Five essential higher education marketing management principles

For this post, I want to return the following statement by Hiram College President Kenneth Brown (1940):

The uncertain future will be determined largely by the vision and the untiring effort of the college servants in ascertaining the educational needs of that section of American youth which the college serves and in fulfilling these needs in a superior way—but also partially at least by national and economic forces wholly outside their control.

In 1940, President Brown made this prescient statement that succinctly underscores the importance of marketing in higher education today. This statement imparts five contemporary marketing management implications for us to consider.

First, marketers monitor emerging trends and adapt to changes.

The future is uncertain and our response relies upon reliable forecasts. We forecast how many donors will renew their annual support, how many prospective students will accept offers of admission, how many continuing students will return the next term, or which courses should be offered the next year. We also speculate about broader developments, such as online education. The future is unknowable, but we should think about what might happen and make adjustments as we collect new information.

Second, all “college servants”—including trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders—are responsible for marketing.

As I outlined in a previous post, marketing involves identifying customers and developing products for those customers. Marketing is not the purview of the marketing office alone. For example, faculty and staff in academic and student affairs have relationships with students, so they have valuable information about students and what products or services students want or need.

My research on marketing organizational structure indicates that an organization must adapt to its environment. For some colleges, that means appointing a chief marketing officer (“CMO”) reporting to the president. Others have a marketing director reporting to a vice president in institutional advancement or enrollment management. Some colleges may not have anyone in the organizational structure responsible for marketing by title or job description. There is no one best way to organize; there are a variety of ways to adapt to external environmental pressures.

My research concludes that colleges and universities should prioritize marketing at the highest level whether or not this is reflected by the appointment of someone with “marketing” in his or her title. Presidents, provosts, and senior officers should carry out marketing activities—even if it is not called marketing—and empower those reporting to them to do the same.

Third, marketers are responsible for determining the needs of the students that the college serves.

In President Brown’s era, “American youth” described the student demographic of his private liberal arts college in the Midwest. That is not true today. International and posttraditional students (a new term of art that I am seeing to describe adult or nontraditional learners) are important demographics.

Beyond changing demographics, this marketing management implication involves essential activities that are often overlooked in higher education: market segmentation and target marketing. For example, some admissions offices behave as if all prospective students are roughly equally likely to enroll and allocate resources correspondingly. However, that is counter-productive to recruiting a class.

Put another way, Northeast Ohio has five community colleges, four state universities, a freestanding medical school, dozens of private colleges, and several for-profit institutions. Collectively, these colleges and universities enroll 225,000 degree-seeking college students. It would be impracticable (and undesirable) for all of those students to attend a single institution. Therefore, higher education leaders determine the segment of the total college-going population they serve best and assign resources accordingly. If you are not sure whom you serve best, start with this year’s graduating class and expand your analysis until you find your direction.

This lesson can be applied to other areas, not just student enrollment. Fundraisers, for example, can segment past and potential donors by a variety of characteristics and target outreach appropriately.

Fourth, marketers develop programs or services that fulfill customer needs better than its competitors.

This implies knowing your strong or distinctive programs, and knowing the same about your competitors. Higher education marketers should ask students what persuaded them to enroll and what keeps them returning. By doing this, marketers can also uncover experiences that might lead students to explore other colleges, which could lead to program improvement. Marketers should also ask the following questions: When students consider your institution, what other schools are they considering? Why? When students leave your institutions, what schools are they attending instead? Why? This will provide critical information about your position in the marketplace.

Finally, the most important implication for marketing managers is that the external environment exerts tremendous pressure on colleges and universities.

Political, economic, social, technological, and legal forces are acting upon higher education, and in most cases, these forces are beyond our control. For example, online education and massive open online courses (“MOOCs”) are changing the way we think about education delivery and credit for learning. The Affordable Care Act is changing the way that we think about using part-time and adjunct instructors or student interns. College costs have come to the forefront due to changes in the broader economy since 2007.

In practice, the day-to-day internal issues and pressures often divert attention away from the external environment. This is unfortunate. Higher education leaders sometimes make decisions considering primarily internal politics without much regard for external realities. The implication for marketers is to constantly survey the external environment and make connections to what is happening internally. Remember that marketers constantly forecast the future and adapt to changes. Forecasting does little good if it only considers what has happened in one institutional setting or what has happened in the past. Always be outwardly focused.

President Brown may not have had all of this in mind when he made the statement above, but I think his words speak directly to the challenges and opportunities for marketing in higher education today.


Brown, K. I. (1940). A campus decade: The Hiram Study Plan of intensive courses. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

What parents are saying about going to college

Inside Higher Ed and Gallop recently released the results of a poll of parents of pre-college students about college. The article and full report provide valuable insight to marketers and communicators in higher education.

Some of the key findings are as follows:

  1. Sticker price reigns supreme. Despite efforts to educate students and families about financial aid, seven out of 10 parents of ninth to twelfth graders are somewhat likely or very likely to restrict their child’s college selection based upon published tuition.
  2. Parents want their children to go to college to get a good job more than any other reason. This ranks higher than to become a well-rounded person, to earn more money, to learn to think critically, and to learn more about the world.
  3. Parents may or may not help pay for college. The poll showed that 21 percent of parents would consider taking $50,000 or more in loans to pay for college, and 20 percent would not take on any debt.

These are important findings for anyone on a college campus responsible for academic and co-curricular programs, tuition and financial aid, and communications to students and families. Higher education marketers should review these results in the context of their own institutions, perhaps asking key questions about their programs.

With respect to pricing and debt, marketers might ask the following questions: How do parents respond to published tuition and fees? How well do parents understand how financial aid works? Would keeping tuition low help attract more students or would it not likely make a difference?

With respect to jobs, marketers might ask how the career services office is prepared to help students enter the job market, beginning from the time that the student arrives on campus. The question does not need to be limited to career services, however. Provosts, deans, and department chairs should consider how academic departments are counseling students to find jobs.

For communications professionals, the survey results invite questions about how we promote a college or university and its programs. These findings are particularly challenging for small, private, liberal arts colleges that have a higher sticker price and a lower emphasis on job placement. What do you say to parents in this environment?

The survey results indicate that a focus on competitive cost and positive job placement outcomes would resonate with parents. Additionally, colleges and universities need to be sensitive to the preferences of parents on the topic of debt for their son or daughter’s college education.