Colleges Need to Change How They Market to Students
And the most important question they must answer is: what will you invest in the student?
The future is bleak for colleges in the United States. A 2019 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that college enrolment has decreased for the eighth consecutive year, with that downward slope only expected to continue in the future.
This is not a new problem.
As an article from The Atlantic reads, “As enrolments dwindle and competition for tuition-paying students intensifies, more and more colleges and universities are resorting to hard-sell strategies which, in some cases, impinge upon the traditional standards and canons of higher education.”
That quote comes from the October 1979 issue of The Atlantic. Given the timeliness of the content, it could have been written in 2019.
It’s up to colleges to find new ways to reach students. The administration at such institutions must begin innovating marketing strategies to stay relevant. But how? How can a college alter its marketing platform to rejuvenate a dwindling customer group?
Perhaps the customers themselves can provide the answers to such questions.
As a college student, I’ve spent time talking to my peers about this issue. What, I ask them, was it that made them choose a specific institution? After multiple discussions with peers, I believe there are four steps colleges can take to improve enrolment rates.
Personal notes are crucial
When discussing this problem with my classmates, the biggest stated problem with many colleges is that the marketing outreach feels so impersonal. High school students are inundated with pamphlets, postcards, and letters from the beginning of their junior or senior year. The sheer volume of advertisements that arrive daily is overwhelming; during my last year of high school, it was not uncommon to receive between eight to ten letters every day.
At some point, I stopped reading those letters. It seemed that every single institution in the nation wanted me to tour their campus, but all of the letters began: “Dear prospective student…”
Those impersonal notes only turned me away from many universities. But a small number of colleges attracted my attention by sending personalised, handwritten cards from current students. Those universities quickly moved to the top of my list — not only did the letters show an initiative on behalf of the marketing department, but the handwritten notes displayed collaboration between the admissions team and the students who had taken the time to write the letters.
Many of my peers have echoed similar sentiments. A student’s decision can be swayed by the simple act of receiving a handwritten letter from the advertising institution. So why aren’t more colleges adopting that practice?
Let students experience the classroom
Few high school students know what to expect on their first day of classes. As thorough as high school can be in preparing students for the next step into higher education, it cannot prepare students for the classroom experience of a college.
The best way to show students what college has to offer? Let them sit in on a class that is related to the student’s intended major. This will allow the student to experience college in a new perspective, and it increases the knowledge a student will use when finalising their decision.
Forget about fancy amenities — what’s the dorm room like?
“State-of-the-art student center,” one brochure displays in bold text. “New student gym!” another proudly exclaims. A cursory look at the pamphlets I received from colleges shows a strong emphasis on new buildings, stocked with high-end amenities to attract future students.
But what I’ve discovered — and what I experienced in my own college-search process — is that students aren’t looking at the fancy details. Prospective students want to know what the regular, daily living conditions are for current college students. The truth is much more important than any sugar-coated information.
What does the dorm room look like? What does the bathroom look like? These are the questions that a marketing team needs to address. A pamphlet with this information may be more beneficial than a pamphlet obscuring the normality of the college experience.
What will you invest in the student?
This is the most important question that colleges must address. A college student that is paying high tuition costs will expect knowledgeable professors and informative classes, but there is also an expectation that the institution will invest back into the student.
Investing in students may include: organising job fairs, providing the funds to attend competitions and symposiums, and hosting professional speakers — among other activities.
This is a critical component of the marketing strategy of a university. Showing a willingness to invest in students is a necessary step in attracting prospective students to the institution.
For a current high school student, the biggest deterrent to attending college is that it just may not be worth it. Why attend a four-year institution when you can immediately join the workforce, earning a liveable wage, and not rack up student debt? It’s a fair question, and many young Americans are answering it by choosing the non-college route.
To attract those graduating high schoolers, colleges must show that attending a four-year institution is worth it in the long-run. Only by showing the future benefits of continuing education will a college be able to attract students.