Attracting new students has become much harder for colleges and universities. The industry has experienced dramatic changes in the past few years. Declines in enrollment were already a reality pre-COVID. It forced traditional higher ed to go remote, something many had already invested in to attract more adult learners. Additionally, the crippling student loan debt has many rethinking if a college education is worth the investment. All these trends are driving the changing profile of higher ed advertising.

The approach to higher ed advertising needs an update. Let’s look at the current state of higher ed and tips and strategies to use when pitching for business.

The State of Higher Ed

The biggest challenge higher ed is facing is a steep drop in enrollment. According to the National Student Clearinghouse High School Benchmarks Report, the class of 2020 had unprecedented levels of decline, averaging 4-10%. Future projections don’t look positive either, with another drop of 15% expected by 2025.

The big question is why. Experts cite several reasons, including:

  • Declining birth rates, going back to the financial crisis of 2008. Many people decided not to have children because they couldn’t afford to do so.
  • The burden of paying for college is a topic for debate on social media, cable news, legislative discourse, etc. Traditional college students (i.e., those just coming out of secondary education) are hesitant to take on loans. Many fear they’ll never be able to pay them back.
  • More people don’t consider a traditional college education that important, as demonstrated by a Gallup poll. Only 51% agreed it was, down 19% from the previous polling.
  • Students realize they have options beyond four-year colleges, such as learning a trade, all of which are in dire need of new hires. Only 48% of high schoolers said they wanted to attend a university.

These trends illustrate why higher ed can no longer rely on post-secondary students. To survive, they’ll need to adapt to a broader demographic.

Adult Learning Is Booming

There’s been a bit of a worker revolution happening in the U.S. It started with layoffs and job losses caused by the pandemic shutdowns. People began to rethink their careers, and many decided to pursue new ones. In many cases, that required additional schooling. It might not have been a degree but specialized training to develop new skills.

Employees also began to quit en masse, coined the “Great Resignation.” These workers are also seeking opportunities to learn and pursue other careers. So, the face of “who” is a college student is changing, and higher ed needs to pivot in how it spends its marketing dollars.

Traditional students will still be important, but the way to attract that population is different now as well.

Marketing for Traditional Students Requires Adjustment

When attracting and acquiring new traditional students, higher ed institutions must focus on two personas. They have to appeal to the student and parent, and those two may have significantly different decision-making criteria. The decision itself rests in both their hands, so higher ed has to be aware of this in creating content for ads and targeting.

Now that we’ve set the field for the higher ed landscape, it’s time for tips.

Strategies for Winning Higher Ed Advertising Dollars

Prove to higher ed advertisers that you understand their challenges and have solutions.


Focus on Persona Targeting

As noted, there are many personas that higher ed wants to attract — traditional students, adult learners and parents. They’ll need individual campaigns for each. Delivering that message to the right group depends on targeting options.

Digital advertising allows you to target by location, demographics and preferences. The latter two are what you need to concentrate on and discuss with higher ed advertisers. Speak specifically about options and limitations to ensure the best use of their ad dollars in reaching their targets.


Diversify Channels by Persona

Another way to zero in on personas is the channels you use to attract them. Each segment spends time consuming different types of media. For example, it makes sense to target high schoolers with YouTube ads since they spend a lot of time there. In fact, a study found that 27% of prospective teen students cited YouTube videos as a major influence in enrollment decisions.

Adult learners may respond better to OTT/CTV (over-the-top/connected TV) or OTA (over-the-air) ads running during local news. Additionally, colleges known for their sports programs, which they use to attract students, could make an impression during local sports talk shows.


Advise Advertisers to Focus on Outcomes

Whether it’s a four-year degree, trade education or skills-based class, students want to hear about outcomes. If they enroll and complete the degree or program, what can they expect? Help with job placement, salary increases, internships, etc.?

You can help advertisers do this simply with static display or social media ads that include stats and figures. One example is listing the job openings and starting salaries for trade careers in high demand. Another option is video ads featuring graduates and their success stories.


Recommend Paid Search That’s Not Generic

Paid search, or SEM (search engine marketing), can help boost inquiries and applications. However, generic ads that push the person to the college’s website aren’t very impactful. Talk to them about long-tail keywords that focus on specific programs that are successful for them. By getting more granular, they are likely to attract those already engaged and seeking a specific program.


Advocate for Integrated Campaigns

Finally, the most critical suggestion to come to the table with is integrated campaigns. These use a variety of tactics, both digital and linear, focused on a consistent message and goal. You can offer all components, which will allow them to measure the impact across channels. With digital and linear, you can be targeted and broad with the campaign. They can expect better results with all the pieces working together.

Be Ready to Earn Higher Ed Advertising Business

Understanding the dynamics of this market and delivering informed campaign pitches ensures you’re ready to win the business. By offering a strategy to help them boost enrollment, you demonstrate your value as a trusted resource. That can place you at the top of the class in this industry.

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