Professionalization of the Field

In doing my dissertation, I looked at marketing and the enrollment cliff, one of the items I found is the professionalization of the marketing field.

A quick search for the definition, and I found the perfect explanation…

The action or process of giving an occupation, activity, or group professional qualities, typically by increasing training or raising required qualifications.

Oxford Languages and Google

This is exactly what is happening, in my opinion, to marketing teams at institutions across the country. In my dissertation, I interviewed CMOs at universities in the Southeast United States. This is a quote from one of the participants that explains the transition he is has seen in the field:

When I started, if you had a TV campaign, a radio campaign, a billboard campaign, and a newspaper campaign, you were good to go — if you had the money and a good campaign. 

Study Participant

How Did the Change Happen?

I’ll try to be relatively brief here, but I think it is important to understand how the marketing field changed in recent years, and there are three primary drivers at play:

Increased Competition Among Institutions.

There were 4,300 degree-granting institutions in the U.S. in 2018 according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Approximately 69% of students who graduated high school enrolled in some type of higher education setting the following year, meaning colleges and universities were competing for students to attend their institution. The more students who attended the more (at state schools) tuition dollars the university received.

Enrollment Cliff

The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education predicted that between 2025 and 2037, there will be approximately 400,000 fewer college-age students in the United States. The enrollment cliff is a byproduct of the downturn in the U.S. economy in 2007 when the birthrate fell as families waited to have children or did not have children at all, according to a Hechinger Report. This cliff will have a multi-million dollar financial impact on universities, which can significantly impact the bottom line of a university.

Rising Tuition Costs  

Tuition costs have also risen drasticaly in recent years. As state support has decreased, the costs have been passed to students, with increases averaging more than 300% between 1990-91 and 2020-21, according to a College Board Report. This meant that in 2020, the maximum Pell Grant award was less than $6,500 a year per student, but the cost of tuition was more than four times that amount according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

What it Means Now

With the changes above, many universities are now heavily dependent on tuition dollars to survive. State funds, private dollars, and other forms of revenue are not enough. Many universities have become tuition-dependent.

This shift has created changes in university systems and cultures. If you’re into theories — go read about resource dependence theory. It very much explains what we’re seeing.

The abbreviated version is that one way universities have adapted to the need for tuition revenue is to formalize the marketing role and its importance to help universities secure needed resources.

It’s Not a Bad Thing

Marketing teams matter to universities, and the professionalization only gives them more opportunity to do work that can help the institution succeed.

Here are two of the marketing teams that I’ve had the privilege to work with over the past 14 years. While ver different, both genuinely want to make a positive impact and help the university and its students.

Some of the Benefits of Professionalization

So, what are the benefits of professionalization of marketing. To me, there are three specific benefits:

Marketing is a Campus Function

Marketing is a more wholistic unit that collaborates with the entire campus and helps support the entire university. Marketing has many tasks now that are much wider in scope and involve building relationships with partners across campus. Some of these kinds of tasks include building a brand, being an agent that can lead change and assist in collateral production for the full campus.

There’s more focus on the services that our office can provide, so people know that marketing or communication is there, so you’re a lot more accessible than we were. 

Study participant

Marketing Is a Daily Partner

Marketing is much more engaged in the day-to-day work of marketing a university to various audiences. This involves developing storytelling narratives, branded messages and assisting with prospective student communication. Previously, marketing had a reputation of creating billboards, commercials and print ads that may not have been related in any way to other campus messages. To put it simply, things are much more integrated.

It’s now much deeper into shaping the recruitment messages, formulating the communication flow for admitted students, developing yield campaigns, as well as alumni engagement campaigns. 

Study participant

Marketing Provides Regular Support to Key Functions

Marketing teams also provide enhanced support to key functions across the university. Instead of creating content in isolation, marketing is now working closely with key functions to provide end-to-end support for these areas. My research found one of the primary roles of marketing was to more intentionally collaborate with admissions to assist in recruiting students. However, recent data from Simpson Scarborough also suggested the importance of focusing on retaining students as well.

Our number one role is enhancing undergraduate enrollment and recruiting 

Study participant

Wrapping Up

The professionalization of marketing is not perfect. Ask just about any marketing team member and they will be able to share challenges. Likely they sound something like this: budget, buy-in and workload.

However, it is an exciting time to be in marketing. We as practitioners are respected as legitimate professionals, are gaining the ability to be in the room where decisions are made and are making an impact on prospective students and donors.

While it’s not perfect, professionalization of our field is a good thing. And I, for one, am excited to see what the future holds.

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