Oh The Times They Are A Changing

Go to college. Get a degree. Get a job that pays well.

This was the road-map to success for generations past that laid them out to generations current. However, somewhere along that plan, the plan that served millions of generation X-ers and generation Y-ers, the path changed. At the end of the Fall Semester 2015, national enrollment numbers declined for the eighth semester in a row.

Over the past few years, college enrollment statistics in the US have been declining.

Ask any higher education professional and they’ll all knowledge this, and i’d be willing to bet they’re all a little worried about it, too. Consider that from 2003-2013, the number of full-time enrolled students rose 22 percent, and now over the last few years those numbers have been steadily declining; wouldn’t that scare you?

Higher education is in new territory. With $1.1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the US, faltering high school graduation rates, and the current mire created by “For-Profit” schools that has garnered media attention, higher education enrollment efforts finds themselves fighting a war of attrition, perhaps one it cannot win.

With declining populations of potential students, a rise of blue-collar industries and entrepreneurship, and a newfound question as to the value of a college degree when compared to its costs, and the saturation and competition of other higher education options presented to students, it seems like dark days for higher education.

But the pessimist is never the one who finds solutions, no, it’s the creative optimist that finds new ways to do old business. Across the country, universities are taking to new approaches in order to draw in more students, rebrand themselves, and set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd. Through more strategic marketing, universities are turning the tables.


New Marketing for New Students

Marketing methods and channels for reaching prospective students are changing. There used to be a time when colleges and universities would only reach out to students through mailers, college fairs, and traditional advertising options, but now the game has changed.

Michael May, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, said that they have shifted to a digital strategy that is heavy on social media and using channels that reach their target audiences. More and more universities are beginning to target the current crop of students, the Millennials, using the channels that they interact with the most.

“All schools are now forced to explain the value they provide to students. Students and parents want to know how this degree will pay off for them 50 years down the road. Marketing avenues shift to answer these questions.” Said May.

This shift in marketing attitude corresponds to the shift in students’ mindsets. This approach of focusing more specifically on a set type of student is very similar to the Inbound Marketing principle of buyer personas, which uses the target audience, they’re demographic, backgrounds, personalities, and the other factors that make them unique, as a specific persona to market to.

Inbound marketing lets the user create content and incentives specifically for the target audience, in this case it’s marketing that speaks directly to students and offers them content that they want and gets the university a new lead to court. For instance, using blogs a university can create content that prospective students are searching for, and can use the blog as a way to provide that information to them. Following that up, a university could create premium content that requires students to fill out a form before they receive it, perhaps a “College Move-in Day Checklist”, that provides the university with their contact info to reach out to the student with.


Non-Traditional Focus

In addition to the current traditional student age group, universities must also now focus on the “non-traditional” students as well. The mother of four getting a degree in her spare time, the 40-something year old man who has an interest in economics but never went to college, these non-traditional students are making up a larger portion of the enrolled student-base each year.

This change in direction when it comes to admissions marketing has happened because of who today’s prospective student are. In 2012, 25% of students were over the age of 30, with a projected increase of 39% by 2019. Non-traditional students are growing force in a diminishing market.

There’s an ideological shift underway as well. Universities are now focusing on target markets of students, the students who fit what their university does, instead of casting a wide net.. By tailoring their messaging to the specific demographic of students who fit what they look for, universities are focusing their message and hoping to find the perfect student.

Going Beyond Your Backyard

Merrilyn Dunlap, Interim-Director of Admissions at Clarion University, says that not only are they focusing on their traditional standards of high-performing students in their local areas, they are going out of state in surrounding regions to attract prospective students who fit the Clarion mold.

Both Dunlap and May cited the intense competition for students in today’s market, explaining how just being lower in cost isn’t enough anymore. As discussed by Dunlap, and later seconded by May, students have their choice of universities so it’s about providing the value to them, really selling what the university and their degrees can do for them. It’s about promoting their accreditation (something For-Profit schools do not have). It’s about the relationships students are able to form with their professors and the university itself.

A Brighter Future?

It seems that while times are daunting for higher education admissions, but there is hope. Through enrollment efforts, a continuing fervor to learn who their target students are, what they value, and a refinement in the methods to reach them, some colleges are on the right path to gaining more students than the previous year. This change in philosophy and acceptance of new marketing methods (like Inbound Marketing principles) is what’s helping win the fight. It’s a well-known saying that those who refuse to change or adapt will be left behind. In today’s world of higher education, this is a truth.

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