Four Challenges Universities Face

In my dissertation, I looked at how marketing might be utilized to mitigate the enrollment cliff. I wanted to understand how marketing officers thought they might help solve this enrollment challenge.

The marketing officers I spoke with had lots to say about the role of marketing offices, best practices that should be considered, and ways marketing strategies can help.

They also offered a bit of insight about the overall challenges that universities in our country are facing. While this wasn’t a major part of the study, I do think it helps to showcase how the enrollment decline is linked to several other challenges, making it tough to untangle.

About the Participants

For this study, I visited with those in the CMO role at regional public universities across the Southeast United States. In all, I visited with 15 individuals who are serving as CMO at their institution. I also reviewed supporting documents they were willing to provide.

What the Research Showed

The research showed multiple challenges. However, there were four primary challenges the participants identified universities would have to address in order to overcome the enrollment cliff.

Value of Higher Ed Being Challenged – Several participants talked about the idea that college itself was being questioned. With other credentialed options and continued rising costs, higher education institutions must be able to articulate how they set students up for success. Additionally, participants talked of the need to market higher education’s value, in addition to promoting a particular institution. One participant indicated her department would be doing this as part of their upcoming marketing buy. Interestingly enough, the Chronicle discussed this same concept when wondering if a national marketing campaign on the value of college could help change public perception.

Because of the shift in public perception of higher education, we [universities] are more having to justify our work and why we exist and why we’re valuable.

Study Participant

Fewer Students & Demographic Shifts – Multiple participants talked about the idea there would be fewer students, and students will have different needs and challenges. This meant that universities needed to focus on retaining the current students, needed to consider changing their recruitment model, and may need to consider recruiting new types of students. If universities want to recruit diverse and currently underserved audiences, universities need to make sure to the campus, the community, and the university services provided support those audiences. This takes time, and it runs contrary to the idea that sometimes plagues universities: we can be all things to all people. Additionally, changing a recruitment model can have brand implications and may require offices that provide additional resources for students. The participants stressed such decisions should be considered from several viewpoints and not rushed.

We’re one of the few in our state that are selective admissions. So our brand is not to take everybody. Anyway, so one of the challenges is for us, at least, when your pool is smaller, but you’re not going to take everybody, what does that do to your enrollment?

Study Participant

Managing Change & Getting Buy-In – Another challenge that universities will have to overcome is the idea of managing change. Simply put, the participants don’t think universities are very good at it. They all shared examples of trying to make changes and having to get lots of buy-in to make the changes they knew were critical. Expand that to the campus as a whole, and it is easy to see that managing change is going to be problematic. One way the participants managed change was spending time getting support. They discussed using marketing councils, building relationships, and offering university trainings to help project themselves as experts and to get support to make the needed changes. However, several participants noted this takes away from doing the work itself.

We send out a weekly newsletter to the campus. The newsletter is all that university communications has put out in the past week. These are things that would be great to share. And so we’ve basically got channels set that these are the press releases that we wrote, these are the videos we made, this is the podcast for the week. If you need information on these things, you can find them here.

Study Participant

Prioritizing Programs – Universities struggle with being all things to all people. However, participants noted that moving forward, universities were going to have to make decisions about what programs should benefit from marketing or even campus resources. The notion the participants shared is that programs needed to be evaluated against market demand and cost to offer to make these decisions. Thinking of university programs as products in this way is sometimes unpopular. Many participants shared they have access to website and other data that can help provide these answers, but they aren’t always invited to the table to give feedback. The challenge of deciding how to prioritize programs and then actually doing that work is something that participants felt most universities struggle with and may continue to struggle with for some time.

I think you’re going to see more niching in the market because our resources aren’t going to continue to grow in a way that allows us to present ourselves as everything to everyone. We will have to decide who we are as an institution and then create a communication plan that reinforces that and strengthens our position for those programs and those particular areas of interest.

Study Participant

Where Do We Go From Here?

While the challenges described above are significant, there is good news — especially for marketing and communication teams.

The most recent data from SimpsonScarborough showed that marketing teams are getting to help. In fact, 73% of those who responded to the survey indicated they are part of the President’s Cabinet. That number increased from 47% in the prior survey.

Additionally, we have to keep talking about this. Part of the data in my dissertation also showed that marketing teams had a unique opportunity to be change agents for campus. As such, it is up to us to keep talking about the challenges and helping bring people together to think about how we solve them. Our job in working with so much of campus uniquely positions us to do this work. And we must keep at it.

While the lift is great for our teams, it is an exciting time, and I believe that our marketing teams can play a role in helping solve this higher ed challenge.

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