Tanya Lindsay, Co-Founder, Mandala Group Kate Halkett, Sr. Director Strategic Communications, UCLA
Higher Education is facing challenging times. And for a category that is inherently complicated, the rise of a global pandemic with a subsequent recession in its wake has made decision-making an even grander feat than normal.
Typically, universities and colleges’ staff are accustomed to navigating best practices with budget allocations in the face of public scrutiny, politicians, donors, and students alike. Each year, key stakeholders enter into the tedious balancing act of where and how to best allocate funds to support the needs of the institution, the students, and staff. The monumental task of making all stakeholders happy, whilst demonstrating worth, is daunting, but part of the yearly challenge all those working in higher education are accustomed to. Moreover, universities have the additional responsibility of ensuring their institution remains top of mind for incumbent applicants, prospective donors, and business organizations in search of research programs—not a small ask for any size institution.
Unlike most years, this year comes with an added layer of complexity as key stakeholders begin planning out their next year’s budgets: a crippling recession brought forth by COVID-19. For some, looking back at 2008’s recession would make the most sense in providing a roadmap to responding to today’s economic challenges. However, this is not 2008. Today’s recession is a vastly different playing field for higher education given there are no grants readily available by the Federal Government, people are not unemployed and home with plentiful idle time, and given safety precautions, most universities are offering distance learning only, undermining the perceived value in college tuition. In a nutshell, today’s recession is far more than an economic crisis.
As institutions navigate this unique time, there is a lot of operational work to be done, but there is also a lot of marketing work left on the table. Marketing will not look the same for all schools, but there are opportunities for all institutions with the right positioning.
That said, with budgets being impacted across the board, is marketing a necessity or an extravagance?
Even in the best of times, spending on marketing is often questioned. And in these difficult economic times, it’s going to face even more scrutiny. But scrutiny doesn’t mean you don’t spend, it just means you spend smart.
For some institutions, spending smart is looking at the immediate future and the need to bring in revenue to survive. For others better equipped to sustain through these difficult times, it’s a long-term focus where there are opportunities to be had for reputation and donations.
Let’s take a closer look at the four main categories of higher education: community colleges, mid-range universities, large research universities, and for-profits:
Two-year public institutions have been facing tapering enrollment rates for several years due to a myriad of threats, according to Inside Higher Ed. Moreover, continued struggles with retention have further challenged the future of community colleges.
Given the current climate, common sense would have us believe that heavy unemployment rates and online-only classes would present a renewed heyday for the two-year publics— however, on the contrary, community colleges are taking the biggest hit across the higher education category with an epic 22.7 percent decline in first-time beginning student enrollment.
Arguably, this trend is the result of an already flexible application model that has only been exacerbated by the uncertainty attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Coupled with pre-existing struggles with substantial drops in enrollment during matriculation, the presumption that community colleges pose the best value during a time of distant learning, unfortunately, goes straight out the window. An uncertain economic climate in an unstable business model is proving to be a recipe for disaster.
The question then becomes, how can community colleges survive the unrelenting throws of a global pandemic with such extraordinary hurdles like decreased enrollment, limited funding, and a declining reputation? As thousands of employees of two-year public institutions are being made redundant, marketing their way out of a bleak future may seem irresponsible, and perhaps even opportunistic. However, a full-blown rebrand of the category just may be a lifeline.
Before crumbling this paper up, let’s take a moment to consider the facts. The EAB found that out of 100 students enrolling in community colleges, only nine complete an Associate’s degree, with 56 lost during onboarding, 23 students dropping out, and five still enrolled after six years. The question, therefore, becomes: Out of the 56 lost, and the 23 who dropped out, which amount represents transfer students? Data shows that individuals without a four-year degree or higher are the most vulnerable during periods of high unemployment. Furthermore, we also see that in the last 10 years, the perceived value of an Associate’s degree has declined substantially.
In terms of dual enrollment, community colleges have experienced growth in the last few years via an increase in students attending both high school and a two-year institution. This, consequently, offset the steep decline in students enrolled only in a two-year degree program. However, given that most high schools across the country are now struggling with their COVID-19 response, we are seeing an adverse effect on dual enrollment admissions. Contrary to some arguments in the higher education industry, proactively targeting traditional-age students does not necessarily equate to directly competing with the more-esteemed, four-year institutions. How community colleges market to traditional-age students determines whether they are actively competing with four-year institutions, or complementing their marketing efforts while simultaneously taking advantage of extraordinary competition amongst students vying for the limited spots available at large research universities—in addition to rising tuition costs.
As we consider the challenges facing many traditional-age students who are now in the position of deciding whether to take a gap year and wait out this period of uncertainty, coupled with many families experiencing substantial financial burdens stemming from the pandemic, community colleges amenable to marketing during this challenging time may find an opportunity to reach a long, sought-after audience.
The climate for mid-range universities is hardly a melioration from that of the two-year public. Lacking the endowments that the large research universities boast, mid-range universities are particularly vulnerable to a pandemic-induced recession as a result of limited resources to weather the storm. Although, some mid-range universities have prevailed despite record losses in enrollment across the industry. The smaller campuses and student body found in some mid-range universities have successfully curtailed the immediate effects of the recession, enjoying the inherent distinction of their limited size, and the subsequent affording of the most sought-after prize for today’s university: on-campus learning in a safe setting. Unfortunately, for the larger proportion of mid-range universities, they lack both the hefty financial reserves and the benefit of a small college setting. For these universities, the consequences of COVID-19, and the resulting recession, could very well be catastrophic. For many of the mid-range universities, their biggest competition came from cross-town, mid-range university rivals, such as the state university versus its public research university within the same state. While competition continues to grow fiercer in the higher education industry as a whole, given the nationwide decrease in high school graduates, and the ever-increasing pool of universities, still the mid-range college is the viable option for the majority of Americans. As spots in any of the prestigious, large research universities become more and more difficult to secure, the mid-range universities inherently benefit from their rigorous qualifications by being a more attainable goal and, subsequently, a more credible option.
Large Research Universities:
While no college or university can claim prosperity during this time of COVID-19, there is a class of school that is gaining ground as a result of these trying times. After an era of people questioning science, denigrating higher learning, and questioning the price-to-value ratio, the pandemic has brought to the forefront the need for smart, highly educated people to help us solve the world’s problems. And America’s best and largest research universities are there to answer the call.
These universities are diverse amongst each other ranging from small to large, public to private, and urban to rural—yet they all are leading in innovation and receipt of federal funding for research that improves both the health of our citizenry and our world. And it’s because of this that people are turning to these institutions at this time.
With the ability to produce scholars who can provide expertise on a range of societal issues such as the science of the virus and the political science of elections, these universities are proving their worth and building their reputations in this uncertain time. Additionally, with COVID-19 causing mid and smaller schools to close, these universities that already are desirable will become more sought-after and exclusive.
All of this would seemingly make the case for not needing to market since, clearly, the climate is elevating these schools without the expense of buying advertising or otherwise spending on exposure. But not marketing misses a major opportunity to stay top-of-mind to investors and possibly costs the university critical public support during- and post-pandemic.
Right now is a time to capitalize on the goodwill of the people and more-firmly establish the institution as both trusted experts and societal necessities. Doing so, in turn, could help improve both the local community and the world. For those that are public, this is vital for making the case for limited and highly sought tax dollars being used to support institutions.
For-Profit Higher Education:
The for-profit sector for higher education was in decline before the virus hit. From a high of 1.7 million students in 2010, for-profit private-school enrollment had dropped by 57 percent to just 739,000 students in 2018. Driven largely by scandal and the corresponding dissolution of companies and schools, this segment of higher education was actually facing a potential moment of stabilization, and even recovery when the pandemic hit.
On the plus side of opportunity is the categories for which for-profits have often provided higher education—health care and technical services are now considered essential services and the need for people in these jobs is critical. And with an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent, down from 14.7 percent in April, students entering the higher-ed market, and older adults looking to become recession proof, will need to get the training in these fields.
The downside is that a major segment of for-profit higher education comes from the corporate sector. For example, more than one-third of Ashford University’s enrollment comes from employer-assisted education programs. With the economy shaken by COVID-19, many companies’ revenues are down causing cuts to these programs and leaving for-profits scrambling to find students.
Thus, it is the confluence of these two forces that marketers must leverage to make the most of this difficult time and even grow. In an era of unpredictability and societal instability, messaging focused on providing degrees and credentials in essential professions will provide undergrads and re-trainers alike a pathway forward.
While considering marketing in the higher education industry at this time, it’s important to not only consider the larger framework of your institution, but also your unique circumstances. For while your institution does exist within the larger context, no two schools have exactly the same challenges and, therefore, each must be approached uniquely.
Which brings us back to the initial question posed: Is marketing a necessity or an extravagance? In these extraordinary times, it’s easy to say it’s an extravagance, but as outlined above, now more than ever, it is truly a necessity. For many, it is the difference between survival and dissolution—and for others—it is an opportunity to grow in the face of adversity. Again, it comes down to each individual situation, but the case should be made that marketing is there to help build up the institution and that it’s an investment spend in securing future success.