Businessman standing atop giant gears that are out of alignment

Marketing Misalignment in Higher Education

This week the Chronicle released the results of its third annual enrollment and revenue survey. Among members of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) that responded, 59% of these private colleges experienced declines in enrollment or net tuition revenue this fall. So now half of them plan to put more resources into what is described as “marketing” because of it.

Yet marketing dollars and efforts are only well spent if several elements are aligned with each other:

  • Promotion and product—Advertising and increased awareness can only pay off if students find that what they were told about a college matches the actual experience they have there. Otherwise, the misalignment can lead to retention issues (a big enough problem as it is, since nationally only 67% of students return to the same institution after their first year, according to the College Scorecard), not to mention negative word of mouth in social media and other networks of influence.
  • Product and price—The high-price/high-discount model that prevails among private colleges and universities can make for some strange congruencies. Institutions that are moderately selective and financially struggling can have the same “sticker price” as wealthy and prestigious institutions with far more campus amenities and brand equity. Price misalignment becomes particularly problematic for colleges with deferred maintenance issues because students base their standards for what they’ll get in return on the cachet of quality implied by the institution’s sticker price, not on what they actually paid.
  • Price and mission—Many colleges and universities have a mission to expand access among underserved populations. Yet oftentimes the net price for these students does not meet their full demonstrated need. This type of misalignment is becoming even more of an issue now that 87% of private college admissions directors think their institution is losing potential applicants due to concerns about accumulating student loan debt, according to an Inside Higher Ed survey.
  • Mission and culture—Almost every college and university also professes to want to advance the open exploration of ideas and embrace the evolution of continuous improvement. Yet in reality, they are often places that erect significant obstacles to change. In the realm of marketing, especially, institutions that can avoid this type misalignment and keep up with the times will have an advantage.

Marketing is too often seen as just the art of promotion and brand awareness. But it is an art and a science that requires genuine alignment among the message, the experience, and the marketplace. Misaligned efforts diffuse effectiveness and impact, not only stunting growth opportunities, but also perpetuating marketing challenges.


Enrollment Survey

The Chronicle’s survey of CIC members found almost two-thirds experienced enrollment or NTR declines.

Admissions Director Survey

Inside Higher Ed’s survey of admissions directors revealed a big problem with perceptions of student loan debt.

PPY’s Impact

We recapped some articles about how the prior-prior year (PPY) changes to the FAFSA will affect private colleges.


Lawlor Recommends

Today’s higher education marketplace is full of opportunities and challenges. As we have noted over the past several years, these are times that call for fresh thinking, new ideas, reflective insights, and edupreneurial behavior. And as the author of The Creator’s Code, Amy Wilkinson, recently noted at our Lunch with Lawlor event in San Diego, harnessing the cognitive diversity of the community to build off each other’s ideas is just one of the essential skills of extraordinary entrepreneurs. Engaging in a process of networking minds (watch Amy explain this) can lead to new and exciting marketing-related ideas.

It takes a village to recruit a class and retain a class. Now is the time for informed collaboration and institutional congruence, so that both the actual campus experience and its perceived value can better align with the college’s aspirations.