There are typically three or four responses among higher-education colleagues when they hear the word “marketing”:
- It’s a discipline in the business school.
- It’s for for-profit companies, but not for higher education.
- It’s what Admissions does to recruit students.
It does seem strange that a subject matter taught to both undergraduate and graduate students can generate such responses, but I’m here to tell you that the term and the practice have both gotten mostly unjustified and unwarranted bad reps in the halls of academia. Some of it is probably deserved, of course, just as some portion of all criticism is likely justified. But the disdain for doing marketing suggests a lot of our colleagues don’t have as complete an understanding of the concept as we might hope.
Some of this response, of course, is because we believe we’re too noble to engage in base activities in which we have to persuade people to like us; some people point to higher education’s long history (Oxford was founded in 1096, for instance) and relatively unchanged business model as proof that modern approaches to interactions are not only unnecessary but distasteful; still others think that we offer a product that is intrinsically valuable, and that this needs no formal effort to effect the exchange.
If that’s you, then let me lean on Clark Kerr, former President of the University of California, who once suggested, “The cherished academic view that higher education started out on the acropolis and was desecrated by descent into the agora led by ungodly commercial interests and scheming public officials and venal academic leaders is just not true. If anything, higher education started in the agora, the market, at the bottom of the hill and ascended to the acropolis at the top of the hill. … Mostly it has lived in tension, at one and the same time at the bottom of the hill, at the top of the hill, and on the many pathways in between.”
I remember one of my first commencement exercises at my first college job. I had never noticed the long hoods of those with doctoral degrees, and I asked a faculty member about them. He told me some story about the hood going back to medieval times (which is true) when faculty were largely independent contractors attached to universities (which was also true). He said the hood was the place the students would put payment for the class so that the faculty member didn’t have to look the student in the eye during the transaction (which was almost certainly a story he’d made up on the spot.)
The classic definition of marketing, of course, centers on the exchange of goods or services for some consideration, which is usually money. Typically, there are four “P’s” of marketing that the provider can manipulate: Price, product, place and promotion. Ask people at a dozen different colleges how their institution does marketing, and you might get a dozen different answers. But even if your university has a large, centralized marketing function, it’s almost certainly concerned primarily with the fourth “P” of marketing: Promotion. Behind the scenes, and in many different ways, colleges have to engage in the other three (Price, Product, and Place) as well. How those functions are carried out, however, varies from one institution to another.
In for-profit marketing, product is generally the focal point of activities. It’s generally believed that product comes first, and the other elements follow. In higher education, we pay less attention to this, for many reasons. First, it’s hard to change our product, as anyone who has attempted to revise a curriculum or even change requirements for the major can attest. In this regard, the criticism we get is often justified, because changing or creating new products in higher ed can be a lesson in the pitfalls of bureaucracy. It’s also hard to think about our product because it doesn’t really exist the same way a tube of toothpaste or an electric car or a bag of potato chips does. Moreover, it’s a challenge to differentiate the History degree at College X from the History degree at University Z, at least in a way that a typical college-aged student can appreciate. In that regard, higher education might learn from the vodka industry, which has to differentiate consumer products that are odorless, colorless, and tasteless.
Opportunities for programs (products) might not always be apparent to people who don’t have a natural marketing orientation, or even an external focus. But as traditional programs wane, what is your institution doing to add to the enrollment portfolio? One university I know says that as many as 15% of all credit hours in a given year are taken by students in programs that did not exist five years prior.
Who sets your sticker price (i.e. the tuition and fees published in your catalog and on your website)? Who determines your net price to students? And more importantly, how do these things get set?
If you’re like most colleges, tuition is set only after an accounting of estimated expenses for next year: Salary lines will increase by 2.8%, and insurance premiums for employees will go up 12%, for instance. You also have to pay utilities and liability insurance. You may be bringing new buildings online that will increase expenses, or your contract for campus food service might be escalating rapidly in the face of labor shortages. And you have to pay the bills.
This is, to some extent, a backwards approach to setting price, but higher education has gotten away with it for a long time, because education has been viewed as a necessity and a good return on investment. A consumer products company setting price on a product might study at what the market is willing to pay, what it is capable of paying, and what substitutes compete with that product.
We have witnessed, almost unnoticed until recently, a continuous drop in demand for what we offer. Despite increasing populations of college-aged students, undergraduate enrollment has been falling since 2014, at first slightly, and then, due to a very hot economy and COVID-19, more dramatically. While the reasons driving this are certainly complex, it’s not hard to believe that increasing sticker-price tuition is a factor.
Like everything we talk about in higher education, you’ll find a wide range of ways of setting tuition each year. How it’s done varies, but one thing is almost certain: Unless your institution is suffering a severe budget crisis, it’s probably done by starting with last year’s assumptions and adding to them (or occasionally not adding to them; during COVID many institutions froze tuition for at least a year). It’s also likely true that the discussions about setting tuition, and the discussions about the allocation of institutional aid, which drives net price for students, are probably taking place at different times, in different rooms, with different people involved, sometimes with little cross-pollination.
It’s one of the reasons discount rates are going up at private colleges: Raising tuition faster than inflation almost inevitably leads to higher discount or lower enrollment numbers, neither of which finance people find acceptable.
Resource: On my blog, I wrote a lot about discount rates at private colleges. You can read that here if you’re interested in the topic.
It’s safe to say that “place” was hardly a consideration for colleges until the latter part of the 20th century, when institutions, faced with the first demographic challenges post-baby-boom, began thinking about taking education to new places and locations that made access to education more convenient.Now, in the first quarter of the 21st century, we see a continuing focus on a place that is actually no place at all in the physical sense: The student’s own home. This too, like so many things in our industry, was affected by COVID. I know at least one university that had even refused to accept credit for courses it knew were taught online, that moved—like most of us—to Zoom U models in the space of a few weeks. Sometimes, innovation occurs naturally and slowly, and sometimes, it happens in a punctuated way.
From a marketing standpoint, place is an important consideration. You may want to ask about how this discussion and these decisions are being made at your institution.
Promotion is where everyone on campus gets to see the most visible element of marketing. It’s visible in your printed publications, on your college website, in the video your institution runs at halftime on the nationally televised football games, and in the official school colors or the logo or word mark on campus signage. And it’s often considered the only part of marketing a college does.
It is, of course, a point of much discussion on campus: Typically, people at a university will ask why “almost every college in the country” is emailing their child, except ours. Or they’ll hear a college from 1,500 miles away advertising on the nightly NPR program, and think that certainly we should be doing so, too. Or (always a favorite of people in admissions) staff will bring in the admission packet with t-shirts and other swag and wonder why ours is so plain and, well, academic.
There are almost always good answers for this, but not everyone is always convinced.
The ribbon on the package.
Absent a large, centralized marketing office on campus that has its fingers in all of these decisions, your admissions/financial aid/enrollment management offices often take the lead role in these activities. And sometimes, frankly, these offices are not always expert in every element of marketing in the ways they should be.
Admissions often defines markets. They work with other offices on campus to create promotional pieces. Financial aid has a say in how we set net prices for students via the allocation of limited financial resources. Both offices, on the front lines of contact with students, often get polled about acceptable tuition increases, or about the demand for new programs.
Next up in the series:
In the next post, I’ll write about demographics and how they affect the ways in which we can and should market the university.
Also, mark your calendar for the Live Q&A session on August 26, 2022, 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. EDT that will complete the blog series.
In the meantime, here are some resources for you to consider if you want to dive deeper into this.
Resources: You can read about marketing of vodka here, and you can read about brand management (an element of promotion and marketing that we won’t dive too deeply into here). Jean Noel Kapferer writes eloquently about the DNA of brands, and seems to speak to the genetic basis for branding that is highly relevant to higher education.)
Also, go to the IPEDS Data Center and look up your institution. Pay attention to two things: Your published tuition and the price students pay, based on family incomes. What surprises you? An upcoming post will talk about financial aid and how it gets allocated at universities.