Higher Education Marketing Ultimate Guide

Enter your email to download a PDF version of this resource.

* indicates required

In recent years, there has been a decline in undergraduate enrollment at universities across the United States. With over 5,000 in the U.S. alone, students have a lot of options… a lot of options that seem to offer the same thing. This has put pressure on schools to market themselves as attractive to prospective students while differentiating themselves from the competition. “Why would a student choose to go to my university over our competition?” This is the fundamental question behind the marketing strategy you need to implement if you want to increase the quantity and quality of enrollment.

It is more important now than ever for universities to market their offerings and on and off-campus experience, so we put together a comprehensive guide to higher education marketing. In this guide, we will cover how to find and attract the right students, differentiate your brand, modernize your offerings, and maintain post-graduate relationships.

Finding & Attracting Prospective Students

Finding Students[1]

Before promoting your school’s brand and message, you must first understand your target audience. Generation Z represents those born from 2000 to the present—you will be targeting the oldest of this group in a few years, if not now. This generation values predictability and structure, but do get easily distracted by evolving technology and online interactions. Students value practical career choices and are leaders in online collaboration.

As high school juniors and seniors begin their college search, almost 90% are unsure of which school they want to attend. Getting your brand in front of high school students early can have a positive effect on your enrollment numbers. But how do you find—and speak—to this critical audience?

Filter out the best prospective student candidates.

As an important first step, you can send a personalized direct mail piece to purchased lists of students who did well on SAT exams, with an invitation to learn more about your degree offerings. Personalized messaging to these students can greatly affect incoming inquiries about degrees, campus life, and more. Tailor content around relevant programs they may be interested in, geographic messages based on their location, and even application checklists that assist them in their own enrollment journey. As this “ideal” student visits your website and requests more information, you can begin to create more personal emails and correspondence based on their interests and goals.

Connect with Students Online

67% of students use social media to research colleges and 75% find those accounts influential in their decision. While they agree it’s an important factor for colleges, only 4 in 10 of these students find the information posted on a school’s site relevant.[2] With unique and effective social media platforms, you can show off your institution in a variety of ways. Use Instagram to show off the community, campus, and student life. Show off alumni on LinkedIn. Use Facebook to promote longer content, like videos and articles.
Call out: 95% of college admissions use at least one form of social media.

Consider Other Mediums

While about two-thirds of high school students use social media to research colleges, 40% of high school seniors and 45% of juniors said they were more likely to consider colleges that use brochures and phone calls to communicate. That means your institution should consider an integrated approach when marketing to your audience. Young millennials rarely receive mail addressed to them, so a brochure or other marketing material from a university is sure to stand out. 70% of students surveyed prefer direct mail over email for unsolicited marketing pitches, and 25% of them found direct mail was a trusted source of information. 90% of colleges use direct mail and say it generates a more positive outcome than relying on email alone.[3]

Other Sources Students Rely On For Information

College Comparison Websites
Print Materials
Social Media
Guidance Counselors
College Websites
College Fairs
Search Engines

Top 5 Things Students and Parents Want from a School

Here are the top 5 factors students consider when choosing a specific college: [5]

  • 93% consider the majors and programs offered very important.
  • 88% consider availability of financial aid.
  • 81% consider its location.
  • 76% consider the number of graduates finding full-time employment.
  • 74% consider the percentage of students who graduate

[6] Parents are a top influencer for prospective students in the decision-making process; over 50% of college-bound students said their parents are “very involved” in college plans. Consider addressing them directly with personalized marketing materials addressing their top 5 concerns: Academic programs or majors, employment rate after graduation, affordability, including information about scholarships and financial aid, admissions and fees, and campus safety.

How to Speak to Parents

  • 90% of parents rely on websites to research schools.
  • ¾ of parents showed affinity for print communication.
  • 84% of parents prefer email communications.
  • 76% prefer letters or brochures in the mail.

Case Study: Semester Online

As the result of a new program by a tech-education start-up, Semester Online provided students an innovative online education to top-tier colleges and universities. This new product served the undergraduate market, offering world-class academics, live classes, and global access wherever they are in the world. We helped create an identity to attract new students and colleges through promotional kits including posters, flyers, and videos to get everyone excited about this new opportunity. To speak more personally with Semester Online’s audience, we segmented personas and created three different student profiles to emphasize: the world traveler, the double major, and the career-oriented. These three student stories converged into a two-minute video, with thirty second shorts to tell the Semester Online story even further.

Differentiating Your Brand

With more than 5,000 four-year private and public institutions in the U.S., it’s hard for schools to stand out among the many options that appear on a student’s list, especially when 29% of high school seniors apply to 7 or more colleges. [7] In fact, Gallup found that the mission, purpose, or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities.[8] What can you do to ensure your institution stands out from the thousands of other options?

[Higher education’s branding] value is worth only what students and parents are willing to pay for it, donors are willing to support it and faculty are willing to contribute to make it real.” – SEMWorks

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to colleges.

Of the 76% of higher education marketers previously engaged in branding efforts, 42% reported increased competition as a key motivating factor. 38% referenced enrollment growth as the primary driver.[9] Because it’s important to attract the necessary quantity and quality of students who will represent your school’s mission and values while fulfilling enrollment goals, you must brand the in-person experience and differentiate it from competing institutions. But there’s another branding objective that can help you achieve your goals: build an identity that transcends the physical campus. By doing so, your institution won’t be limited to just a campus or a community—online presence and a transcendent brand can travel far and wide to attract students who are eager to be a part of your world.[10]

Effective branding can help increase enrollment and expand fundraising capabilities. Institutions that fully implement a unified branding strategy create a competitive advantage in recruiting, retaining, and building advocacy among their audience—from students, parents, staff, alumni and donors.[11] An effective and engaging website, also considered the “ultimate brand statement,” is among the most important marketing tools in higher education. Therefore, institutions should focus on website personalization and optimization that customizes a student’s experience with carefully selected content.

Online, prospective students are most drawn to:

  • Academics: pages about your programs and rankings
  • Money: details about cost and scholarships
  • Enrollment: application process and counselor contacts

Today, institutions dedicate far more attention to branding and marketing than they did in previous years. Many universities have hired external marketing professionals or companies, and have invested significant time and money to create strong institutional brands. 60% of higher education marketing administrators indicated they had created a brand strategy to increase awareness for their school. Of those who are implementing new branding work, 63% spent more than $100,000 on their branding and marketing initiatives—hiring external marketing professionals to create strong institutional brands. [12]

Top Marketing and Branding Trends for Institutions

  • Responsive design and mobile development
  • Web analytics
  • Strategic social media
  • Marketing automation
  • Text message marketing
  • Advertising videos

What You Can Do

  1. Immersion. What unique value can you bring to your target audience? Athletics? International students? A unique community? Key stakeholders, including parents and students, can reveal what it means to be a part of your organization in intimate meetings, along with any gaps you may not have recognized. It’s important to listen to what’s being said about your brand, know where you stand, and how you can improve.
  2. Branding. Once you determine consistencies in your current presence, accept one thing: it’s not all about the rankings. There are schools with inherent notoriety like Yale or Harvard, there are schools known for a specific niche in healthcare or business, and there are local schools embraced by their communities. It’s important to accept what your institution means to your target audience and serving your students and community first—not just trying to beat the competition. Once you figure out your unique value and attraction, create your mission, identity, and messaging. Remember: branding is more than a logo and color palette—it’s creating a platform from the inside out. A validation process should confirm branding decisions and messaging choices through interviews with real and relevant audiences to ensure it’s the most effective change for your institution.
  3. Showcase your value. Allow your rock-solid brand to travel past the parameters of your quad. Students have many intangible qualities they look for in universities, so tell your story across many channels to reveal culture, traditions, community life, and more. Publications are a great way to unite students and parents to learn more about what your school offers. Beautiful photos, campus facts, student spotlights, and alumni success stories are all great ways to share these features. Videos are another strategic way to share your institution’s message to a wide audience. An average of 78% of colleges post branded videos on YouTube.

Over 92% of college students say they prefer reading in print over any form of electronic media.[13]

What Students Want from an Institution[14]

  • Hidden treasures like unique research opportunities, leadership organizations, or one-of-a-kind technology.
  • Intangible qualities such as cultural diversity, community traditions, and historical events special to your campus.
  • Affordability and financial aid options—offer tools such as a cost calculator or scholarship options.

College for the Modern Student

An important factor in remaining competitive and increasing enrollment is to offer the right programs to the right students. To do so, institutions must conduct market research to determine what new program offerings will be most successful in aligning to students’ goals, the institution’s brand identity, and the job market. This research is critical to understand which degrees, skills, and job industries are popular among prospective students.

Launching a New Program

It’s always crucial to consider your institution’s brand identity when launching a new program. Does it fit with your mission and values? Does it serve the interest of your student body? If you are an institution founded upon business and technology, a new program for fine arts may not best represent your identity. Once you determine your brand’s presence, analyze your competitor’s degree programs to determine enrollment and graduation rates, retention rates, and the types of classes within the program. You can also conduct research surrounding employer demands and skillsets they seek.

Modern employers consider the following factors in hiring decisions:

  • Major
  • Leadership experience
  • Extracurricular activities
  • CPA
  • Alma mater

Less than 19% of institutions conduct market research prior to rolling out a new degree program.[15]

Market Your Program

Once you determine your new degree offerings and the target audience who will benefit from them, it’s time to create a strategic marketing strategic to attract and retain students. Students today want to see practical outcomes of their choices, so construct outward messages around benefits of your program and job placement opportunities. Also consider with whom you’re speaking: high school seniors require a less formal tone than those adult learners looking for a career change. In all cases, ensure you’re moving the relationship between you and your prospective students forward. Include call to actions on every piece of collateral and follow up at appropriate times, depending where they are in the enrollment journey.

Take Your Classes to the Next Level

Nearly 3 million people are working to a degree that’s fully online. Most of these students are either trying to complete their degree after dropping out or trying to advance their careers in a specific industry, like business or healthcare. Newer course delivery methods are on the rise as well, like “flipped classrooms,” experimental learning, and gamification teaching. Students have identified positive impact on these innovative learning methods, including increased motivation, intensified retention of information, and improved problem-solving skills.[16]

In addition to new methods of teaching classes, offer curriculum that goes beyond the introductory level. Does your marketing degree offer analytics or mobile-readiness? Does your fine arts degree offer practical application in advertising or business? By offering classes where students can learn real-world application, your program can be a competitive choice for students concerned about job security and salary expectations after graduation.

Case study: George Washington University School of Public Health

George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services established the Master of Public Health (MPH@GW) as an innovative new program that combines the flexibility of an online degree with the hands-on experience of working directly in the field. George Washington University sought a way to attract students all over the world to enroll in this top-tier master’s program with field-based practicum opportunities. Our team worked closely with our partners to meet MPH@GW’s strategic goals with a brand style guide to promote this degree. Messaging, typography, and photography treatments pushed the boundaries to create a bold identity that would leave a big impact on prospective students all around the world. The MPH@GW program continues to attract students with our program elements through digital and print ads, fact sheets, email templates, and program view book.

Maintaining Post-Grad Connections

One survey revealed 8 out of 10 alumni refused to donate to their alma mater because they felt the college hadn’t done enough to connect with them following graduation.[17] To avoid losing that connection with your alumni, create a strategic framework to address this audience and develop content that includes them—and reminds them about their experience in your community.

Segment Your Alumni

While your alumni audience may all have your school in common, they need to be spoken to differently. Recent grads require a different tone than those who have graduated over 15 years ago—they’re both going through different life events and react to donation requests accordingly. Millennials are more driven by peer impact while Baby Boomers are driven by legacy.[18] You may also want to segment your audience based on where they live. Local grads will react differently to messaging around giving back to your school compared to international alumni.

Tap into Nostalgia[19]

Adults enjoy thinking of the good ol’ days, back to the times they spent relaxing on the quad without the stress of work or bills. Use this to your advantage. Embrace social media trends like #ThrowbackThursday and post old photos of campus life. Alums desire to be back on campus and embrace what it means to them. You can make them feel included and valued by asking them to answer current students’ questions or featuring them in a spotlight inside your alumni magazine. You’re not only making the alumni community feel valued and connected, you’re getting content to bolster the current and prospective students experiences through graduate testimonies and advice.

Separate Alumni Relations and Fundraising

Nearly one-third of schools send three or more gift solicitations to new graduates during their first years as alums, and 22% send four or more solicitations to new graduates during their first year.[20] Instead of becoming a constant request for donations, check in to see how they’re doing, ask them about their post-graduate experiences, and find out what they need from your school. Because 24% of alumni organizations struggle to attract and engage younger alumni, involving them early and often can help them become brand advocates and, later, donors.


[1] https://www.oho.com/sites/default/files/insights/resources/highered_best_practices.pdf
[2] http://blogem.ruffalonl.com/2016/12/02/highlights-from-2016-enrollment-research-7-things-we-learned-this-year-about-college-students-and-higher-education-enrollment-management/
[3] www.sappi.com, “The Marketing of Higher Education.”
[4] Ruffalo, Noel, Levitz, “2015 E-Expectations Report”
[5] http://www.internetmarketinginc.com/blog/marketing-university-student-driven-experience/
[6] https://www.ruffalonl.com/documents/shared/Papers_and_Research/2008/EExpCirclingOverEnrollment08.pdf
[7] http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/downloads/CCIHE2015-FactsFigures.pdf
[8] https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/call-action-marketing-and-communications-higher-education/differentiation-hard-necessary
[9] https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/call-action-marketing-and-communications-higher-education/what%E2%80%99s-driving-
[10] https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerdooley/2013/02/05/college-branding-tipping/#57753433417f
[11] http://www.ct.edu/files/pdfs/workgroup-report-marketing-trends.pdf
[12] http://www.ct.edu/files/pdfs/workgroup-report-marketing-trends.pdf
[13] Ruffalo, Noel, Levitz, “2015 E-Expectations Report”
[14] http://www.nolamediagroup.com/2016/09/14/higher-education-branding-beyond-the-rankings/
[15] Four Leading Strategies to Identify, Attract, Engage, and Enroll the Right Students, Blackboard
[16] http://www.ct.edu/files/pdfs/workgroup-report-marketing-trends.pdf
[17] http://im.dev.virginia.edu/wp/engagementcommunity/files/2011/11/Mood-of-Alumni-2010.pdf
[18] http://www.teamworksmedia.com/blog/alumni-engagement/university-engagement-5-new-ways-to-think-alumni/
[19] http://www.evertrue.com/blog/2016/03/15/the-power-of-nostalgia-in-higher-ed-alumni-marketing/
[20] VAESE Alumni Relations Survey Report, 2015

Back to top