Delivering what customers want most: jobs after college

The higher education industry has increased its focus on student learning outcomes, especially graduation rates, since the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education released its final report in 2006. However, according to a recent Gallop survey, the real outcome that Americans seek more than any other is not a diploma; it is a job. Graduates who are able to get a “good job” ranked higher than the percentage of students who graduate from the college or the price of the college in a survey conducted on behalf of the Lumina Foundation in May 2013.

According to the survey, 41% of all respondents (a random selection of adults age 18 and older in all 50 states) say that job placement of graduates is the most important factor in choosing a college, followed by 37% for the price of the college and 16% for the percentage of students who graduate from the college.

The survey found that a majority of Americans say that a year of tuition should be $20,000 at most. Only 23% of the respondents strongly agreed or agreed that higher tuition means higher quality.

These findings are critically important for higher education marketing and communications professionals. From an institutional marketing perspective, the findings prompt us to ask about the programs of study we offer and their pathways to careers. Do the programs we offer provide learning outcomes relevant to local or statewide labor market demands? This is not a trivial question with a simple answer, especially for liberal arts colleges. What is the role of career services when a good job is the most desirable outcome of higher education? Does the college or university have a robust internship program that places students into workplaces during their courses of study? In my experience, most career services offices are under-resourced and under-staffed to compete in this environment.

Implications for price are as prevalent as programs. If a higher cost does not equate to a perception of higher quality and most Americans value higher education at no more than $20,000 per year, then many colleges and universities are in a position of competitive disadvantage. If quality is not a differentiator at a higher price point, then what is? What are the implications for tuition discounting?

From a communications perspective, the survey underscores the importance of communicating to pre-college students and families about the career pathways that will be available for students after graduation. Promoting the institution’s internship program or showing accomplishments of recent graduates are excellent ways to convey this message. For example, in my experience with adult student recruitment, testimonials are among the best ways to communicate to prospective students.

Higher education institutions are complex organizations that have many inputs and outputs. Every higher education leader should be attuning to the American public’s want for jobs after attending college. Marketing and communications professionals are in ideal positions to develop strategy to adapt to this environment.

Organizational leadership by the marketing mix: Promotion (part 4 of 4)

Notre Dame College’s president used the marketing mix as a framework for leading the institution through remarkable enrollment and revenue growth. The previous three parts of this series explained program, place, and price. The fourth P of the marketing mix, promotion, is the most visible. Promotion involves both personal selling and mass communication.

In the case of Notre Dame College, promotion involved personal selling—often called a “personal touch” approach—emphasizing recruitment staff outreach to prospective students via mail, email, and telephone, including helping students and families with financial aid, which had not been a standard practice before Dr. Roth’s presidency. During my interviews on campus, one administrator explicitly stated the importance of building personal relationships with school counselors, high school coaches, prospective students, and families.

Advertising played an important role in the college’s promotion plans despite limited financial resources. The college engaged the services of consultants to help promote its online learning programs and identify candidates for its traditional program. Notre Dame administrators also took a novel approach to media buys in the Cleveland market by advertising small amounts in many media channels, creating the appearance of having a much larger media presence.

Notre Dame’s president and senior administrators in enrollment and communications carried out its promotional activities. Interestingly, the college did not have a person with the word “marketing” in his or her title through most of the period of tremendous growth.

The focus on organizational leadership by the marketing mix underscores that marketing is an activity that takes place across functional divisions and at the highest levels of the institution. It also underscores that promotion is only one part of the marketing mix. My case study of program, place, price, and promotion at Notre Dame College shows that higher education leaders can respond to a tumultuous environment through an application of marketing practices in organizational leadership.

Organizational leadership by the marketing mix: Price (part 3 of 4)

In my study of marketing at Notre Dame College, I discovered that the college’s leaders used the marketing mix as a framework for transforming the institution. By taking a marketer’s approach to leadership, the college added major areas of study, men’s and women’s sports, and online programs. The third P for consideration is price. Students, families, and other stakeholders are focusing more on college cost and financial aid with tuition increasing much faster than the rate of inflation and higher levels of student debt burdening more college graduates.

Notre Dame took a basic approach to its tuition and fees. Its primary competition for students came from Cleveland-area private colleges such as Baldwin Wallace University, Lake Erie College, John Carroll University, and Ursuline College as well as public universities that have lower published tuition and fees. With this in mind, administrators intentionally kept tuition levels lower than a majority of the colleges in that competitive set. The lower tuition reflected the college’s relative position in the marketplace (with some other colleges having better campus amenities or more programs) and helped make the case with students and families that the college offered a high-quality, personalized education at a lower cost than most other colleges.

Financial aid was integral to Notre Dame’s pricing strategy. Prior to 2003, the college treated financial aid as a fixed expense. In other words, the college would award scholarships and aid to students knowing that only a certain percentage would accept offers of admission. After Dr. Roth’s arrival as president, the college began to leverage financial aid. Financial aid leveraging gives a college better control over its net tuition revenue by awarding the amount of aid a student needs to enroll without providing too little or too much. Colleges use financial aid leveraging to exert better control over the students it enrolls and its financial aid expenditures.

A lower published tuition combined with an attractive financial aid package gave Notre Dame a competitive edge on price. The college would communicate those advantages to students and families while repeating messages about individualized attention and opportunities to become a campus leader.

Private colleges in Notre Dame’s area developed other innovative approaches to price, such as Hiram College’s Tuition Guarantee. The Tuition Guarantee assured students and families that tuition and fees would be fixed for the duration that a student attended Hiram. As you can imagine, Notre Dame’s promise of a lower initial price versus Hiram’s promise not to increase its price for four years made for difficult decisions for some families. This is why colleges cannot compete on price alone—it takes a combination of program, place, price, and the final P—promotion—which I will cover last.

Organizational leadership by the marketing mix: Place (part 2 of 4)

In my previous post, I described Notre Dame College’s transformation in enrollment and revenue growth through an application of the marketing mix on organizational leadership. I previously covered the importance of the first P of the marketing mix, product, in higher education: offering new curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular programs to attract and retain more students.

Place, the second P of the marketing mix, is related to program since colleges and universities offer more programs in online and remote formats. Notre Dame adapted to its environment in part by expanding into online programs, beginning with an RN to BSN program and later expanding to other programs. Notre Dame had no online students in 2005 and 911 online students by 2011. That is rapid growth by offering educational programs through a new distributional strategy.

The concept of place includes satellite and regional campuses, university partnership programs, and transfer agreements that make a four-year degree more accessible on two-year campuses. Place can be a differentiator for colleges with extensive off-campus study or experiential learning programs. Colleges and universities also compete on place by adding amenities to their campuses such as state-of-the-art classrooms, updated and expanded fitness centers, apartment-style housing, and upscale dining options to name a few.

Marketing involves adapting an organization to its environment, and the place where higher education is available is rapidly expanding and changing. If you think like a marketer at your institution, ask yourself what places your students want to learn and live.

Organizational leadership by the marketing mix: Program (part 1 of 4)

In this series, I will describe how the marketing mix applies to organizational leadership in higher education. I covered this topic extensively in my doctoral thesis, which was a study of organizational adaptation and strategic marketing at Notre Dame College in Ohio. Dr. Andrew Roth, Notre Dame’s president, led the institution by an application of the marketing mix to organizational leadership resulting in a remarkable transformation of enrollment and revenue growth. How might others do the same?

The four Ps of the marketing mix are product, price, place, and promotion. Another conception of the marketing mix preferred by some higher education practitioners consists of four Cs—customer, cost, convenience, and communication. Regardless whether the marketing mix is described as four Ps or four Cs, the concept underscores the importance of satisfying customer needs through the delivery of products or services.

The first P is product, which I define as program or service in higher education. The “product” of a higher education institution consists of the execution of its mission. As such, programs will vary widely among colleges and universities, but the programs may be grouped into three main categories: curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular.

The role of higher education marketing practitioners is to be sure that programs meet the needs and wants of students. A leader in this area will identify the programs and services the institution currently offers, how those programs compare with top competitors, how current and future students perceive those programs, and what programs might attract more students in the institution’s target markets. This responsibility is shared with other senior staff including the provost or vice president of academic affairs and the vice president for student affairs or dean of students.

To illustrate, Notre Dame College attracted more new students by introducing eleven new academic programs such as international business, nursing, and criminal justice. These three programs did not exist in 2003 but enrolled more than 250 students combined by 2011. Athletic programs also played a major role in attracting new students, with new sports such as bowling (men’s and women’s), football, and water polo (men’s and women’s). These programs combined enrolled nearly 200 students in 2011.

Marketing involves adapting an organization to its environment, and in higher education, that begins with programs. Regardless of your position at your institution, as a marketer investigate what students in your target market need and want and what programs you might offer to satisfy them.