Sign pointing in different directions in front of sunset

Why institutions need demand creation to attract tomorrow’s students.

Check any higher education job board and you’ll notice a sharp increase in open marketing positions. In fact, many of the job descriptions closely align with what you see on corporate marketing “careers” pages. Some of the noted competencies that stand out: digital marketing, marketing automation, demand generation… the list goes on. 

All of this hiring points to a new focus in higher ed. Competition for prospective students is fierce, both for traditional and nontraditional students. In fact, according to Inside Higher Ed, four UC schools are pouring $4.85 million to re-enroll nearly 800 students who previously left school. And with the growing popularity of asynchronous learning, institutions now have the ability to offer on-demand certifications in almost any subject to anyone around the world at any time. Today, adult learners make up 40% (or nearly eight million learners) in higher ed. Institutions are taking these measures to balance out the impact of the near term enrollment cliff expected to hit by 2025. As a result, enrolling high school graduates will require a vast shift in how institutions acquire and retain students.

Does graduating with a college degree have the same allure it once had? There are many options for Generation Z students to consider that lead to promising careers and less debt. And when it comes to investing in education, Gen Zers often have a singular focus in mind—getting a high-paying job as fast as possible. 

By design, institutions struggle to meet this singular focus. The cost of attending a four-year institution is (for many) astronomical and, in practice, four years all too often creeps into a five or six year experience before a student graduates. No matter how affordable the institution is, it’s safe to say students who don’t graduate on time will have a harder time achieving a return on their investment than those who do.

If institutions are to successfully compete for the next generation of students, the marketing and messaging around higher education needs to shift dramatically. Graduation time is the perfect example. A big reason students don’t graduate on time is they hear from the start that it’s okay to take their time selecting a major. Being undecided isn’t just accepted…it’s encouraged by many institutions. This line of thinking is increasingly counterintuitive to what today’s students want as they approach the job market. 

When student expectations don’t align with reality – and they suddenly learn that the fun class that stuck out in the course catalog doesn’t meet a gen ed requirement – it could make graduating on time significantly more difficult. It’s no wonder that summer melt is such a serious issue. 

Given all this, and slow burning (accelerating) sentiment that a higher ed degree is no longer the best path toward success, what should schools do to ensure their relevance? 

Relying on the same marketing tactics is a losing proposition. Institutions that win in today’s market are the ones that innovate to get ahead of the competition. 

There’s a tendency in higher ed to follow the path of least resistance. But institutions that fail to change their marketing strategies will lose out to institutions that have huge brand recognition and long-standing relationships with prospects. Even worse, those prospects may choose to forgo higher ed altogether and take a bootcamp to gain job skills. 

Creating demand is a must in today’s environment. It educates students on your institution’s value while giving both parties what they want – an efficient path to graduation for students, and an opportunity for institutions to attract students at a higher conversion rate. 

Here’s what you should focus on when adopting demand creation as an institution.

Get to the point

Unlike marketing strategies of the past, this isn’t about explaining why your institution is the best, and it’s certainly not about making enrollment in your institution a matter of prestige. Educate prospects on how your school will help them choose a career they will be passionate about while generating a high long term ROI. Show how your institution will lead them there.

Provide needed resources to high schools and students

High schools across the country are strapped for resources and aren’t equipped to help students figure out what comes next. Often all they can do is help students create a shortlist of colleges and universities. 

Your institution has the best resource you can ask for—alumni and other student ambassadors who are ecstatic to share a passion for their institution with prospective students. This results in students making more informed decisions, while highlighting all the benefits—academic, financial, and social—of pursuing a degree.

Let students “try before they buy”

Bringing what makes your institution unique forward in the process helps prospects find community before they even step on campus. It not only helps set prospects up for success, but also makes them more familiar with your institution. Would they not be more likely to enroll if they’re already familiar with the culture, academics and overall opportunity your school fosters?

Help students figure out their major without adding pressure

At first glance, it may seem puzzling why helping a student find their major before stepping on campus is such a competitive advantage. However, one of the biggest barriers to students achieving a meaningful higher ed experience occurs when they don’t graduate as easily as they expect. And helping students figure out their major prior to starting at an institution helps retention efforts while giving students exactly what they want out of their education.

Foster meaningful connections between prospects and student ambassadors

Many students have some type of social fear prior to starting at an institution. And when they struggle to make friends, it sometimes manifests itself in mental health issues. But what if prospects had the community they sought before applying to an institution?

Prospective students don’t want well-edited testimonials or billboards with a quote around campus. They want to have authentic conversations with people who know what campus is really like. By connecting prospects with ambassadors such as alumni and current students, they can begin to understand what their path at your institution may look like and will face less friction on campus trying to cultivate community.

As the world of student acquisition continues to evolve, schools that meet the challenge head on and adjust traditional marketing practices to actually create demand will have the best shot not just at remaining relevant, but increasing enrollment far into the future. The good news is, the tools, practices and most importantly—prospective students—are right there waiting for you.