Apply a Business-Centric Approach to Higher Ed Student Recruitment

Higher education student recruitment continues to become more and more competitive. A downward trend in overall college enrollment, the rising costs of secondary education and the perceived diminishing value of a college degree are some of the forces that continue to increase the pressure. And a lot of it is felt by higher ed marketing leaders who still have to deliver on the school’s recruitment goals.

In business, the typical response to a changing marketplace and an increase in competition is a more efficient and responsive operational model. One that’s better able to leverage your competitive advantage. Business brands pay attention to what drives customer decisions and respond to changes accordingly to stay ahead of their peers.

There’s no doubt that college and university brands could benefit from this business-centric approach. After all, a strong brand matters in higher education — now more than ever. But change doesn’t seem to be coming fast enough.


To be fair, some schools are choosing to compensate in smaller ways. Many are changing up and trying new student recruitment strategies or mining new demographic markets for prospective students. Some are renewing a focus on student retention.

These strategies are perfectly reasonable responses to the higher education student recruitment problem. Unfortunately, these types of business-savvy tactics don’t extend much past the marketing department at most schools.

Why is that? Why aren’t more schools approaching higher ed student recruitment with a broader business-forward approach?

Adapting to a Modern Higher Education Mindset

One of the biggest hurdles for the adoption of a more business-centric operational model in higher education is that schools simply don’t see themselves as a business. Most higher ed leaders still embrace a non-profit, service-oriented approach in running their institutions.

It’s not hard to understand academic leaders’ aversion to a business mindset. Many colleges and universities are, in fact, nonprofits — and the idea of schools as profit centers generally doesn’t sit well with many academics.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily vibe with the fact that students pay (a lot) for their education. Or that many other non-profit organizations successfully apply business principles to advance their missions.

So, is there something else at play here?

American Dream 2.0

This resistance to a business-centric approach in higher ed is likely based on the role education used to play in American life.

In mid-20th-century America, education was highly valued. More than that, academic and professional expertise was highly valued. Academics and professionals — doctors, lawyers and the like — were afforded considerable respect and an elevated status in society.

While the old American dream might have been simpler, it was also far less accessible to many groups. The new one is a lot more inclusive, but also a lot more complicated.

Information, choice and self-empowerment drive the modern American dream. Everyone today is simply operating from an exponentially deeper pool of easily accessible information. Therefore, people tend to make their own decisions and respond less to overly prescriptive or paternalistic marketing.

Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons why the undergraduate college degree seems to have lost some luster. Many of the concepts you learn in your undergraduate college classes are readily found online.

Ironically, adding the shine back to degrees — the academic programs, themselves — is exactly how schools can better leverage their competitive advantages. Getting a college degree is, of course, still incredibly valuable. But schools that don’t adapt to the realities of this new iteration of the American dream will struggle.

Modern consumers don’t want to be told what to buy. They want to make the best choice for themselves. For instance, instead of telling your prospects to apply to your engineering department because it is top-rated, consider telling them how your engineering degree and faculty can help them turn their hard work into achievement.

How Is Higher Education Lagging Behind?

One way higher education is failing to keep up with modern times is by prioritizing the academic department over academic majors. School administrations tend to think in terms of organizational structure. For budgeting and management purposes, academic departments make sense. From a marketing perspective, not so much.

This is because prospective students largely look for information about majors they are interested in, not academic departments that administer those majors. Newly redesigned higher ed websites are all the proof you need. Check out any recently updated university website. You’ll find the academics section featuring majors, not departments. You might even struggle to find a link to the major’s departmental home.

Contemporary academic trends are highlighting the same problem. Integrated and multidisciplinary degree programs are all the rage. How do you run these programs within a strict academic department framework?

It’s not easy.

Academic Offerings Don’t Always Match Demand

This framework is also not terribly efficient at matching its academic offerings to actual demand.

How often a department’s academic portfolio is refreshed or updated is up to the department head. And that person is not always well equipped to make the best decisions on what majors should be offered, or, more importantly, which programs should be retired.

Department leaders often do not rely on a data-backed decision making process, or even have the relevant data available to them. More than a few degree programs have been launched as pet projects or as means of placating valuable faculty members. Too often, degrees outlast their usefulness and draw resources from more deserving academic programs.

Trying to resuscitate programs that should expire is a common misstep. It’s not unusual for marketing teams to receive requests to position a certain low-enrollment program better. In many cases, the marketing is fine — there’s just no program interest.

However, there is a way to turn this around, and it requires that schools adopt a product/customer mindset to their degree offerings and students.

Degrees Are Products, Students Are Customers

Does this still sound a little blasphemous? It’s ok if it does. But if the application of business jargon to academic environments still feels uncomfortable, consider the perspective of today’s student.

Those trends mentioned earlier — the rising education costs and diminishing value of degrees — they’re pushing students to apply more cost-benefit thinking to their decision-making process. Plus, many schools are seeing increasing numbers of nontraditional students. These students often pursue secondary education in the face of considerable constraints, and many take a bottom-line, no-nonsense approach to evaluating their options.

Your prospective students are absolutely considering the personal economic implications of the educational experience they’re exploring. They’re thinking about it in terms of dollars and cents. You should, too.

Benefits of the Product/Customer Higher Education Mindset

Businesses strive to learn as much as possible about their existing customers and discover new market segments to serve. This helps in understanding existing customer needs and anticipating new ones. That knowledge helps companies finetune their existing product offerings and innovate new ones to meet those needs.

The advantages of higher education institutions adopting a more business-centric approach are many.

For schools, a more customer-centric outlook means knowing your prospective students better — all of them — and optimizing your course offerings to their needs. That means digging into your website user data and doing extensive market research. The changes will keep on coming. You’ll need to keep your ear to the ground if you want to be able to anticipate and take advantage of them.

Academic Portfolios to Match Student Demand

Being better attuned to your prospective and existing student needs can help you better balance your academic programs. So will applying an evidence-based process to evaluate course and degree offerings. No more picking favorites or gut decisions.

Responding to Customer Pain Points Makes You More Competitive

An academic portfolio that matches student demand is just one way to better serve your customers. You can also use your data insights to improve your marketing and communications strategies and boost your university brand.

For example, knowing that career outcomes are a decision driver for incoming students, some schools have started adding information about career pathways, average starting salaries and expected lifetime earnings to degree web pages and marketing collateral.

Understanding what impacts decision-making for your prospective students helps you shape your message and connect with them on the recruiting trail. You can also use that knowledge to help keep them on campus for the duration of their academic journey.

Improved Retention

In business, it costs more to win new customers than to keep your existing ones. The same dynamic applies in higher education.

Retaining students for their full, four (or more)-year academic journey is profitable. But this seems to be a common trouble spot. According to a 2019 report from Student Research Foundation, only 61% of students at four-year public universities intended to re-enroll in their current institution. That number was even lower (57%) for private universities.

Clearly, there’s work to do if you’re to entice your students to remain at your institution. Understanding why students leave can help you develop strategies to mitigate higher ed retention problems.

Loyalty to Your School Brand

Alumni are another substantial source of revenue for colleges and universities. It’s in your school’s best interest to graduate brand loyalists. Alumni donate money, attend school events, encourage their own kids to attend your schools and generally act as your brand ambassadors. Providing an education experience that better meets student needs helps to steer more of your graduates into your alumni pipeline.

Build Your Academic Brand

The higher education market is extremely competitive. Academic leaders can no longer afford to dismiss the idea of students as discerning consumers. The reality is, college decisions are driven by cost and comparison shopping.

Having a strong school brand matters, now more than ever, if you want to win at higher ed student recruitment. The best way to build your brand is by adopting a business-forward approach and knowing your customers are in fact your students. And serving them well.

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