the rise of online and virtual offerings has come on fast and furious in the past several years. Investment in education technologies that support virtual and online learning is growing, and innovations from digital education start-ups are putting additional pressure on traditional institutions to up the sophistication and quality of their own online offerings. Put simply, the online education market is rapidly expanding, creating a significant amount of competition for colleges and universities to keep up with and making it all the more important to differentiate themselves with their marketing.

With more customer choice, brand recognition and perception has become increasingly more important. Offering online services is a big opportunity for colleges and universities as it opens up an additional market of consumers. However, without the right marketing approach, focused on building up the brand value, the competition will be fierce and difficult to overcome. Institutions that have a longstanding presence within a market have the benefit of inherent recognition within that market. The right marketing partner will understand how to leverage that existing brand value to craft a strategy that builds and expands upon that perception.

How Can Higher Education Marketers Adjust To A Changing Landscape?

So, how can marketers succeed in this tumultuous time for higher education? In short, by leaning into the changes. Marketing to the virtual world, testing and learning on new platforms, and segmenting and targeting will be key.

Marketsmith’s Data-Driven Full-Funnel Approach

At MSI, we know that higher education marketing is no different than any direct-to-consumer approach that needs carefully crafted messaging designed to highlight core value propositions that resonate with the target. But it can’t stop there. A full-funnel approach requires intelligent sequential messaging and the right level of frequency to capture valuable and qualified leads. It's about creating meaningful connections with students, showcasing what makes each institution unique, and helping students understand the value of their investment in their future. But making this happen requires more than just good intentions; it requires a solid foundation of data.

By diving deep into historical data, we can uncover insights into what really matters to students. Armed with this knowledge, we can craft personalized strategies that cut through the noise and speak directly to the hearts of our audience. It's about meeting students where they are and providing the support they need to make informed decisions.

But this isn't something colleges and universities can do alone. It requires a partnership between institutions and agencies, a shared commitment to investing in the tools and strategies needed to succeed in this new landscape.

In the end, the shift towards a more direct-to-consumer model in higher education isn't just a trend—it's a revolution. By embracing this change and putting students at the center of everything we do, we can shape the future of education.

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