How Private, Independent College Presidents View Marketing

Results of the 2016 Independent College Presidents Survey, a LAWLOR and RHB collaboration, were revealed last month in an executive summary shared at the CIC Presidents Institute and the NAICU Annual Meeting. Among the 216 presidents from private institutions throughout the nation who responded to the survey, 70% hold memberships in CIC and/or NAICU, and undergraduate residential enrollment at their institutions averages 1,149 students.

The survey focused on how presidents at these small private colleges view the marketing function at their institutions and their perceptions of the marketing challenges they face. Among the findings:

  • Most presidents’ cabinets include their chief marketing officer. Although “vice president” is in the title of the highest level professional charged with leading marketing efforts at only 44% of the institutions, at 70% of institutions that marketing leader sits on the president’s cabinet or executive team.
  • Presidents acknowledge the role of the product in marketing. When asked about how they currently prioritize five elements of the marketing mix—product, price, place, promotion, and people—60% said product is currently their highest priority or co-priority, and 75% said they desired it to be their highest. That was followed by people (53% current, 57% desired), price (48% current, 50% desired), promotion (40% current, 48% desired), and place (35% current, 34% desired) as their highest priority or co-priority.
  • Marketing functions are more centralized than marketing budgets are. Despite the marketing function being centralized (that is, all initiatives and projects going through one office) at 70% of the institutions, the marketing budget resides in a single marketing unit at only 45% of the institutions. At 48% of the institutions, the marketing budget resides in both the marketing unit and individual departments.
  • Among market forces, families’ ability and willingness to pay for a college education are most concerning to presidents. Presidents were presented with a list of 11 external market forces and asked to rank which one they believe presents the greatest challenge to their institution. Leading the pack were “families’ ability to pay” (chosen by 42%) and “families’ willingness to pay” (18%). Another 21% ranked “ability” as second or third in importance for a top-three total of 63%, and “willingness” had a top-three total of 47%.
  • Presidents are more challenged by market competition from public institutions than from other private institutions. A total of 15% of presidents chose competition from other institutions as their most challenging external force—10% selected “competition from public institutions (two- and four-year colleges),” 3% selected “competition from other educational providers (may include for-profits, online providers, certificate programs, etc.),” and 2% selected “increased competition from other private/independent institutions.” As a top-three force, public competition totaled 43%, private competition totaled 23%, and other competition totaled 13%.

For more findings, visit the collaboration’s website,, where John Lawlor and Carole Arwidson of The Lawlor Group and Rick Bailey of RHB also share insights and key takeaways based on their analyses of the findings.


Presidents Survey Executive Summary

Our executive summary of the 2016 Independent College Presidents Survey is available for download free of charge. (Lawlor/RHB)

Chief Academic Officers Survey

A key finding: 47% of CAOs believe their institution’s financial situation has worsened in the last year. (Inside Higher Ed)

Crowdfunding Tuition

GoFundMe reports a growing trend of college students using its online social fundraising platform to solicit tuition money. (GoFundMe)


Lawlor Recommends

Even Charles Dickens would note today that these are very interesting times for higher education—particularly for college presidents. Inertia is not a strategy forward, while a genuine understanding about the art and science of marketing is a necessity. For so long, the concept of strategic marketing was totally misunderstood and generally dismissed or diminished. The reality of the marketplace has changed that way of thinking.

No question, there is now a growing concern among college presidents and their colleagues about the responsibilities they must shoulder in dealing with the marketing challenges they are facing—some internal and many external. Our recent collaborative research initiative with RHB made it readily apparent that there was a genuine need for presidents to have a shared understanding about the real marketing challenges facing private higher education (and for that matter, all of higher education), as well as a more informed perspective about how best to address those challenges and then create opportunities that overcome those challenges, advance their individual institutions, and successfully meet institutional goals.

As we noted in one of our previous Smarketplace blog posts, the opening speaker at this year’s CIC Presidents Institute said that higher education is “wrestling with muscle memory of doing things the same way.” Today’s marketplace conditions (and frankly, the accompanying pattern of results) are a candid reminder to tone some other “thinking muscles” and a catalyst for campus leaders to think differently and actively foster a culture of edupreneurism—that is, entrepreneurial thinking in the higher education marketplace. Garnering market intelligence to inform intelligent solutions—which could be new, different, and even distinctive—is now a must.

The good news is that we are seeing and experiencing more of a willingness to consider new ideas and solutions. We are actively collaborating with more edupreneurial presidents and senior leadership officers with new strategic initiatives. Not trendy, formulaic, tactical band-aid activities, but viable solutions informed by genuine market intelligence and an authentic understanding of their SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) landscape. Just as Charles Dickens once noted, these are interesting times as “an age of wisdom” for some, and for others, “an age of foolishness.” It’s time to get smart about the realities of the marketplace—and respond accordingly.